Contrasting takes on Beijing

SUN JOURNAL

Image: As different as light and dark, hope and despair are two films made in the Chinese capital.

January 09, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Beijing is a magical, modern city of sleek, glass-and-steel high-rises where young people cruise the boulevards hanging out of open jeeps, laughing and smiling as though it were Spring Break at Daytona Beach.

Or ... Beijing is a polluted, open construction site where the sun never shines and people drift through meaningless sexual encounters in a society that worships wealth.

These two competing portraits of China's capital will be playing this winter on television sets, in movie theaters and at the arrival terminal at Beijing Airport.

The first image comes from a deftly crafted, five-minute commercial to promote the city's bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics and can be seen on CCTV 1, the national network. The alternative view is presented in a strikingly realistic film called "Summer Heat," which follows the life of a cab-driving Lothario and opens at theaters here in February.

The movie was originally titled "I Love Beijing," but government censors rejected the name as too sarcastic.

The film and the advertisement offer contrasting images of Beijing, a sprawling city of 13 million that is full of energy, bristling with contradictions and defying simple description. And the dueling visions illustrate the gap between how the Chinese government wants the city to be perceived and its gritty reality.

In something of a departure, Zhang Yimou, one of China's top film directors, oversaw shooting of the commercial. He and a team of directors and cameramen spent August and September capturing Beijing on film at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars.

The result is a cinematic makeover blending images of traditional Chinese culture with modern architecture and Western influences. In the hands of Zhang, a city that sometimes resembles an enormous provincial town looks like a sophisticated capital.

The scenes include a man swinging a Chinese yo-yo in the air beneath cloudless skies at Oriental Plaza, Beijing's glistening new shopping mall east of Tiananmen Square. In another sequence, young boys hurtle past the vermilion walls of an alley kicking a soccer ball. And in a third, a foreign teen-ager wearing in-line skates rolls along a marble walkway in front of the concentric blue tile roofs of Beijing's Temple of Heaven.

In fact, Zhang has done such a good job of presenting the capital's modern face that some residents who have seen the commercial don't recognize the city.

"A lot of foreigners say: `Is this Beijing?'" says Zhang, 50, who has earned international acclaim for films such as "Red Sorghum" and "Raise The Red Lantern," which explore the darker side of rural and feudal life in China.

The purpose of the commercial, which is being edited into at least 30 different versions, is to show the International Olympic Committee that Beijing can handle the world's most prestigious sporting event.

The stakes are high for China, both politically and psychologically. Beijing lost its bid for the 2000 Summer Olympics to Sydney by two votes. Acting as host for the games would be a chance to show the world that China is no longer an impoverished nation of people practicing group-think and wearing identical Mao suits.

The other cities competing for the 2008 Olympics are Paris, Istanbul, Osaka and Toronto. The committee will announce its decision in July.

While Zhang's commercial is effective, any Beijing resident can't help but notice amusing omissions: Although the montage was shot in the heart of the "Bicycle Kingdom," you won't see any bikes. Beijing has more than a million of them. During rush hour, tens of thousands pour through some intersections, occasionally colliding.

Other scenes are reminiscent of the children's game, "What's wrong with this picture?" An open jeep filled with cheering young people, for instance, wouldn't make it a block in this town. Chinese police, famous for their lack of humor, would pull the vehicle over and summarily ticket the driver.

And one of the advertisement's sweetest scenes - a Chinese woman kneeling on the grass in a city park as a frisky Dalmatian licks her face -- flies in the face of the city's strict dog laws. Dogs over 35 centimeters high are forbidden within Beijing's Fourth Ring Road, the outer boundary of the central city. When police catch big dogs, they destroy them.

If the International Olympic Committee ever sees "Summer Heat," which was shot by a female director named Ning Ying, members might pause before casting their ballot for Beijing.

The film opens with a time-lapse shot of the city's worst traffic intersection, a jarring image of urban chaos. The scene culminates when some 50 pedestrians - schooling like piranha - envelop an old accordion bus and trap it in the middle of the intersection.

Whereas Zhang fills his advertisement for the Olympics with blue skies and smiling Chinese faces, Ning's film is shot in ash gray and dirt brown tones. Ning shot the movie last year before the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

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