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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Silenced But Still Talking

China is too tame, says director Zhang Yuan

By Amy Wu / Beijing


FILMMAKER ZHANG YUAN PROBABLY knew there was something inevitable about the fate of East Palace, West Palace. Three of his four previous movies had been banned in China for dealing with taboo subjects, so what hope was there for the first study by a Chinese director of homosexuality?

East Palace, West Palace was duly blacklisted. And then Zhang had his passport confiscated when he returned to China from Hong Kong in April. This prevented his being with his movie when it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May. In protest, the festival organizers kept an empty seat ready for the man considered in the West to be China's leading independent filmmaker. It was Zhang's status as an independent and the fact that East Palace, West Palace was co-produced by the French culture and foreign ministries that made it possible for the movie to be in Cannes -- and for it to be screened at a number of other festivals outside China.

Zhang has grown accustomed to collisions with Chinese officialdom. Before East Palace, West Palace, his Beijing Bastards (1993), The Square (1994) and Sons (1995) were all ruled unsuitable for Chinese audiences. All three take a gritty, documentary-style approach to such social problems as dysfunctional families, alcoholism, alienated youth and, in the case of The Square, Tiananmen. Only Mama (1990), which deals with single parenthood, was released in China. Deprived of a living from his films, the director makes ends meet by writing scripts and producing commercials and music videos -- including work for Chinese rocker Cui Jian.

The idea for East Palace, West Palace came to Zhang, 33, a few years ago, when he stumbled across a small newspaper article about Beijing's new AIDS research center. The institution was conducting a study on gay lifestyles, but was having trouble finding people willing to be interviewed. The solution? It got policemen to comb the parks and question any gays they encountered.

Similarly, East Palace, West Palace deals with a fleeting relationship between a Beijing police officer and a young homosexual writer he is interrogating. The two spend a night challenging each other's sexuality, with flashbacks of their experiences. The encounter takes place in a park that is a popular gay hangout near the Forbidden City. Zhang says he didn't specifically set out to make a film about homosexuality. "I wanted to examine the relationship between power and sex," he explains. "It didn't matter whether the people involved were homosexual or not."

Zhang may have been silenced, but he is vocal on the subject of working in a country where artistic freedom is fettered. "I've always thought that China was getting better every day," he says. "But I realized after finishing East Palace, West Palace that we still have a long way to go. The Chinese cultural environment needs controversial topics. Everything is the same here. But every place needs 'waves.' The only place where everything should be the same is the desert."

One problem, he says, is that his fellow-directors have been cowed by the introduction last year of stricter filmmaking laws and by the continuing campaign against spiritual pollution. "I think directors will choose to avoid topics such as homosexuality," he says. "Besides, many artists in China are conservative themselves and don't want to deal with controversial issues."

Zhang sees encouraging signs of a more challenging cinema in Asia -- as illustrated by Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai's prize for best director at Cannes for Happy Together, which deals with a troubled gay relationship. "In the past," says Zhang, "Asian directors handled films less openly than their Western counterparts, in terms of life and reality. Today, it's quite natural for them to find a new perspective."

Has Zhang thought about a a new perspective for himself in the West? He has, but it doesn't appeal. What he wants is to make films about China in China -- and to have them seen in China. That this hasn't happened is perhaps partly his own fault, he now acknowledges. Maybe he should not have persisted with films that were doomed from the start. "Perhaps it was an error of judgment on my part," he says. "I'm now looking at different ways of making films that may have a chance of being shown in China." What that might be is anybody's guess. But he probably doesn't mean Mary Poppins with Chinese characteristics.


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