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China spooked by Hong Kong's films
By Stefan Hammond

BANGKOK - Supernatural films are a staple genre in the Hong Kong cinedrome. One recent success is The Eye, from Hong Kong-based Applause Pictures. The film - about a cornea-transplant patient and her eerie post-surgery visions - was a smash hit at the Hong Kong box office, and remake rights have been purchased by Hollywood's Cruise/Wagner Productions.

But don't search for The Eye at Beijing cineplexes any time soon. Despite decades of economic and social reform, the mainland maintains a cinematic nix-list: nudity, homosexuality, extramarital affairs and supernatural themes all remain verboten.

Why is Beijing so concerned about ghosts and goblins? Politically, secret societies based on arcane beliefs have posed threats to China's power structure for centuries. Socially, the shift toward a modern culture has motivated Beijing to create a list of "approved" religions and conveniently prohibit all else.

Why are mainland edicts important to Hong Kong filmmakers? Largely because of CEPA - the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement - which took effect on January 1. The pact - designed to boost trade between Hong Kong and the mainland - allows Hong Kong films to be released on the mainland as local productions as long as they are co-produced with mainland partners and conform to other criteria related to labor quotas and content. Hong Kong's economic and cultural symbiosis with mainland China means that the special administrative region's filmmakers must accommodate Beijing's dictates to reap CEPA's potential benefits within the entertainment sector.

The Chinese authorities firmly oppose mysterious cinematic manifestations - even the cutesy family film Babe (1995) was banned by Beijing because it displayed talking animals. Science-fiction and horror films don't officially exist on the mainland, although a wide variety of films reportedly find their way onto Chinese video screens via bootleg discs.

These objections are puzzling. For centuries, Chinese texts have reveled in ghost lore, and Hong Kong films perennially replicate these stories. The period-costume drama A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) starred Leslie Cheung and Taiwanese actress Wang Tsu-hsien as unrequited lovers: he's a human and she's a ghost. It's a typical Hong Kong film plot - girl dies, decades pass, girl's ghost meets boy, boy gets girl, boy loses girl.

Producer Tsui Hark adapted Western pacing to help get the film into art-house cinemas and awaken Western audiences to Hong Kong cinema that transcended "chopsocky" stereotypes. But the story's not original: it's adapted from the 17th-century Chinese text "Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio". And that tale's been lensed before, a 1959 film from Hong Kong's legendary Shaw Brothers studio - The Enchanting Shadow - varies not in plot but in production technique (the Chinese titles for both films are identical). And it's not the first time Tsui dipped into China's creative past for inspiration - his film Green Snake (1993) is a remake of the Madam White Snake legend.

So why does Beijing proscribe ghosts and supernatural elements? The country's vastness and multiplicity of ethnic and religious groups has made central control a priority for Chinese authorities. Challenges to authority are not welcomed. Societies rallying under the banner of arcane beliefs have played havoc with the power structure since at least AD 25, when a Shandong province sect called the Red Eyebrows (they painted their eyebrows crimson to mimic demons) helped assassinate political figure Wang Mang and establish the Eastern Han Dynasty. Since then, Chinese secret societies have included the diehard White Lotus Society, whose 14th-century uprising helped displace invading Mongols and install Hung Wu, the first Ming Dynasty emperor. After three centuries of Ming rule, the superseding Qing Dynasty issued edicts against the White Lotus Society and similar organizations including the Incense Burning Society and the Origin of Chaos Society. And the Boxer Rebellion of 1899 is the best-documented example of a secret society causing a ruckus within the framework of Chinese authority.

These spiritually based power-mongering sects have helped shape the Hong Kong film canon. In the early 1990s, Tsui Hark's seminal Creative Workshop studio re-created a true Chinese hero and set him into action. Wong Fei-hong (1847-1924) was a scholar and martial-arts hero whose wisdom and leadership in the twilight years of the Chinese empire were legendary. Wong has been mythologized by writers and screenwriters and was first played onscreen by Kwan Tak-hing, who portrayed the scholar-warrior in an astounding 99 feature films beginning in 1949.

Tsui updated the legend by casting Beijing-born Jet Li as Wong in a series of films called Once Upon A Time in China (1992) that pits Wong against the White Lotus Cult, an energetic, xenophobic mob who practice spiritual kung fu. They chew burning incense sticks and assert magic protection from blade and bullet. But while they claim to be pro-Chinese, Wong Fei-hong sees them as anarchic architects of pointless mayhem. It's an entertaining film loaded with high-velocity martial action that presents Chinese patriots opposing spiritually based societies with rebellious agendas.

Nowadays, China is dogmatically determined to upholding conventional religious practices. A 1997 white paper published on the website of China's embassy in Washington gives approval to Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. "Citizens of China may freely choose and express their religious beliefs, and make clear their religious affiliations," declared the white paper, which also claimed that there are over 3,000 religious organizations throughout China and "74 religious schools and colleges run by religious organizations for training clerical personnel". However, all religions in China are currently governed by "patriotic organizations", official bodies through which the head of the religion answers to the government. This means, for example, that the Chinese Catholic Church maintains non-affiliation with the Vatican.

The inclusion of Taoism (described in the white paper as "native to China, [with] a history of more than 1,700 years") is of interest to Hong Kong movie fans who've embraced Taoist priests as celluloid heroes. Hong Kong's No 1 Taoist film champion was Lam Ching-ying, a peer of heavyweight action star Sammo Hung. Lam's no-nonsense witch-battling sifu (master) was the central character of the wildly popular Mr Vampire (1985), its sequels and knock-offs. Many of these films also starred gyonsi: child-vampires. Rather than the puberty-addled goths of Western teen-vamp films like The Lost Boys (1987), Hong Kong's gyonsi are cute dead tykes: animated corpses in Ming Dynasty costumes. The movie-going public lapped it up, and the child-vampires became so popular in Japan that toymakers sprang into action, producing plush toys with cute puddle-eyes and soft padded fangs.

The vampire-minders in charge of the gyonsi (and their less charming adult counterparts) were Taoists, as were the priests who stepped in to restore order once the adult vampires slipped their spells (yellow-and-red paper charms affixed to their foreheads) and started doing what vampires do. It's curious to see if a regime that spurns talking piglets as spiritually hazardous would cleave to child-vampire films on re-release.

It's only natural that Hong Kong production houses target the mainland as a burgeoning market for their Asian film products. Perhaps new mainland revenue will change the overall financial picture, but as things stand now, Hollywood remake rights are the plum prize for Hong Kong filmmakers. The rights for Hong Kong's biggest 2002 hit , Infernal Affairs, which grossed more than US$7 million in Hong Kong alone and won seven Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Picture - have already been snapped up by Brad Pitt's Plan B production company. Pitt is set to star with Martin Scorsese tipped to direct - a production date has yet to be announced.

But the original film didn't receive mainland approval until a new ending was cobbled together and stitched on. Although the revised finale waters down the film's impact, it also pedantically doles out justice to the film's evildoers. Would Pitt, whose best work is in bleak, morally elliptical films like Seven (1995) and Fight Club (1999), prefer a sewn-up ending that imprisons all the bad guys? And if not, would the remake play in Beijing cinemas?

Stefan Hammond is the author of Hollywood East: Hong Kong Movies and the People Who Make Them and co-author (with Mike Wilkins) of Sex and Zen & A Bullet in The Head: The Essential Guide to Hong Kong's Mindbending Films.

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Jun 10, 2004

Banned in China for sex, drugs, disaffection (Apr 29, '04)


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