Banned in Beijing
by Gary Susman
NEW YORK -- Four years ago, after his Farewell My Concubine was banned
twice in his homeland, Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige told me he was planning to
make a movie that would be more likely to placate the officials. "I think it's
good for me to know the reaction," he said then, after Concubine's
explicit critique of the Chinese Communist regime and the film's gay
protagonist earned the censors' disapproval. "I'm ready for the next one." The
new film's storyline sounded innocuous enough; Chen described it as a love
triangle set during the pre-Communist 1920s.
However, when Chen completed Temptress Moon, it earned the same
reaction from the Chinese government. "It's officially banned," he acknowledges
during a promotional visit to Manhattan. "I have no idea when the film will be
shown there. There was no explanation. I'm still waiting for a reason."
One reason, he admits, might be the film's unflattering parallels to today's
politics. "Some people see this film as a political allegory. They think I'm
talking about Chinese politics today, and the story is not only about the '20s
but about the '90s. I think they [the censors] got a message."
Not that the officials were wrong to infer that message. "I just felt there is
a similarity between the '20s and the '90s because they are both transitional
periods. People suffer because they are not ready for this kind of social
change. Everything is moving so fast."
He adds, however, "What I want to say is not just about politics. Each piece
of art is an independent world. It's not just a mirror reflecting what's going
on in Chinese society. I'm more interested in human nature. I'm not trying to
be a teacher or a politician. I hope people can understand themselves better
through this film. This is a basic situation. In a lot of other societies,
people feel the same way."
The film's frankness about drugs also may have displeased the censors. "I
think the government officials may not have liked the opium smoke. But this was
a part of life a hundred years ago. How can they stay away from that? It was a
part of the culture. I don't encourage people to smoke opium. But it's another
kind of lifestyle. If you respect people, you have to respect a lot of
Chen seems resigned to the notion that, whereas his films are acclaimed
outside of China, they are proscribed at home. "I feel very bad about that. But
I'm used to it. I understand those officials. They are not bad people. But they
just can't help me because they want to keep their jobs, and they have to do
what they are asked to do."
He doubts that current transitions in China will loosen the restraints on
filmmakers, or that Deng Xiaoping's death will affect the Chinese film
industry. "I think the first thing the Chinese leaders want to consider is
stability. Later, I don't know. Maybe things will be more relaxed. I hope that
people will have more creative freedom. But it seems to me that things don't
really go that way."
What about the handing over of Hong Kong to China at the end of this month? "I
hope to see more Hong Kong people come to make a film in China. It used to be
that way in the early '90s. But now those people are all gone because the
current situation is not very optimistic. I don't see any possibility of a
major change in Hong Kong because Hong Kong is too important for China."
And the increasing efforts of Hollywood to establish a presence in Chinese
theaters? Might American films eventually crowd homegrown films out of the
marketplace, as they have in other countries? "I don't think so. The American
films you can see in China are mostly action movies, so I'm not afraid of that.
It's a good thing that, whatever the film is, people go to theaters to see
movies. If my film were not banned in China, I think it would do well.
"The funny thing is, people can buy a DVD in China. It's very cheap. Probably
30 or 40 percent of the families in Beijing have DVDs, and they can get
whatever they want [on the black market]." That includes Chen's banned films.
Chen's next movie, Assassin, is a historical epic set 2000 years ago.
Does he think it will be easier to make a film set in the distant past rather
than in contemporary China? "It's not that. I'm going to make another film, if
it's possible, about contemporary China. But I think the past is more
He adds, "The script was approved five years ago. So that's why I'm
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