You have seen her fly over tiled rooftops, ride on horseback in China’s western desert and swathed in silk as a Japanese geisha. Zhang Ziyi, China’s best-known actress internationally, is hoping her new role as a victim dying of AIDS will win back domestic fans.
Last week, Zhang appeared in Beijing to promote her new film A Tale of Magic. The film is a melancholy love story about a couple – played by Zhang and Hong Kong actor Aaron Kwok – battling with AIDS.
According to the Shanghai Daily, Zhang hardly spoke and rarely smiled at the film’s press conference, her first public appearance since a torrent of bad press over her botched donations to victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (see WiC49).
Rumours surfaced online in January, accusing the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon star of only delivering a portion of the Rmb1 million ($146,000) she had promised for relief work. Zhang later blamed the discrepancy on a “communication glitch” that led to her donating only $123,000, and asserted that she donated the rest once the shortfall came to light.
Meanwhile, also starring in the film are veteran actors Jiang Wenli and Pu Cunxin, both of whom have been ambassadors for AIDS awareness campaigns.
The film’s director Gu Changwei, a cinematographer who has shot films for Chen Kaige and Robert Altman, says he hopes that the new film will help raise awareness of the disease. He is also planning to shoot a documentary on AIDS, which he plans to complete at the same time as the movie, scheduled for release in December.
The fact that a film about AIDS is being made at all is an important victory in its own right. Only a decade ago, it was nowhere on Beijing’s radar. China did not put real resources into fighting the disease until 2003.
As a result, the stigma that AIDS carries in China remains strong. “The biggest obstacle is that there is not enough education or publicity about AIDS. Society does not know enough about the disease, and people think you can get it just from touch, talking, shaking hands or eating together,” says Huang Jeifu, Deputy Chinese Health Minister. “This is a huge problem.”
In a 2008 survey conducted by the China AIDS Media Partnership, of the more than 6,000 people surveyed, nearly 48% said they wouldn’t knowingly eat with an HIV positive person. 30% said HIV positive children should not be allowed to study at the same schools as other children, and 40% said they would not willingly share workspace with a colleague they knew was HIV positive.
Experts say the social stigmas may also be playing a part in the rise in new cases. 2008 marked the first time the virus became the leading killer among all infectious diseases in China. There were estimated to be around 740,000 HIV-positive cases in China in 2008, according to UNAIDS, of which about 100,000 have full-blown AIDS.
The government has taken steps to improve these attitudes – including implementing an anti-discrimination law in March 2006. More recently, Beijing lifted the ban against HIV-positive tourists visiting the country (see WiC59).
Perhaps Zhang’s latest film will help clear away some of the ignorance surrounding the disease. And who knows, it could very well help resuscitate her career. After all, Tom Hanks went on to win an Oscar for his moving portrayal of a lawyer dying of AIDS in the hit film Philadelphia.
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