The (very brief) Life of Pi

‘Pride of China’ director falls foul of foreign film ban

The (very brief) Life of Pi

“I made you a star”: Zhang Ziyi with Lee Ang

According to one of the more gossipy revelations from WikiLeaks, China’s new boss Xi Jinping is a big fan of Hollywood war films (Second World War especially, it seems). So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that during a visit to the US in February, Xi helped to orchestrate a deal that increased the number of foreign film imports from 20 to 34 (though the extra 14 need to be shown in 3D or a large format such as IMAX).

In part thanks to Xi, Hollywood productions have also been increasing their box office in China (as reported last week, foreign films now enjoy a 59% share of takings). But curiously, the foreign import to nab the last of this year’s coveted import quota has a Chinese director – Lee Ang.

Life of Pi – the shipwrecked adventures of a spiritual Indian teen and a wild Bengal tiger – beat Skyfall and Return of the Hobbit for the final spot. It probably helps that the Taiwan-born director is one of the film industry’s biggest Chinese names. But to help promote Life of Pi Lee made a special visit to China, his first in five years. The mainland press provided extensive coverage of his trip, stressing that the film is the director’s first foray into 3D. But the mainland journalists were less inclined to mention that the movie was shot in Taiwan, much of it in a 1.7-million-gallon water tank built to generate capsizing waves.

Across the strait in Taiwan, the connection with the island’s role in the film was, on the contrary, played up. “Lee expressed his gratitude for the support Taiwan offered,” gushed Taiwan Today.

Why the difference in approach? WiC ventures that in Beijing it’s an uncomfortable idea to classify a movie shot in Taiwan as ‘foreign’.

The sensitivities remain…

Although Lee was born in Taiwan, he now spends most of his career making English-language films in the United States. His range is a wide one: from the low-budget arthouse flick The Wedding Banquet (a 1993 film that featured some excellent dialogue, such as the Chinese bride’s wedding vow, “For better and richer, not poorer. Till sickness and death”); to Eat Drink Man Woman, a sensational Taiwan-based drama about a master chef and his daughters (a must-watch for foodies); and even Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, where he cast English talent including Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman.

Then in 2000 Lee did the unexpected: he made a kung-fu film. Not just any fighting film, mind you, he virtually reinvented the genre. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon remains the one Chinese language film that most non-Chinese are likely to have seen. It also launched the international career of starlet Zhang Ziyi and won best foreign language film at the Oscars. The film’s success also influenced the leading mainland Chinese director, Zhang Yimou, who tried to best Lee’s effort with his own martial arts blockbuster Hero. Audiences preferred Crouching Tiger, which earned $128 million in the United States, making it the highest grossing foreign language film in American history (it took a worldwide total of $213.5 million, on a budget of just $17 million).

The film made Lee, 58, something of a rock-star in Asia, where he has managed to appeal to both sides of the Taiwan straits by stressing his ethnic roots: “A big part of (my culture) is Chinese tradition from my parents, from school, so that is who I am,” the filmmaker told the International Herald Tribune in 2007. “I grew up in Taiwan, but you know where my ideas, my brushstrokes came from.”

“I think that, at heart, I am an old-fashioned Chinese,” he concluded.

So when Lee won best director Oscar six years ago for another of his major successes, Brokeback Mountain, the China Daily went so far as to call him the “pride of Chinese people all over the world” and the “glory of Chinese cinematic talent”.

Never mind that the fruit of that cinematic talent – a film about gay cowboys in love – was never approved for screening in China itself. Or that Lee’s Academy Award acceptance speech, although televised in China, was censored by the authorities, who omitted references to homosexuality and Taiwan.

In fact, the “pride of China” has since had run-ins with the country’s cinematic censors – thanks to sex again, although his time of the heterosexual variety. In Lee’s controversial espionage drama Lust, Caution, he was required to edit seven minutes of footage for the film’s China release (so many cuts were made that local audiences quipped that the film would have been better titled Caution, No Lust). And while Lee’s reputation remained intact, lead actress Tang Wei wasn’t so lucky. Media reports at the time said that SARFT, the media regulator, banned her because of the film’s supposedly unpatriotic elements (she pleasured a traitor to the Chinese people). Since lifted, the ban meant she couldn’t get work for over a year.

Life of Pi, which cost $120 million to make, has avoided the censors’ scissors. But whether the film – which was released in China this Thursday – will recoup much of its budget there is less certain. Aside from a quirky plot that may not impress too many of the locals, Chinese audiences only have about 8 days to see the movie. Pride of China or not, Lee’s film will then be banished as part of a policy that bans foreign content from being shown in Chinese cinemas in December, in a ‘blackout’ designed to help promote domestic productions.

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