The Guardian (London)
June 12, 1997
CHINA'S EPIC EXORCISM:
Britain is the Arch-Villain of a Film to Purge the Imperial
A chauffeured procession of Rolls-Royces, Mercedes and Porsches
deposited Hong Kong's post-colonial elite for a
two-and-a-half-hour history lesson last night on British
brutality - a Chinese film epic about 19th-century opium pushers
whose imperial legacy is to be purged from Hong Kong in 19 days'
The territory's leader-in-waiting, Tung Chee-hwa, the head of
the new puppet legislature, Rita Fan, and a host of mainland and
Hong Kong dignitaries attended a gala premiere of The Opium War,
a Ben Hur -style epic heartily endorsed by the Chinese Communist
Also on hand was the director, Xie Jin, who compares Queen
Victoria's Britain to Hitler's Third Reich and describes his film
as a Chinese answer to Stephen Spielberg's film on the Holocaust,
Chris Patten, Britain's 28th and last colonial governor, and
elected politicians critical of Beijing, were not invited.
The taipan of Jardine, the trading conglomerate whose founder
established what is today Hong Kong's biggest private employer on
the back of drug trafficking, was absent too. But Jardine's great
rival, Swire, secured a seat at the Hong Kong Convention Centre.
"We had nothing to do with opium. So I can come here with a clear
conscience," said David Gledhill, a former director of Swire. "It
is those rascally Dents and Jardines who did that."
The film, the most expensive made in mainland China, cost more
than pounds 7 million and features 50,000 extras. Britain stars
as its arch-villain. Personifying British lust for profit, power
and Chinese women is Denton, an opium trafficker played with
gusto by the British actor Bob Peck, whose previous exploits
include being gobbled up by a prehistoric clone in Jurassic Park.
Mr Tung, the Liverpool-educated shipping magnate appointed by
Beijing to replace Mr Patten, told a reception before the film
that all Chinese must remember the lessons of the opium war.
"The first thing we have to consider about the opium war is why
China lost to Britain. The answer is simple. China was weak . . .
With the reunification of Hong Kong and China there can never be
another opium war."
A Government House spokesman, Kerry McGlynn, said Mr Patten was
more interested in recent history and had watched
The Gate of Heavenly Peace
, a documentary about the 1989 Tiananmen Square student movement
that Mr Tung has said should be consigned to history and
"The Tiananmen film is balanced and objective," Mr McGlynn said.
"If the opium war film is the same, it will have credibility and
popularity. If it is seen as just propaganda, Hong Kong people
will, in their usual wise way, make their own judgment. We will
have to wait and see if it is a box office smash."
School textbooks in Hong Kong used to refer to the opium war as
the "First Anglo-Chinese War", explaining it as a dispute over
free trade. China has demanded further revisions after the
handover to "clarify" the past and boost "patriotism" among Hong
The film, which was shown earlier in the week in the Great Hall
of the People in Beijing, forms the artistic centrepiece of a
vast propaganda campaign to stoke memories of China's suffering
at the hands of foreigners and promote patriotic pride in the
return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule on July 1. It will be shown
at 300 cinemas in China and goes on general release this week in
"Hong Kong is about to return to the motherland. This is a great
event that washes away more than a 150 years of shame left by the
opium war," intoned Zhang Junsheng, deputy head of the Xinhua
news agency, the public face of China's Communist Party in Hong
Kong. "The showing of the opium war will attract the rapt
attention of all people in Hong Kong."
Not everyone last night was so enthused. Rocky Wong, a Hong Kong
karaoke star who attended the premiere, said he thought young
people might pay to see a historic epic. He walked out after half
Compared with most mainland films embraced by the party, The
Opium War is relatively nuanced. It shows the opium smugglers as
greedy brutes - probably fairly accurate - but also shows that
many in Britain opposed the declaration of war that led to the
seizure of Hong Kong.
Qing Dynasty mandarins are portrayed as venal and incompetent,
with the exception of the hero, the anti-opium commissioner Lin
Zexu. He ended his career in disgrace, exiled to the deserts of
© The Guardian. All Rights Reserved.