May 19, 1997, Atlantic Edition
China Shuts the Gate:
A nettlesome film annoys Beijing, but Hong Kong loves it.
Carroll Bogert, with Dorinda Elliott in Hong Kong and Dana Thomas
Nobody puts a damper on a film festival quite like China. Of
course, few nations have had so much experience. Last month the
Second Annual Film Festival in Seoul got its turn, after
scheduling "The Gate of Heavenly Peace" for the opening-night
gala. Widely lauded as a balanced treatment of the 1989 student
demonstrations and the crackdown on Tiananmen Square, the
documentary had nevertheless provoked China's fierce opposition
at several other film festivals around the world. The Seoul
festival's sponsor, a cable-TV channel owned by Samsung, decided
at the eleventh hour to pull the film, citing "technical
reasons." Privately, officials said Samsung's entertainment
subsidiary was worried about its movie-distribution plans in
China. Three of the festival's five judges quit, along with some
support staff and much of the volunteer corps. "Samsung hasn't
heeded the free will of the festival," read their protest
statement. "It's only thinking about its short-term economic
For China, "The Gate of Heavenly Peace" has proved the most
consistently nettlesome film on the international circuit. But
it's not the only one. Last week in Cannes, a now familiar
debacle unfolded as Beijing refused to release a print of "Keep
Cool," the latest film by China's hottest director, Zhang Yimou,
or to let the director himself appear at the prestigious
festival. The reason: Cannes officials insisted on showing a film
about homosexual life in Beijing, "East Palace, West Palace,"
which had been financed by French backers and smuggled out of
China. "Yet again the Chinese have given themselves a black eye,"
said Richard Pena, director of the New York Film Festival. "The
more they act like this, the more they heighten the profile of a
movie. One doesn't learn from one's mistakes, I guess."
Indeed, the same scenario played out at the New York Film
Festival in October 1995. Then, the Chinese government refused to
let Zhang Yimou or his movie participate because "The Gate of
Heavenly Peace" was being shown. Controversy has dogged the
documentary ever since. This past spring, organizers at the
Singapore International Film Festival actually took on the
Singapore Board of Film Censors -- a rather bold thing for them
to do -- for the right to show "The Gate of Heavenly Peace." They
lost, appealed and lost again. The film didn't make the Sundance
Film Festival in Colorado and nearly didn't make Berlin; its
directors suspect that the reasons were political, not artistic.
Says codirector Carma Hinton, "Some of the most prestigious
festivals have behaved shamefully."
The one place where one would expect the film to be thoroughly
squelched -- Hong Kong -- is the place where it has enjoyed the
biggest success. In the months leading up to the July 1 handover
to Chinese sovereignty, most businessmen are making sure not to
upset their future masters in Beijing. But a 400-seat theater in
the city's Central district, Columbia Classics, has been showing
the documentary for four months straight, often to sold-out
audiences. And that's after it played in the Hong Kong Film
Festival more than a year ago and did a run at the arts center,
Hong Kong people are endlessly fascinated with the Tiananmen
massacre, perhaps because it marked their own transition from
political apathy to awareness, and even activism. Still, "The
Gate of Heavenly Peace" is a long way from Hong Kong's usual
smash-'em-up kung-fu fare. It has Chinese subtitles when people
speak in English, and both English and Chinese subtitles when
people speak in Mandarin. "Half the screen is filled up with
little marks, and it's three hours long," says codirector Richard
Gordon. "It's not exactly a great date movie." Indeed, the film
may have hit its peak. Columbia Classics will close it down next
week -- not for political reasons but because the audience is
Other, smaller theaters might still pick it up. Hinton and
Gordon would love to keep the movie playing in Hong Kong right up
through July 1, to see what the Chinese would do. Hong Kong film
distributor Shu Kei fears that theaters might "become chicken"
after July. Tony Rayns, an English critic and longtime observer
of Asian film, detects "a new spirit of pugnacity" in the Hong
Kong film world. "There's going to be a queue of people anxious
to put these things to the test" after the handover, he says.
With "The Gate of Heavenly Peace," they've got the test that
China finds hardest of all.
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