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Actor captures China's mood

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ZHUOZHOU, China -- Having whipped foreign films at the box office, movie star Jiang Wen is now in the mood to thrash a few of his colleagues in the Chinese film industry. Their sin? Making films that foreigners enjoy watching.

"They're not making Chinese movies," Mr. Jiang says during a break from shooting a new movie about a brutal Chinese emperor. "They don't have anything to do with China. They could be Japanese films."

If China's hottest movie star seems more than a little jingoistic, it is hardly by accident. Mr. Jiang, 32, has a knack for catching China's popular mood, and that mood now includes a heavy does of nationalism.

Chinese virtues

Consider a couple of recent television miniseries. In one, Chinese women working in foreign companies are shown slaving away on behalf of outsiders who range from dopey (the boss of a German firm) to lascivious and crooked (an American). Another series depicts foreigners as hopelessly materialistic. Only those foreigners who adopt presumed Chinese virtues -- spirituality and preference for the group to the individual -- are shown in a favorable light.

The films and TV programs symbolize China's changing attitude toward the outside world. Much like the political figures who believe the West is trying to encircle China, intellectuals now view the world with a mixture of bravado and suspicion -- sure that China has resumed its place as one of the world's leading countries, but unsure if the world is willing to recognize this.

"In the 1980s, Chinese intellectuals were willing to meet the world on an equal footing," says Geremie Barme, a specialist in Chinese popular culture at the Australian National University in Canberra. "This has been replaced by a cocky and narrow viewpoint."

Few people represent this shift better than Mr. Jiang, whose roles -- as well as his own views -- reflect China's mixed emotions over its contacts with the outside world.

'Red Sorghum'

Mr. Jiang became internationally known as the star of "Red Sorghum," the winner of top honors at the 1988 Berlin film festival. He played the earthy spirits distiller who urinated in the caldrons of fermenting liquor and belted out folk songs while seducing China's femme fatale, Gong Li.

The movie created a sensation at home because of the praise from abroad. At the same time, Mr. Jiang's songs helped spark a mini-revival of North Chinese folk music. "If you're looking for a figure who represents repressed Chinese masculinity, he's it," says Paul Clark, a expert on Chinese film studies at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Later, Mr. Jiang starred in a TV miniseries called "A Native Beijinger in New York," playing a Chinese man who goes to New York to make it big. In a scene that caught China's craving for outside recognition, he hires a white prostitute, whom he showers with dollar bills, and asks her to shout: "I love you, I love you."

'It was simple for me'

Mr. Jiang says it was easy for him to play the local boy conquering America. A longtime Beijing resident, he helped write the script and produce the show: "It didn't take much acting. It was simple for me."

He traveled to New York. After returning to China in triumph, he gave interviews deriding the United States and bemoaning New Yorkers' perceived racism toward the Chinese cast and crew, who expected a welcome but were mercilessly ignored.

This year, Mr. Jiang made his debut as director, adapting a short story that gives a somewhat nostalgic look at the Cultural Revolution, a decade of totalitarianism and political purges that began in 1966 when Mr. Jiang was 3 years old.

The film offers a partly autobiographical portrayal of an adolescent's gang fights and his lust for an older girl, which troubled China's puritan film censors. But the movie has been praised for outdrawing foreign offerings.

Taking a jab at directors

The government-controlled New China News Agency crowed that the film -- "In the Heat of the Sun" -- "seems certain to beat Hollywood hands down this autumn."

"The problem now in China is that there are more good actors and cameramen than directors and screenwriters," says Mr. Jiang, taking a jab at the directors Chen Kaige, who won international awards in 1993 for "Farewell My Concubine," and Zhang Yimou, whose films "Judou" and "Raise the Red Lantern" were nominated for Oscars.

"These aren't really Chinese movies. They're made to appeal to westerners by being exotic," Mr. Jiang says as a makeup artist prepares him to look like Emperor Qin for his new film, "The Emperor's Song." "Then they come back here with foreign awards and trick Chinese into thinking that this is a Chinese film."

Jiang's politics are complicated

Mr. Jiang's politics are complicated. At times, he seems urbane and well-traveled, as comfortable with his Rolex watch and Gucci loafers as he is dropping the names of Hollywood stars. He is frustrated by China's censors and hopes someday to make film free of political constraints.

The next minute, however, he is wishing for a new Mao Tse-tung to lead the country and calling for a new cultural revolution.

"Personally, I like Jiang Wen very much," says Mr. Barme of the Australian National University. "He can present the open, western face of China, but behind that face is something not as likable as one would prefer. It's quite disturbing, really."

Ambivalent view

Many other offerings of Chinese popular culture show that same ambivalent view of the outside world.

This month, for example, the author of the "A Native Beijinger in New York" screenplay came out with a novel that is its sequel. He explains in the introduction: "China is a huge dragon that is taking off and flying toward the world." China, the author writes, will be second to no one.

For caricatures of foreigners, there are the recent offerings on TV.

In an episode of "Foreign Girls in Beijing," an American man makes light of marriage. Shocked by the American's cavalier attitude toward marriage -- a stock-in-trade criticism of the West by China's propaganda apparatus -- a Chinese acquaintance mutters: "What kind of a human being is this?"

Unlike the 1980s, when China's economic reforms commanded admiration and its human rights situation was ignored, many Chinese feel that the world is now out to get them, says Wang Xiaodong, a prominent Chinese writer and publisher.

From China's failed bid to be chosen as host of the 2000 Summer Olympics to the criticism directed at the country over the recent women's conference in Beijing, the Chinese feel misunderstood and overwhelmed by a dimly understood world.

Proof of the insecurity

The Communist Party newspaper People's Daily seemed to offer proof of that insecurity, by recently warning that the country was being inundated with foreign words and culture.

If the flood of imported culture is not stopped, the newspaper said, "we will have failed to meet the expectations of our ancestors who forged this great nation and fought against more than 100 years of colonialism. We are first and foremost Chinese, and should guard against this cultural colonialism, which is insidiously encroaching upon the political and economic life of China."

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