CHINA BEAT: Let Slip The Bales Of War
As was the case pretty much everywhere else in the world, cinemagoers in Hong Kong have been torn this weekend between going to see Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law return in SHERLOCK HOLMES - A GAME OF SHADOWS and Tom Cruise's latest action sequel, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL. While I'm a fan of the latter, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Downey's Victorian detective wins the box office battle over here. For one thing, we don't have the 6-minute prologue for THE DARK KNIGHT RISES previewing before MI4 screenings, as both the city's IMAX theatres are digital rather than 70mm - which is in itself something of a minor tragedy. Christian Bale is in a box office war of a different nature north of the border, however, as Zhang Yimou's THE FLOWERS OF WAR, in which Bale plays the lead, had its premiere on Thursday evening, just a few hours after the first screening of Tsui Hark's new IMAX 3D wuxia epic, FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE.
The real war, however, is between the two companies behind the productions. The release dates for these two films were revised again and again, with FLOWERS finally slated to open two days before SWORDS, until Bona Film Group moved their film forward at the last minute so that the premiere of Tsui Hark's movie would actually take place a few hours ahead of New Picture Edko Films' Nanking drama. The two companies have been at loggerheads for years, and this was always going to be a vicious fight, but then something totally unexpected happened this week - something that may well affect the success of THE FLOWERS OF WAR and even have larger, longer-lasting repercussions in this new era of burgeoning cooperation between China and Hollywood.
As many of you will have seen by now, this past week, while back in China to help promote the opening of his film, Christian Bale made the decision to go and visit Chen Guangcheng - a blind human rights lawyer who has been under house arrest since his release from prison last year. Chen has been something of a thorn in China's side, highlighting a number of disturbing cases around the region of improper practices by family planning officials in enforcing China's one-child policy, including forced abortions and sterilisations. He was released last year, after four years in prison on what are largely believed to be trumped up charges of property damage, and has been unable to leave his house ever since.
Bale thought that by visiting Chen at his home, where there have been numerous reports of other visitors being beaten and even taken into custody, he could raise awareness of the self-taught lawyer's plight. Well, mission ccomplished, Christian - although there may be lasting collateral damage that he did not take into account at the time. The video footage that Bale and his CNN companions shot can be found easily online, of their brief and unsuccessful attempt to visit Chen's house. They are pushed around and smacked about by some rather intimidating looking guys, who then pursued them by car for a good 40 minutes after Bale and Co. decided to quit and head home. Bale then went back on CNN the next day and badmouthed the Chinese government and their policies in no uncertain terms, something which is unlikely to go down at all well in Beijing.
THE FLOWERS OF WAR was supposed to be China's largest and most obvious step to-date of getting global audiences interested in Chinese Cinema. It is the country's official entry in next year's Academy Awards and has now played for a week in Los Angeles, which makes it eligible for consideration in the major categories too. FLOWERS is widely considered to be a shoe-in for a Best Foreign Film nomination, if for no other reason than Hollywood is just as keen to keep this partnership going as China is. With greater co-operation and a growing number of co-productions already in the works, more Hollywood films will be able to screen in the mainland, where a huge and hungry moviegoing public has recently emerged.
However, the other side of the deal was that Bale's participation was supposed to open the door for more actors, writers and directors to find work in China - where there is no shortage of money to be spent on producing big budget movies and paying the salaries to match. What China definitely does not want is to open its doors to trouble-making liberals like Bale, who are going to air the country's dirty laundry to the world while they are staying there on China's buck and being given the royal treatment. More directly, Bale's behaviour may have repercussions on the success of the film on home territory. Hong Kong-based blog The Golden Rock reported that word was circulating on Weibo (China's version of Twitter) in the wake of Bale's antics that advertisements for THE FLOWERS OF WAR were being pulled from newspapers and that the film might even be pulled from cinemas early. This could all be speculation or rumour - those netizens are an excitable bunch - but it's not beyond the realm of possibility.
What will most likely happen next is some short term stalling of deals with Hollywood that had yet to be finalised, but after a few months everything will be back to normal. It's unlikely that Bale will ever be asked to make a film in China again - he may even find himself banned from entering the country - while any other actor's political activities will be heavily scrutinised and debated before being hired to make a Chinese film, with closer tabs kept on them while in-country. How will all this affect the success of THE FLOWERS OF WAR overseas? It probably has helped the word get out to a few more people that Bale has made a Chinese war movie, but it's unlikely that his actions of the past week will convince many more people to go see it. Has he helped THE FLOWERS OF WAR win an Oscar? Certainly not, in fact he may have highlighted Chen's plight enough for their to be an anti-Chinese backlash at this year's ceremony. The real question, of course, has nothing to do with the film, or even the industry, and certainly isn't one that I dare answer here - has Bale managed in any way to help Chen Guangcheng and his family?
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