War and peace

Chinese cinemas showing Doraemon hints of better relations with Tokyo

Doraemon w

Purring along: is film’s release a sign of easing Sino-Japanese tensions?

A patriotic movie premiered in China last month. The film is about the nation’s resistance against the Japanese during World War Two. Its subtitle reads “the Battle Cry of China”, and a movie poster suggests it is “the story Japan never wanted the world to know”.

What makes this a little different is that Kukan, an 85-minute documentary, was first screened at New York’s World Theatre in June 1941. Back then a New York Times film reviewer described it as “a crudely made but intensely interesting film about modern China, the land of unconquerable people… one of the few pictures ever made about China which conveys an overpowering sense of the vastness and variety of that great nation.”

Kukan was produced by American Chinese Li Ling-Ai, who used her own money to make a movie about the suffering of her motherland. She hired Rey Scott, a foreign correspondent for the Daily Telegraph to do the shooting. The colour film recorded their journey through war-torn China from 1937 to 1940. The final 20 minutes of Kukan offers rare footage of the Japanese bombing of the wartime capital Chongqing, with Scott capturing images of the city’s incineration from the roof of the American embassy. This courageous act earned him a special award at the 14th Academy Awards.

Kukan even got screened at the White House for President Franklin Roosevelt, the China Daily notes. But before 2015 it had never been shown in China. Indeed, it was officially categorised as a “lost film” by the Oscars until 2009, when another American-Chinese producer Robin Lung discovered a copy of the documentary. Lung is now producing an independent film, Finding Kukan, to unravel the story behind Kukan’s making. (The project has received about $20,000 from 216 backers on crowdfunding site Kickstarter since 2012.)

With tensions often running high between China and Japan, screening the original Kukan will strike some as timely. The Chinese government has been commemorating the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in the second Sino-Japanese War. A military parade, for example, is planned in Beijing in September.

Nevertheless the state censor has not permitted the restored movie to show nationwide. Instead there have only been private showings.

In fact Chinese moviegoers are unlikely to see a single anti-Japanese blockbuster this summer.

On TV screens it has been a different story. In recent years an endless rash of anti-Japanese dramas have aired. However, after having some early success in fuelling rancour at Tokyo’s expense, this overburdened genre has increasingly acquired a comic reputation, thanks to ridiculous scenes featuring the likes of a Chinese martial artist tear Japanese soldiers in half.

Indeed, things were taken to a whole new level last month by Ge Tian, wife of retired Olympic hurdler Liu Xiang. In a TV serial, Ge hides a German stick grenade in her crotch and smuggles it into the cell of her imprisoned Communist husband. He extracts the explosive from between Ge’s thighs (amid a satisfied groan from his wife) and then blows the Japanese guards sky high. The Chinese media watchdog subsequently pulled the series.

“This crotch bomb episode has aroused widespread public ridicule again,” wrote Outlook magazine. “We need more than ever serious movies on the anti-Japanese war, which are based on the true history.” Even Xinhua has pitched in, asking movie producers to get their act together. “War movies, including about the anti-Japanese war, have long been a cultural necessity in our country. The public wants to see locally-made war blockbusters,” it reckoned.

Why aren’t Chinese film companies meeting the demand for ‘true portrayals’? Partly it is down to the difficulty, and very sensitive nature, of depicting the heroes. That’s because the core of the resistance to the Japanese was made by the Kuomintang and not the Communists (Mao Zedong kept his forces out of most of the battles, which was one reason why his own army was able to drive rival Chiang Kai-shek’s depleted Kuomintang out of China in the subsequent civil war).

In this respect it will be interesting to see how censors react to The Chongqing Blitz, a Rmb350 million ($56 million) co-production with Hollywood, expected to complete next year.

In fact, if Chinese cinema screens are a reflection of the state of Sino-Japanese relations, then recent evidence is they may not be too bad after all. Doraemon – Japan’s beloved robot cat – looks to be easing diplomatic tensions and breaking box-office records at the same time. The animated film Stand By Me Doraemon brought in Rmb30 million in receipts on its opening day last month, and repeated the record feat the following day. (The previous daily record for an animated film was held by Kung Fu Panda 2.)

The Doraemon film is being shown at 5,500 screens across China. That makes it the first Japanese movie to go on general release in China since 2012.

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