Any espionage drama that’s set in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation of China seems destined for controversy. Perhaps that’s why it is such a popular genre with producers. Three years ago Chinese actress Tang Wei was blacklisted in the state media for her performance in Lee Ang’s Lust Caution, which is set in the city during the Second World War. And now another wartime spy thriller in Shanghai is embroiled in controversy too.
Imaginatively called Shanghai, the film tells the story of an American spy investigating a death in the Japanese-occupied city in the months before the attack on Pearl Harbour. It is the first Chinese production for The Weinstein Company, a studio founded by Hollywood moguls Bob and Harvey Weinstein.
At first glance Shanghai seems to have everything going for it, with a big budget and an impressive cast including John Cusack, Ken Watanabe and mainland superstars Gong Li and Chow Yun-fat. It is also backed by Huayi Brothers, one of the China’s leading film studios (see WiC34).
But the Weinstein brothers soon ran into some local flak. First, the film failed to get approvals from Beijing censors. Though officials at China’s film watchdog, SARFT, declined to reveal their concerns, critics say the Japanese occupation remains a sensitive topic for censors, and other filmmakers have had difficulty winning approval for projects set in the same era. Plots which involve wartime collaboration are especially likely to experience the censor’s pen.
SARFT officials are famously unenthused by sex scenes too, and some steamy action between Gong and Cusack may have required extensive scrutiny, says the South China Morning Post.
In fact, SARFT had misgivings after an initial read-through of the script and banned the filmmakers from shooting in Shanghai, despite an estimated spend of $3 million on sets in the city. Thus a movie called Shanghai was to be filmed almost entirely in London and Bangkok.
“The decision has everything to do with (the Chinese authorities) not liking the script,“ Harvey Weinstein told Variety at the time.
Although it’s hard to tell how much the original plot has been changed, it’s safe to say that it will have been tweaked for the Chinese screen. And after much delay – the film wrapped up shooting two years ago – it finally has a release date. According to the Shanghai Daily, it will be in cinemas from June 17. The number of theatres has yet to be decided.
The Weinstein Company’s cautionary tale is unlikely to lessen Hollywood’s enthusiasm in reaching out to Chinese audiences. Sony Pictures, which owns Columbia Pictures, has already financed, produced and distributed Chinese-language blockbusters like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. More recently, it produced the Karate Kid, another cross-border effort starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith, the son of Will Smith.
Then there is Warner Brothers partnership with state-owned China Film Group and the privately owned Hengdian Group, one of China’s largest film companies, to co-produce mostly Chinese language movies.
But not everyone is convinced by the potential of the Chinese market. American studios are still struggling to get their own movies shown in China, where only 20 foreign films can be imported each year. Box office receipts are also small compared with the US, where revenues reached a record $10 billion last year (China’s take was $908 million). Moreover, there’s the issue of pirated content, which costs studios millions of dollars every year.
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