Prize-winning Chinese film is banned in its homeland


BEIJING -- A ban by Chinese authorities of the movie that won top prize this year at the Cannes Film Festival is an example, its director said, of one of the movie's central themes: It is dangerous to tell the truth in China.

The ban on "Farewell to My Concubine" demonstrates the continued restrictions on freedom of expression in China even as the government insists the nation is becoming more open. Filmmakers must win approval from censors at every step of the way -- from script to final cut. The ban also shows the power of censorship in the Chinese press, which has followed official orders to avoid giving the film publicity.

The film chronicles the life of two Beijing opera students who become stars together -- Cheng Dieyi, a female impersonator, and Duan Xiaolou, the leading man.

The theme of homosexuality runs throughout the movie as Cheng falls in love with Duan, who is devoted to a beautiful prostitute. "My Concubine" also depicts the personal betrayals and endemic persecution that marked the ultra-leftist 1966-'76 Cultural Revolution.

Officials have asked the filmmaker to change the ending of the movie, in which Cheng commits suicide when he realizes he no longer will play the role of concubine to Duan's king in their signature Beijing Opera piece.

The film suicide occurs in 1977, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, when the concubine, by official reasoning, should really enjoy her life. Officials want the concubine to live, according to Mr. Chen.

In addition, officials want changes in the film's portrayal of the brutal Cultural Revolution.

"They don't want to remind people about what happened in the past so they can keep away from political chaos now," said Mr. Chen.

But the ban against the film has not been as effective as such bans were a decade ago, providing an example of how foreign investment and free enterprise in China have weakened the grip of the Communist Party over the lives of ordinary people.

Like most films made now in China, "Farewell to My Concubine" was a joint venture, in which foreign investors provided much of the financial backing. The film's Hong Kong producer, Tomson Films, had arranged in advance the premiers in Beijing and Shanghai. When news of the ban was sent last week to theaters from the Ministry of Propaganda's film bureau, it was too late. People had already bought their tickets, and the Hong Kong producer was permitted to screen the film.

As a result, the movie was shown once last week in Beijing and several times in Shanghai, but will not be shown again.

Bans on films are commonplace here. In 1989, for example, officials here banned "Ju Dou," the first Chinese film ever to earn a Best Foreign Film Academy Award nomination. Officials never announced the precise reasons for their ban. But the press here, which serves as a mouthpiece for official thinking, suggested that the drama was too focused on individual values. "Ju Dou" is about a young peasant woman who has an affair with the nephew of her elderly husband. The ban on "Ju Dou" was lifted last year.

At the premiere of "Farewell to My Concubine" in Beijing, Mr. Chen and various stars from the movie spoke to the overflow audience. They referred to the ban with subtle anger.

Another film director, Deng Wen Ji, introduced Mr. Chen.

"After a Yugoslavian director won the Cannes international film award, the whole country celebrated for him and went to the airport to welcome him," Mr. Deng said. "China is not like that."

"I feel that I have won an honor for our Chinese people," Mr. Chen said. "Farewell to My Concubine" shared the Golden Palm award with "The Piano," by New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion.

Officials do not want the concubine to commit suicide in the film because "Mr. Deng just became the leader of China then," said Mr. Chen,referring to 1977, the year the concubine commits suicide. "But I never think this way.

"They [officials] think, 'Why would the concubine go through the Cultural Revolution and then commit suicide after that? She might have a better life after the Cultural Revolution. This is not a good time to commit suicide.' "

According to the Hong Kong press, members of the politboro ordered the ban after seeing the film, even though the film already had passed the censors.

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