The Film

Far Eastern Economic Review

Gate Crashers
A controversial film attracts crowds from China

By Bruce Gilley in Hong Kong
March 6, 1997

As if on cue, the three groups of mainland Chinese gawking at stills outside Hong Kong's Columbia Classics cinema form a semi-circle. One of them, a young man in a bomber jacket and tie, had broken their mesmerized silence by identifying a woman in one of the photos. "That's Ding Zilin, a professor at People's University," he said. "She lost her only son in the massacre."

The sudden sense of communion among the groups is unusual given their differences: four elderly Shanghainese now resident in Hong Kong; two young men and a woman from nearby Shenzhen who broke away from a three-day tour group to the colony; and three middle-aged men including the man in the jacket who talk and act like locally stationed Chinese officials but do not identify themselves.

When the doors swing open to disgorge the early Sunday evening audience from the three-hour show, the 10 break back into their groups. "Look at them, they're bored stiff," says the woman from Shenzhen, noting the blank faces of those departing. "You're wrong," reply her companions. "They're shocked."

In the five weeks after The Gate of Heavenly Peace opened at the cinema on January 11, more than 16,000 others, probably more than half of them mainland Chinese, were also shocked by the American-made film, the first serious study of the 1989 Tiananmen student movement. The unprecedented public screening of the film just months before Hong Kong reverts to Chinese rule on July 1 has prompted a flurry of interest.

"The Chinese people still have deep feelings about Tiananmen Square," says Hong Kong filmmaker Shu Kei, whose company distributes the film in the colony. "There is also some apprehension that they will not get a chance to see it after July 1."

Hong Kong's film festival and a local arts centre attracted overflow audiences to see The Gate of Heavenly Peace last year. That prompted Shu Kei to book it into the cavernous Columbia Classics cinema for wider exposure. "We could tell it would be a success," says Felix Wong of Edko Communications, which owns the cinema. By mid-February, it had already grossed HK$1,235,000 ($158,333) at the off-beat cinema's box office, where few films breach the magic million-dollar mark.

The epic documentary, directed by Beijing-born American Carma Hinton, stresses the triumph of extremism over moderate voices in both the student camp in Tiananmen Square and the leadership compound of Zhongnanhai. It has been shown on TV or at cinemas in 17 countries and at film festivals in many more. Despite the balanced picture, Chinese embassies the world over have protested its screening.

The de facto Chinese embassy in Hong Kong, the Xinhua news agency, is about a mile from the cinema. But no official protests have been made. "We received no outside representations when we were considering this film," says a government secretariat spokeswoman. "It had not been banned elsewhere, so we just approved it according to normal procedures."

The silence from local Chinese officials might be partly explained by the large numbers of their rank queuing up for tickets. It might also relate to the current spell of tolerance by Beijing on Hong Kong issues, apparently intended to calm local nerves before the takeover.

Word is spreading to the mainland and those who can are pouring across the border for a peek. "This is a film which every Chinese person must see!" exhorts the painted billboard outside the cinema.

Edko's Wong says the film will probably run into March. "If the people keep coming, we'll continue showing it."

© Copyright 1997 Far Eastern Economic Review

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