The Film

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 in Cannes

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 profit."

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, too.

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 finally dwindling.

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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