The Film

The Guardian (London)
June 12, 1997
Andrew Higgins

Britain is the Arch-Villain of a Film to Purge the Imperial Legacy

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' time.

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 Party.

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, Schindler's List.

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 forgotten.

"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 Kong youth.

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.

"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 an hour.

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 western China.

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