Chinese Oscar nominee causes flap

March 19, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- Most of the Chinese film "Ju Dou" is set within the cavernous interior of an early 20th century cloth-dyeing factory. Though director Zhang Yimou punctuates this dark world with bright splashes of color, he mainly fills it with a bleak tale of love, hate and revenge.

Mr. Zhang's artful, shadowy cinematography and his subtle handling of human tragedy may earn "Ju Dou" (pronounced joo DOE) an Academy Award as last year's best foreign film. But the movie's downbeat imagery and its somber, mildly sensual story line also have brought it political problems here.

"Ju Dou," made in China with Japanese financing, has never been released for viewing by Chinese audiences, and film officials here have now decided they do not want it considered for an Oscar.

Though the China Film Bureau lobbied hard for "Ju Dou" to win the Luis Bunuel award at last year's Cannes Film Festival and then nominated the film for consideration for an Academy Award, the same bureau has in recent weeks twice tried to withdraw it from the Oscar competition.

In attempting this unusual move, the state bureau has said that "Ju Dou" does not meet the academy's requirement that a foreign film must have been shown at least once to a paying audience in its own land -- a technicality the bureau apparently ignored in its original nomination.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has not yielded, however, and "Ju Dou" remains among five movies elected to vie for the honor of best foreign-language film at the annual awards ceremony Monday night.

"We are not interested in politics," Fay Kanin, who heads the academy's Foreign Language Award Committee, said of the decision to reject China's last-minute requests. "Our only interest is in honoring the man who made the film and his country."

Whether or not "Ju Dou" wins an Oscar, the flap already has turned the little-known Chinese film into something of a cause.

Chinese intellectuals, many of whom had not heard much about "Ju Dou," are now furtively passing around a small number of bootleg videotaped copies that have escaped the film bureau's tight grip.

And Miramax Films, which released the film in America this month, has roped a galaxy of Hollywood luminaries -- Woody Allen, Robert De Niro and Barry Levinson, to name a few -- into petitioning Chinese authorities to release the film in China and allow Mr. Zhang to attend the Academy Awards ceremony.

What could have been a cultural coup for China -- "Ju Dou" is the first Chinese film to be nominated for an Oscar -- has thus evolved into another example of China's clumsy sense of public relations in its dealings with the West. But the hard-liners in ascendancy in China's cultural sphere these days remain undeterred.

In an interview, Liu Cheng, the China Film Bureau's assistant chief, said that "Ju Dou" has not been released in China solely because the film focuses "too much on love-making." While the movie's treatment of sex is decidedly tasteful by Western standards, it is "not acceptable by Chinese moral standards," Mr. Liu said.

Others in China's film industry, however, believe that the real sin of "Ju Dou" is that its tone runs counter to the renewed drive here for films with overtly upbeat, Socialist themes.Mr. Zhang has been in Japan working on his next film and was unavailable for comment.

At a recent national film conference here, Ai HD, China's radio, film and TV minister, as much as admitted this: "There are too many bandits, eunuchs, prostitutes and spies on the [Chinese] screen," he proclaimed. "These should not be the central characters in films. Abroad these films win prizes, at home they are ridiculed."

Mr. Ai's comments reflect a broad, conservative clampdown on the Chinese art scene since the lethal military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and, more particularly, a tightening of control over China's most skilled filmmakers.

During the 1980s, a new generation of directors -- drawn from the first post-Cultural Revolution graduating class of the Beijing Film Academy -- began to elicit financial support and worldwide attention with experimental works that probed Chinese society and relationships.

High among these films was "Red Sorghum," previously Mr. Zhang's most well-known film, which turned the unusual trick of winning the top honor at the Berlin Film Festival in 1988 and gaining wide popularity within China.

But the questions raised by Mr. Zhang and the other so-called "fifth generation" filmmakers are out of sync with China's new political straitjacket. Limited Chinese funds for films now are being funneled into a smaller number of works -- typically, poorly made historical melodramas intended to buttress the party's sagging legitimacy.

Ironically, the story of "Ju Dou," in a certain light, might well serve as a propaganda tool to underscore the sorrows of life in pre-Communist China: In a rural Chinese town in the 1920s, an aging factory owner buys a wife and beats her for not bearing a child, until she takes up with the old man's nephew in a secret relationship that produces a son -- a sullen, silent boy who ends up killing both men.

"It is a beautiful film, something of which China should be extremely proud," said Paul J.A. Clark, a specialist in Chinese films at the federal East-West Center in Honolulu. "The whole controversy just shows how divided things are in China's artistic and cultural circles these days."

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