Actor captures China's mood

Sun Journal

October 08, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ZHUOZHOU, China -- Having whipped foreign films at the box office, movie star Jiang Wen is now in the mood to thrash a few of his colleagues in the Chinese film industry. Their sin? Making films that foreigners enjoy watching.

"They're not making Chinese movies," Mr. Jiang says during a break from shooting a new movie about a brutal Chinese emperor. "They don't have anything to do with China. They could be Japanese films."

If China's hottest movie star seems more than a little jingoistic, it is hardly by accident. Mr. Jiang, 32, has a knack for catching China's popular mood, and that mood now includes a heavy does of nationalism.

Chinese virtues

Consider a couple of recent television miniseries. In one, Chinese women working in foreign companies are shown slaving away on behalf of outsiders who range from dopey (the boss of a German firm) to lascivious and crooked (an American). Another series depicts foreigners as hopelessly materialistic. Only those foreigners who adopt presumed Chinese virtues -- spirituality and preference for the group to the individual -- are shown in a favorable light.

The films and TV programs symbolize China's changing attitude toward the outside world. Much like the political figures who believe the West is trying to encircle China, intellectuals now view the world with a mixture of bravado and suspicion -- sure that China has resumed its place as one of the world's leading countries, but unsure if the world is willing to recognize this.

"In the 1980s, Chinese intellectuals were willing to meet the world on an equal footing," says Geremie Barme, a specialist in Chinese popular culture at the Australian National University in Canberra. "This has been replaced by a cocky and narrow viewpoint."

Few people represent this shift better than Mr. Jiang, whose roles -- as well as his own views -- reflect China's mixed emotions over its contacts with the outside world.

'Red Sorghum'

Mr. Jiang became internationally known as the star of "Red Sorghum," the winner of top honors at the 1988 Berlin film festival. He played the earthy spirits distiller who urinated in the caldrons of fermenting liquor and belted out folk songs while seducing China's femme fatale, Gong Li.

The movie created a sensation at home because of the praise from abroad. At the same time, Mr. Jiang's songs helped spark a mini-revival of North Chinese folk music. "If you're looking for a figure who represents repressed Chinese masculinity, he's it," says Paul Clark, a expert on Chinese film studies at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Later, Mr. Jiang starred in a TV miniseries called "A Native Beijinger in New York," playing a Chinese man who goes to New York to make it big. In a scene that caught China's craving for outside recognition, he hires a white prostitute, whom he showers with dollar bills, and asks her to shout: "I love you, I love you."

'It was simple for me'

Mr. Jiang says it was easy for him to play the local boy conquering America. A longtime Beijing resident, he helped write the script and produce the show: "It didn't take much acting. It was simple for me."

He traveled to New York. After returning to China in triumph, he gave interviews deriding the United States and bemoaning New Yorkers' perceived racism toward the Chinese cast and crew, who expected a welcome but were mercilessly ignored.

This year, Mr. Jiang made his debut as director, adapting a short story that gives a somewhat nostalgic look at the Cultural Revolution, a decade of totalitarianism and political purges that began in 1966 when Mr. Jiang was 3 years old.

The film offers a partly autobiographical portrayal of an adolescent's gang fights and his lust for an older girl, which troubled China's puritan film censors. But the movie has been praised for outdrawing foreign offerings.

Taking a jab at directors

The government-controlled New China News Agency crowed that the film -- "In the Heat of the Sun" -- "seems certain to beat Hollywood hands down this autumn."

"The problem now in China is that there are more good actors and cameramen than directors and screenwriters," says Mr. Jiang, taking a jab at the directors Chen Kaige, who won international awards in 1993 for "Farewell My Concubine," and Zhang Yimou, whose films "Judou" and "Raise the Red Lantern" were nominated for Oscars.

"These aren't really Chinese movies. They're made to appeal to westerners by being exotic," Mr. Jiang says as a makeup artist prepares him to look like Emperor Qin for his new film, "The Emperor's Song." "Then they come back here with foreign awards and trick Chinese into thinking that this is a Chinese film."

Jiang's politics are complicated

Mr. Jiang's politics are complicated. At times, he seems urbane and well-traveled, as comfortable with his Rolex watch and Gucci loafers as he is dropping the names of Hollywood stars. He is frustrated by China's censors and hopes someday to make film free of political constraints.

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