Food for thought

Will Italian-made film about China get past the censors?

Zhang Jingchu w

Zhang: doubtful the film she stars in will get shown in Chinese cinemas

An invite to a global movie premiere is a rare thing for most of us. But it’s rarer still to attend one unintentionally. That was the strange experience WiC had last week in Hong Kong.

The film in question was called Something Good, directed by Luca Barbareschi, who also wrote the film as well as starring as the male lead. WiC had bought tickets a month ago as part of the Cine Italiano festival – having no idea that the screening would mark the first time the film would be shown to the public.

Thus on arrival we were entirely blindsided to discover that Barbareschi and almost his entire cast had turned up. Instead of the usual ads and promotional film trailers, speeches were given by the director and the film’s actors. And for those of us who had somewhat randomly bought our tickets, a local Hong Kong presenter made plain that we were about to have the privilege of being the first on the planet to see Something Good. In fact, even the lead actress told the audience she hadn’t seen the finished film yet.

But if all this was unexpected, even more so was the film’s theme: Chinese food safety. However, we were on firmer ground here – for while attending world film premiere’s is not a regular occurrence over at WiC, writing about adulterated Chinese food is a frequent topic in this magazine’s pages (our first article on the subject appeared in issue 6).

This was a script we knew sadly all too well.

Barbareschi’s character works for a Chinese triad organisation that specialises in adulterating food. He’s been in this unscrupulous trade for years but he is asked to become part of a new masterplan in which Chinese firms sell tainted baby milk powder to Africa.

Barbareschi, who is Italian-Uruguayan, says he was inspired to make the film by China’s own melamine scandal, which saw 300,000 infants sickened and six killed by contaminated formula. Since then millions of Chinese parents have refused to buy from local dairy firms and opted instead for foreign-made formula.

But this is not a film made in mainland China. Something Good is shot mostly in Hong Kong. Unusually for a film set in the city the dialogue is almost entirely in English rather than Cantonese or Mandarin. The female protagonist is the mainland Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu (see WiC53). Zhang is best known to local audiences for her roles in Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock and Jay Sun’s Switch; though she made her international debut when Jackie Chan cast her in the US action flick Rush Hour 3.

The dramatic tension in the film centres on a love affair between the characters played by Zhang and Barbareschi – his guilt heightened after he realises that her five year-old son died after drinking contaminated fruit juice. Part love story, part thriller, Something Good is a watchable film with a decent twist at the end. For anyone who likes Hong Kong, the scenery alone makes it worth seeing. Zhang’s performance is good too, particularly since she speaks almost entirely in English (and looks to be more comfortable in the language than fellow Chinese starlets such as Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi and Tang Wei).

Barbareschi told the Hollywood Reporter that he originally wanted to shoot the film in Shanghai but found getting the permits too difficult because of the subject matter. The low-budget production (it cost just $7 million to make) will open on 400 screens in Italy in November. Whether censors in Beijing will let it be shown in China remains unclear.

Defending his choice of topic, Barbareschi says Something Good is the first movie to be made about food safety. He also insists that he deliberately avoided making a film that “blamed China”. Although the main gang in the movie is Chinese, Barbareschi says that he makes clear that food safety is a global problem involving many nationalities, including Italians.

“I didn’t want to make a movie against China because I don’t think China is the only one responsible,” he says, adding that he is ready to fly to Beijing to speak directly with the film censors.

Despite the offer, his co-star Zhang told a recent press event in Hong Kong that she thought Something Good had little chance of being screened in China. The political sensitivity isn’t surprising, especially when food safety scares continue to make news in real life.

And as an exposé in Bloomberg Businessweek made plain last week, the problem is just as widespread as Barbareschi claims.

The article – titled “The Honey Launderers” – describes what Bloomberg terms the “largest food fraud in US history”. The scam involved a German company exporting Chinese honey into the US. But the produce was sold fraudulently as of Thai or Korean origin to get round American duties that have been imposed on Chinese honey since 2001. Some of the honey was adulterated with rice, sugar, molasses and fructose syrup. Worse, as Bloomberg points out, was that a large batch was contaminated with chloramphenicol, an antibiotic banned in any food sold in the US market.

Despite the subterfuge, the Chinese honey was sold at a big discount to a Texan firm and later found its way into a range of American foodstuffs (the US is the world’s largest consumer of honey, much of it used by food companies in cereals, cookies and other processed food).

Bloomberg Businessweek says the fraud has been going on since 2002 and exposes the vulnerability of America’s food supply chain. “People don’t know what they are eating,” says Karen Everstine of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense. “We don’t know how it works and we have to know how it works if we want to be able to identify hazards.”

Barbareschi would agree.

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