The Film

Los Angeles Times
April 18, 1997
Silvia Cavallini


A young man from Guangzhou hoped to find truth in a day trip. Another woman, a nurse, came to relive the heady hopes of her student days when she and her friends believed that democracy was not a dream.

From across China, they trickle to a run-down Hong Kong theater to partake of the forbidden fruit: a documentary--banned on the mainland--about the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy campaigners in Tiananmen Square.

"The Gate of Heavenly Peace" has attracted steady word-of-mouth attention that apparently has spread across the border, suddenly making the film an unlikely tourist attraction for visiting Chinese. They believe that this screening may be their last chance to see it before Hong Kong reverts to Chinese control July 1.

Using television footage from 1989 and extensive interviews with student leaders, the documentary by longtime China resident Carma Hinton and her husband, Richard Gordon, conveys the excitement, betrayal and anguish of a movement that for a moment looked as though it might change the mainland.

Although the film has been praised by many Chinese as being evenhanded, it has drawn scathing official attacks from Beijing, which has labeled the Tiananmen democracy protests--in which outsiders estimate hundreds may have been killed--"a planned conspiracy by the dregs of society to overthrow the government."

Furious that the movie contradicts Beijing's official view--that few students died in the protest, and none in Tiananmen Square itself--Chinese leaders demanded that the work be dropped from the 1995 New York Film Festival, where it opened the event.

The show went on. But China withdrew its entries and banned Chinese directors from attending the New York sessions.

Despite renewed protests from Beijing, the film played at last year's Hong Kong cinema festival and, since January, has found a home in the small Columbia Classics theater. It has been sustained in part by the stream of mainlanders.

At the ticket window, a clerk observed that the Chinese visitors are easy to spot because of their clothes and accents--but also because of their excitement and discomfort.

"They tap on the ticket booth if they are late, they beg staff to let them in," she said.

The film's enduring popularity has surprised even its distributor, Shu Kei, who said he would like it to play even after July.

"I never expected that I could find a cinema to release it," he said. "I thought it would be difficult because of its political content and because exhibitors in Hong Kong are very money-oriented, and this is a three-hour documentary."

He said a Chinese official privately conceded to him that the movie is fair and spares no punches in its portrayal of power struggles among the students. It also depicts government confusion on how to deal with the young protesters' demands for democracy.

In the movie, Chai Ling, one student leader, comes across as a power-hungry dictator; her references to herself as "supreme commander of student forces in Tiananmen Square" triggered laughter at a recent screening and mutters of "too selfish."

Some in the audience also scribbled notes on pads held high to catch the flickering light, while others sniggered at the fashions of 1989 or commented on how far the students were able to push the government.

"I was curious to see it because we cannot see it in China, although it is a Chinese incident," said a man from Guangzhou, formerly Canton. "I think the government shouldn't be afraid of showing it. It is fair."

While Hong Kong filmgoers know that they will not be harassed here, for mainlanders, the paranoia still runs deep.

The fear mainlanders carried across the border was clear as they shot uneasy looks over their shoulders or stifled their conversations when a passerby approached.

But for Sugar Zhang, it was sadness, not fear, that left her with a pocket full of soggy tissues after seeing the movie and reliving the heady events of 1989. Then, she noted, the possibility of squeezing reforms out of China's aged power elites seemed more possible than ever.

"I feel choked up," said the 30-year-old nurse from Foshan, which is a few hours by train from Hong Kong.

"I remember the strong feelings of that summer," she said, sniffing as she twisted and plucked another tissue to shreds. "I felt them even though I was not in Beijing."

Strong feelings are not something the Chinese government welcomes when it comes to the June 4 bloodshed, and anyone found watching or showing the documentary in China would probably be arrested.

With less than 75 days before the Hong Kong hand-over, Shu Kei said he wants the film to play as long as possible and is optimistic that the latest screening will stop only for financial, not political, reasons.

"I have not received any pressure from China and even the leftist press are quiet; in the past, they would have organized protests," he said. "I hope they have learned their lesson that Hong Kong is different from China."

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