Hollywood East

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 January, 2009, 12:00am

This year is starting off just like 2008. The Year of the Rat began with the biggest Chinese celebrity sex scandal ever as Edison Chen Koon-hei's amateur photography gained internet infamy, bringing down with him the careers of several female singers and artists who co-starred in his exploits.

Even though the Lunar New Year hasn't arrived yet, mainland officials are having an early Year of the Ox: as 2009 begins, a new storm of controversy is brewing as compromising pictures of actress Zhang Ziyi cavorting in the Caribbean with her boyfriend Vivo Nevi have hit the Web.

Assuming you haven't googled your eyeballs' worth, the pictures reveal Zhang on the beach, at one point sunbathing topless and having her backside rubbed and kissed. Compared with Chen, Zhang's romp is not nearly as explicit. Still, you just know the mainland's guardians of public morality will be sure to overreact wildly, launching pointless Web clean-up campaigns and looking for scapegoats to further their conservative socio-ideological agenda.

Intentional or not, the same day Zhang's pictures surfaced online, Chinese officials ironically kicked-off a new round of crackdowns on online pornography and obscene content that are supposedly threatening the morality of today's youth.

Like last year, I'm sure they will succeed in erasing naked pictures off every computer screen on the mainland. After Chen's private pictures went public, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (Sarft) ordered search engines such as Baidu to stop disseminating the obscene images. As if it were the portal's own staff who were spreading the pictures and not its thousands and thousands of users. In the end, it was an empty exercise since Shenzhen street entrepreneurs were already selling all the pictures on CDs.

No doubt, Forever Enthralled star Zhang will now join the long list of mainland actresses facing the wrath of petty bureaucrats and uptight officials who will condemn her vulgar and immoral ways.

Zhang has never been a favourite of mainland netizens, many of whom have already accused her of being a Hollywood sell-out and gold-digging opportunist, so it'll be interesting to see how she deals with this awkward incident. Will it earn her some sympathy? Or perhaps more venom for fooling around?

After last year, Chen's career in Asia was essentially over and his so-called female victims didn't fare much better. With a combination of sexism and prudishness, the not-so-innocent Twins-ster Gillian Chung Yan-tung was also banished to exile. The insidious thing was, there wasn't an official blacklist edict - no, that's for other indecent people such as Tang Wei, but more on her later: Chung was simply made persona non grata. Deals were cancelled, film roles cut and appearances like at the Olympics ceremony revoked. Yeah, it's important the central government sticks its nose into such matters, no matter how indirectly.

Wisely, Zhang escaped the Chinese system early and now has a relatively firm footing in Hollywood West. If Chinese entertainers learned anything from the travails of ingenue Tang Wei, who had her career randomly frozen by the Sarft for performing sex scenes in Lust, Caution, it's that it is important to have an escape strategy to break from the fickle clutches of Chinese officials. For Zhang, a similar ban now would just mean more vacation time with her billionaire fiance.

Sadly for poor Tang, I think she is still barred from acting, appearing on television or even having her beauty commercials aired on the mainland just because she played a character that was arbitrarily deemed to 'glorify traitors'. Maybe now that her one-time rival Zhang is in the hot seat, the heat will be off Tang.

It makes you wonder why any mainland entertainer, especially a woman, wouldn't jump at the chance to leave for more freedom, money and a better sex life abroad. Even Chung is trying to her hand in Hollywood, having recently auditioned for a part in an Oliver Stone movie.

At this rate of exodus, I wonder how many acclaimed actresses will be left in China. There's already a long tradition of good ones making a break for it when they have the chance. From Joan Chen and Vivian Wu to Gong Li, they all moved on when they had the chance. And none were photographed canoodling on a beach by paparazzi, either.

Curiously, though, it makes me wonder, in the minds of the old guard cadres, who they think has committed a worse sin: Zhang for being seen naked and in compromising pictures with a foreigner, or Gong for being a traitor to China by giving up her Chinese citizenship for a Singaporean passport? Tough call.