Legacy of the Opium War

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 May, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 May, 1997, 12:00am

The monumental epic film The Opium War opens on July 1 but in Zhongnanhai China's top leaders have already previewed the marathon drama. At 2.5 hours, it is billed as the longest and most expensive film in Chinese history.

Veteran director Xie Jin has spent about $93 million recreating the tale of how this child of opium smugglers, Hong Kong, became British.

He is reported to be seeking a 350-cinema release across China and in 61 countries around the world. He hopes the film will help imprint China's version of history on Hong Kong and the rest of the world.

After watching a special lunchtime preview for cadres of the Radio, Film and TV Ministry, its epic Ben-Hur cast-of-thousands grandeur and fidelity to the communist view of history is evident.

There are marvellous scenes showing Royal Navy gunships, specially built for film, bombarding Chinese Pearl River fortresses with redcoats swarming over the parapets despite the heroic efforts of the defenders.

Many parts are shot in English and on location in England with Lord Palmerston urging war on the House of Commons and a young (and pretty) Queen Victoria archly approving the imperial mission to defend British interests in the name of free trade. She appears cutting the ribbon for the first steam engine and approving the design of a Penny Black postage stamp to show how advanced British civilisation is.

Memorable too are the sets showing old Guangzhou, its opium dens and public executions and the life of Western merchants in their mansions on Shamian Island.

Much time is given to demonstrating the pernicious effects of the opium addiction and the greed of its purveyors. The two chief villains in the script are Captain Elliott and his wicked collaborator, the opium merchant Denton. The latter is played with some relish by British actor Bob Peck, whom some will recall being eaten alive in Jurassic Park.

This time he is arrogantly and foolishly tweaking the yellow dragon's tail.

The film suggests that both come to sorry ends as a group of the conquering British are blown to bits. More ominously, it ends (as it begins) with a shot in the Forbidden City of a bronze statue of an imperial lion. As the credits begin to roll, its eyes suddenly glint a bright and menacing red - be warned.

The central character is, of course, the tragic but honest Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu who first forces the merchants in Canton (Guangdong) to hand over their opium and then destroys it. Along the way he must deal with the venal and opium-addicted locals.

The audience of Beijing cadres laughed loudest when Lin Zexu discovers from a document handed to him by a Chinese comprador, that all the officials are on the take. 'What, must I kill all of them?' he asks with horror. Eventually, he narrowly escapes execution himself in the wake of China's military defeat. Instead the emperor sends him off to exile in Xinjiang.

As an account of the causes of old China's defeat against the new technology of the West, Xie's epic may well be hailed as a seminal work. The film ignores some key events leading up to the opium war, such as Britain's 50-year long effort to open up the Chinese market to manufactured goods, but it takes a long and humorous look at the clash of civilisations.

'If you spent half as much effort on developing your cannons as you did on developing your cuisine, it is not you who will be begging for peace,' remarks Captain Elliott as he saws his way through a bloody steak and chips.

'You can't look down at a nation which uses iron to eat their food,' says Lin Zexu at one point after, comparing the pros and cons of chopsticks versus knives and forks. At another moment, he says: 'Western suits do not look graceful but they are more convenient for action.' Given how so many Chinese now wear Western suits and that not long ago, a general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, once proposed switching over to knives and forks, such dialogue has great resonance here. Xie handles the theme of inter-racial sex somewhat more crudely. Scenes where Denton is caught by his daughter trying to force himself on an early version of Suzy Wong, or when the latter tries to emasculate Captain Elliott in his tent with a pair of scissors, seem designed to inflame chauvinistic disgust in the audience.

In addition to being molested, this patriotic courtesan and symbol of China is finally punished by the authorities and she is executed.

The film aims to convince audiences that the handover of Hong Kong was a major turning point in world history that opened the door to the Western conquest of East Asia. This ignores the Portuguese who arrived hundreds of years earlier and founded Macau.

In one scene, we see the redcoats on Hong Kong island hammering in a wooden sign which says (in English and Chinese) 'Hong Kong, British territory' but given the vast and often bitter history of Western colonialism, it does seem a small footnote. And for anyone who has seen modern Hong Kong will also find it hard to fight back the thought that this scene marked the beginning of a great success for all concerned.

Yet Chinese school children spend six months poring over the study of the circumstances leading up to the handover as a terrible act of national shame.

In one scene, one of the emperor's advisers threatens to kill himself by bashing his head against the door rather than agree to hand over one scrap of territory.

Finally, we see the emperor Dao Guang bent double in supplication before an altar of his imperial ancestors begging for forgiveness.