Farewell to film-maker's freedoms

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 July, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 July, 1993, 12:00am

THE mayhem and chaos which accompanied the Beijing premiere of Chen Kaige's Farewell to My Concubine seemed oddly appropriate given the mass-confusion over the exact status of the award winning movie.

No sooner had the film opened in a blaze of glory with Mr Chen holding aloft his celebrated Palme D'Or and being introduced to the audience as ''the pride of Beijing'' than it was closed down.

The movie has been screened in Shanghai but only to people who have already bought advance tickets. Once those tickets have been used up, it will be closed in that city as well.

According to the authorities, the movie has not been banned but is just ''undergoing revisions'' prior to its public release.

''It is simply a technical matter,'' said Mr Yang Jinsheng of Beijing film studio's distribution section.

Champions of free speech and artistic integrity on the other hand charge that the film has been black-listed by hardline Communist Party officials because it carries an unpalatable political message and does not portray Chinese society and culture in a particularly flattering light.

''They can't abide any form of criticism, no matter where it comes from,'' a respected mainland film critic said.

''This is a great movie but there is no way I can possibly write about it [in the official media],'' he added.

The director, a one time bearded bohemian, now a sauve Italian-suited socialite, has said he does not understand what all the fuss is about but perhaps he is being deliberately disingenuous.

Chen is no stranger to controversy and while he may have been out of China for a long time, he must have known that a final scene in which the lead character commits suicide at the dawn of the new Deng era after surviving the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, would not go down well in Zhongnanhai.

The film's allusions to homosexuality and its graphic depiction of how life-long friends were forced to betray each other during the Cultural Revolution could possibly have survived the censor's knife, but film-makers in Beijing said the final scene was asking for trouble.

''Anything that casts doubt on Deng Xiaoping and the party after the Cultural Revolution is always going to be in danger,'' said a young cinematographer who attended Wednesday's premiere in Beijing.

It is generally assumed that the final scene will have to go, if the movie is to gain a general release, but as the director explained, if the concubine does not die in the end, the movie could hardly be called Farewell to My Concubine.

The movie's producer, Tomson Films, now has to decide whether to sacrifice artistic integrity for political expediency.

Since Tomson president Ms Hsu Feng's latest project, a film version of Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai, is also encountering problems with the Ministry of Radio, Film and Television, which oversees the mainland movie industry, political expediency might well win out in the end.

To withdraw Farewell from public release in China as a protest against government censorship would almost certainly sound the death knell for Life and Death in Shanghai.

The secret of making movies in China, insiders say, is to have a very clear idea of what you want.

''If you want to make a superficial action thriller for mass consumption then there's no problem,'' a young Beijing director explained. ''You just submit the script to the film studio and ministry, let them make any changes they like, get the money, shoot the movie and hand it over to the authorities again for final editing and distribution.

''If, on the other hand, you want to make a very personal movie without government interference, then you have to go a very different route,'' he said.

That essentially involves by-passing the Government's cultural control apparatus as much as possible by establishing an independent production company, obtaining independent financing from abroad and hoping to get an international distribution deal because it is very unlikely that kind of film will be shown in China's state-run movie theatres.

Beijing Bastards by sixth generation director Zhang Yuan is a case in point. The film, financed entirely from abroad, features rock idol Cui Jian and depicts contemporary youth culture in the Chinese capital.

While not being overtly critical of the Party or the Government, this is not the kind of movie General Secretary Jiang Zemin would choose to spend his Saturday nights at.

Beijing Bastards is packed with obscene language and paints a distinctly pessimistic picture of China's youth. The film is in addition extremely self-indulgent and largely inaccessible to a mass audience.

The movie has been screened privately in Beijing but will not be available for public viewing for the foreseeable future. The Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland this month is due to feature Beijing Bastards but the authorities it seems are not even prepared to have such a heretical movie shown abroad.

The Government has formally asked the festival's organisers to not show the film and has threatened to boycott the festival if it is screened.

There is of course a middle road between the orthodox and the avant-garde approaches to film-making as internationally acclaimed director Zhang Yimou has shown with The Story of Qiu Ju.

Set in an anonymous village in modern China, the film is a stinging indictment of the communist judicial system but it nonetheless manages to portray the party officials and law enforcement officers who administer that system in a positive light.

Farewell to My Concubine fails to strike that balance and is unlikely to remain intact as a result.