Wendi Deng is not your usual tai-tai. Since marrying Rupert Murdoch in 1999, she has been hard at work. As well as acting in an unofficial role as the media baron’s ambassador in China, the Xuzhou-born Deng has also spent time as chief strategist to the China operation of MySpace, the social-networking site (presumably no more, as News International sold MySpace last week at a fraction of its $580 million purchase price).
But these days Deng has moved on to another role – film producer. Her first feature film Snow Flower and the Secret Fan opened in China last week. Despite competition from blockbuster hits like The Founding of the Party and Kung Fu Panda 2, the film earned Rmb17 million ($2.6 million) in its first weekend, says Yanzhao Metropolis Daily. The movie is set in 19th century rural Hunan and revolves around the lifelong friendship of two women, imprisoned by rigid cultural codes of conduct. “I read the book four years ago and really liked it,” Deng told Hollywood Reporter. “Even though the story is about two Chinese women, it is about their friendship and how they overcame different difficulties and different situations in life. Even though this story happened in China, this kind of story happens in every country, every race, so it is a universal theme.”
It certainly helps to have access to a Rolodex like Murdoch’s. Deng managed to convince Australian actor Hugh Jackman to make a cameo appearance in the film and she also tapped Wayne Wang to direct it (he previously directed Joy Luck Club).
Helping the film get attention is that some of those who have read the book seem to think that Snow Flower and Lily – played by South Korean actress Gianna Jun and Chinese starlet Li Bingbing – are more than just friends.
Although the womens’ friendship is never identified as a lesbian one, their relationship certainly has sensual overtones, including an erotic encounter between the two.
Clearly, that was likely to spike the censors’ interest in the film (in more ways than one, probably). So its producers decided to tone down some of the plot in the book, and scenes in which Lily and Snow Flower kiss have been cut.
Of course, that did little to dull media interest in the topic, although the director has insisted that the film is not “the female-version of Brokeback Mountain”, the Ang Lee tale of two cowboys in love.
Perhaps this latest self-censorship saga underscores the modern China’s fluctuating stance on homosexuality in general. When it comes to films and TV shows, homosexual content is still deemed inappropriate for public consumption. In 2001, the movie Lan Yu, a gay love story, was denied approval for release in China. Last year Spring Fever, another film covering a similar topic, was also banned.
Still, since the decriminalisation of gay sex in 1997, official policy towards the gay and lesbian community has grown more tolerant. In 2001, homosexuality lost its classification as a mental illness, putting a stop to grim “cure” regimens like electric shocks or vomit-inducing herbal medicines. Gay women also have an easier time of it than gay men, according to an article in last week’s International Herald Tribune. “Lesbians in China today are remarkably free as a result of profound social changes over three decades of fast economic growth, and of being female in a society that values men far above women”, the newspaper reported. “Invisibility provides lesbians with room to live and love amid the anonymity of China’s millions-strong megacities.”
But filmmaker Cui Zien told TIME magazine that it’s still easy to cross an invisible line drawn by the authorities when it comes to publicly celebrating gay culture. “I organised a gay film festival in July last year, and the authorities warned us not to advertise the location and the date of the festival anywhere. Not even on the internet.”
Just last week, an award-winning actress also caused a stir with homophobic remarks on her Sina Weibo. Lu Liping quoted the remarks of a US pastor who had decried same-sex marriage. But there was an unexpected outcome, when she was criticised by state broadcaster CCTV. Presenter Qiu Qiming urged Lv to “reconsider her ways”. Celebrities can have their own point of view, he said. But that did not mean that they should have the power to “openly discriminate against certain communities in China.”
Most homosexual Chinese still lead a double life. Liu Dalin, a pioneering sexologist now retired from the University of Shanghai estimates that 90% of gay men in China marry women (the figure in the US is thought to be closer to 20%).
One key reason? Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, explains to The Economist magazine: “The name for a family without descendants is juehu, which means ‘a house that is severed’. That is considered the biggest tragedy and causes huge pain [to parents].”
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