Cinema mirrors and makes reality

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 05 Feb 2006

LAST weekend, China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and TV shelved the planned release of Columbia Tristar Pictures’ Memoirs of a Geisha. Once again, politics intervened to block popular entertainment deemed unsuitable for consumption. 

Yet China’s censors had earlier cleared the film for release from this Thursday. Confusion confounded uncertainty, as officials in Beijing still away for the Chinese New Year holidays were unavailable to confirm or deny the cancellation. 

Some news media rushed to say that Beijing had banned the film. Others more accurately reported that the film’s planned release had been suspended, at least for now. 

But none of this stopped copyright violators from selling pirated versions of Memoirs throughout China. Blocking the film through accredited distributors only encouraged more sales of pirated versions, and stoked people’s curiosity and desire to watch it. 

The fact that government officials were away at the time absolved them from having to give any explanation for the move. But what caused the screening to be suspended, when official censors had not deemed Memoirs intrinsically objectionable? 

Various controversies had dogged the production for some time, in both Japan and China. An issue was the allegedly inaccurate and insensitive portrayal of the subject matter, as other cross-cultural period films like The King and I had experienced before. 

In Japan, critics complained that several leading roles of Japanese characters were played by ethnic Chinese, and also that geishas were being portrayed as akin to prostitutes. 

In China, some people were also miffed that ethnic Chinese women from China and Malaysia were playing geishas, who if not prostitutes were still bonded women required to entertain hedonistic Japanese men – at a point in history when Japanese troops were rampaging through China. 

The issue of foreign “comfort women” often abused by Japanese troops during the Pacific War fuelled the controversy. All this contributed to the recent buzz on the Internet in China condemning the film, so that the continuing tension between Beijing and Tokyo over other issues seems to have swung the decision in Beijing against showing Memoirs

The controversy in Japan goes even deeper. The 1997 book by Arthur Golden, on which the film is based, was derived from the experience of former geisha Mineko Iwasaki, who sued Golden for breach of contract in disclosing her name and inventing non-existent practices like auctioning a geisha’s virginity, identifying geishas with whores. 

Although Golden reached an out-of-court settlement with Iwasaki, public controversy against the film continues. 

At the official level, however, China has been very careful in how its cinema portrays its relationship with Japan, even though – or rather, especially when – the events portrayed are history. 

Jet Li’s kung fu epic Fearless, shown at the same time as Memoirs, works to give a more sympathetic portrayal of Japan and Japanese people than other comparable productions have done. 

Li’s portrayal of the lead character Huo Yuanjia, founder of the Jin Wu (Chinwoo) school of martial arts, bears no ill feeling towards Japanese nationals, despite Imperial Japan’s militarism at the time. The villain who plots his death is seen as a lone gambler who happens to be Japanese, and is condemned by another Japanese character as “a disgrace to Japan.” 

Action choreographer Yuen Wo-ping, who also worked on Li’s 1994 kung fu milestone Fist of Legend, has Li graciously saving the life of an American opponent in Fearless. But it is the relationship between Chinese and Japanese that predominates. 

In Legend, Li’s role as Huo’s student Chen fights members of the rival Japanese school also without a grudge, even when he is supposed to avenge Huo’s murder by Japanese assailants. Chen even has a Japanese girlfriend he met while studying in Japan. 

There were no such sensitivities in Bruce Lee’s 1972 Fists of Fury, of which Li’s Legend is a remake. Fury was of a different time, a Hong Kong production rather than a mainland Chinese outing, and a vehicle for expressing Lee’s nationalist sentiment and raw energy as an aggrieved Liu (Zheng Shen). 

Japanese cinema’s recent naval show Aegis casts a Chinese national (and a former Chinese spy) as the villain, with no innocent or neutral Chinese in the story. In that sense it is a mirror image of a black-and-white Fury, the product of a generation ago. 

Without any countervailing production in Japan today more accommodating of China comparable to Legend or Fearless, more productions critical of Japanese official positions have emerged. These include Japan-based, Oscar-nominated American director John Junkerman’s documentary Japan’s Peace Constitution, which warns against Tokyo’s current militaristic drift. 

Cross-cultural period productions need not be biased or jaundiced against any particular side. The 1970 production Tora! Tora! Tora! was an epic, bipartisan co-production between former war enemies Japan and the United States. 

More recently, successful co-productions have included Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero. Perhaps, instead of bickering over their differences, Japanese and Chinese producers, directors and actors should try co-production between themselves. 

The only alternative may be to see the other form of co-production, in the form of international piracy, flourish. 

Politics determines culture


CINEMA was introduced to China 110 years ago, but because of foreign domination of the industry, local productions did not begin to take off for another 20 years. 

The first screening in 1896 as well as the subsequent growth in Chinese cinema occurred in Shanghai. This was partly because of the city’s reputation as a hub of modernity and the fact of its constant exposure to foreign influences. 

One result is that a most jarring foreign intervention in China – the military occupation by Imperial Japan – was also experienced in Shanghai. This caused filmmakers to flee the city and resettle elsewhere like Hong Kong, contributing to the growth of cinema there. 

Before that, Chinese patriots like kung fu master Huo Yuanjia made a stand in their own way in Shanghai. It was in this city that Huo’s first Chinwoo Physical Training School was established, and where Huo and his top student Liu fought epic matches with Japanese judokas. 

Shanghai was thus the setting for the most memorable kung fu battles in Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury and Jet Li’s Fist of Legend, both rated as among the best martial arts films ever made. 

Meanwhile, history also witnessed how foreign influences in cinema became evident in Shanghai. Technical training in the industry was mainly American in origin in the 1920s. 

But by the 1930s, indigenous Chinese cinema grew, including those works with a leftish persuasion. 

As politics raged between communists and nationalists, so did the direction of cinema between them, with both sides seeing cinema as a useful propaganda tool. 

Besides World War II, the Cultural Revolution also stunted the development of Chinese cinema. Its erratic fate has slowed its growth overall, while Hong Kong’s more freewheeling traditions have tended to be commercial and also limited in its own way. 

Just as the fate of cinema has been determined by the course of politics in China, so has the development of physical culture like kung fu. That may be why the world’s most consistently active and successful Chinwoo adherents today are in Malaysia. – BN 


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