- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2000

BEIJING It should have been the greatest moment in the colorful career of one of China's best-loved actors: With only his second effort behind the camera, Jiang Wen had won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.

His French wife embraced him as the crowd cheered the triumph of "Devils on the Doorstep," Mr. Jiang's epic tale of Japanese wartime atrocities in China. There was just one problem.

Back home, Beijing's censors had not approved the decision to show the film at Cannes. They promptly imposed a media black-out on news of Mr. Jiang's May 21 success, followed by an embargo on the film's domestic release.

The fallout from Cannes has extended into a clampdown on the entire film industry. Mr. Jiang, 37, personally faces the threat of a seven-year ban on directing or appearing in any feature film.

The director's dilemma highlights both the limits of artistic freedom in China and the rawness of war wounds still troubling relations between China and Japan.

While China says "Devils" is "not sufficiently patriotic," nationalist Japanese groups complain it exaggerates Japan's brutal occupation of the mainland and have pressured distributors not to show the film in Japan.

"It's just like the character I play in the film," Mr. Jiang said in an interview in Beijing. "The Chinese hate him, and the Japanese, too."

Yet the director himself, famous for his crew cut and Beijing slang, claims to be in the dark about the censors' "real concerns."

China's hard-line Film Bureau has rebuffed all requests for a meeting, and film insiders suspect the bureau is piqued more by Mr. Jiang's unauthorized success abroad than by the actual film. Official anger is rumored to extend up through the Communist Party leadership.

While other film directors have been rebuked for winning foreign film festivals, the government's actions appear more than ever out of step with the times.

China's urbanites can read racy novels, surf the Internet and buy pirate videos of Hollywood and Hong Kong films. But as soon as they enter a movie theater, they take a step back in time.

"Literature is much more liberal than film," said Shen Yue, director of the well-regarded "Fragrance of the Sun." "It takes effort for officials to read and understand books. For films, the censors can just sit there, making cuts as they like."

Ever since Chairman Mao Tse-tung demanded that art should "serve the people," Chinese cinema has been harnessed to the cause of socialist construction.

Despite a gradual thaw since the 1980s, many taboos remain. Besides "Devils," four other newly completed films have been buried by bureaucratic opposition. Given the tighter restrictions, Mr. Shen is not shooting anything this year. His first film, "Dancing Girl," was rejected by the censors.

"The Chinese authorities still regard film as a propaganda tool, not a commodity," said Mr. Shen. "For them, cinema is a symbol of the liberal intellectuals who must be controlled. If the Film Bureau is tolerant with Jiang Wen, everyone else will push for more freedoms."

Lined up against the filmmakers is the powerful figure of Ding Guangen, party propaganda chief and doyen of the vitriolic classes.

Mr. Ding assailed Jiang Wen at an internal seminar in June, and then fired a broadside at the movie "The Terminator," criticizing Chinese central television for broadcasting an Arnold Schwarzenegger film festival when the Hollywood film star visited China to support the Special Olympics for mentally disabled children.

Perhaps more disturbing are Mr. Ding's henchmen, such as former Secretary Wang Gengnian, now head of the Film Bureau. This leftist clique is young by Chinese government standards, familiar with the West, charming when meeting "foreign friends" and ruthless in suppressing the unorthodox.

Yet their hold is starting to slip. While the media in Beijing obeyed the news blackout on Mr. Jiang's victory, press in Shanghai and Guangzhou ignored the ban. When a Chinese Web site posted the Film Bureau's official verdict of April 21, wired film fans could log on and read language that smacks of attitudes they thought were behind them.

"The behavior [of the Chinese civilians] depicts the Chinese as not hating the Japanese troops as they should," the Film Bureau reported. "The Japanese military anthem is played many times throughout the film. This signifies the strength of the Japanese military and severely hurts the feelings of the Chinese people."

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