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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

WAITING FOR THE ICE TO MELT

Award-winning Taiwan producer Hsu Feng has movies to make - if China's censors will let her

By Lily Tung / Shanghai


HSU FENG TRACES A broad arc with her arm. "When we first bought this land," she says, "the grass was taller than me. There were no roads or anything like that. Just a wasteland." The Taiwan film producer and former kung fu star is showing off the new pride of her life, the unsnappily named Tomson Shanghai Pudong Golf Club, Villa and International Club - part of a $600 million township and leisure center that she and her husband are building just across the Huangpu River from downtown Shanghai.

Hsu's chauffeured cart pulls off the golf course and stops outside her luxury villa (interior decorations courtesy of Versace). It's almost time for her two teenage boys to come home from school and for her to relax after what has been another day of big-money discussions. Among other things, the evening may well include catching a movie in her personal screening room.

Hsu, 46, may be a property developer these days, but her heart is never far from the cinema - particularly China's. As the producer of Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine and Temptress Moon (both starring Gong Li), she is often described as the "First Lady of Chinese cinema." Farewell My Concubine, which traces China's turbulent modern history through the personal and sexual struggles of two Beijing opera stars, won the Palme d'Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. Says Hsu: "I decided to win that award when I first went to Cannes in 1975. After that I put a map of the world on my office wall. When I was asked why I had done that, I said I wanted my films to be seen by the whole world, not just by people living in Chinatowns. At the time, people laughed at me, but, you know, my biggest characteristic is my self-discipline. When I finally won the award, people then said 'Be careful of this woman. She gets what she wants, even if she has to wait 18 years for it.'"

Waiting is what Hsu is doing plenty of these days. She has Chen contracted for four more films, two of them historical pieces to be shot in China. One is novelist Nien Zhen's personal tale of torment in the Cultural Revolution, Life and Death in Shanghai, which Hsu would like to star in herself. The other is Last Lipstick in Yenan, about the early years of Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing, when she was an actress in Shanghai. But the China Film Bureau is sitting on both projects. "I want to make films about the personal stories of these two women," the producer says. "I'm not interested in politics. But film studios here think it's impossible to get government approval for the scripts because of their historical backdrop."

Farewell My Concubine was released in 1993 - during a period that, while difficult, was almost a golden age compared with what is happening now. The movie was heavily edited by the censors, but finally found its way to the marketplace. Chen complains that since 1994, the film industry has been throttled. "There are many talented film-makers in China, but most of them have no opportunity to show their skills. Most directors aren't allowed to make the films they want to make. They're waiting, wasting their time. It's a big problem."

Hsu says commercially viable films are not being made any more. "The studios are forced to produce government-commissioned movies. More than 90% of them don't make a profit at the box office. People just don't want to see these films." The principal problem for directors, she says, is that there are no rules. "What is acceptable or not is decided by the leaders. They forbid certain elements according to their own personal viewpoint or imagination."

Temptress Moon (1996) fell foul of this no-policy policy and is still banned in China. "It's a romantic story, but they see it as politics," says Hsu. "They even associated one character in it with President Jiang Zemin. Films aren't banned here just because of sex or violence; it's a matter of ideology. In China, you can't make a film about modern themes. But you can't make one about a historical subject either. So what is there left to make? Film-making here is stupid."

Harsh words. And yet Hsu remains hopeful, waiting in Shanghai until the political ice melts and things improve for her and other film-makers. But there is a limit to her patience. If approval doesn't come through eventually, she says she will simply leave Shanghai and shoot in Taiwan. "It's hard to say how long I'll have to wait. I see myself as somewhere at the top of pessimism and at the bottom of optimism. In the past, we couldn't ever imagine that China would release [dissidents] Wang Dan and Wei Jingsheng from prison. But now they have been set free. If you open up economically, you must also open up everything else. China understands this."

As she waits, Hsu is absorbed with the property venture that she and her millionaire mainland husband, Tong Cun-lin, began in 1993. The golf course and associated club - just one of 20 Tomson projects sprawled across more than a million square meters of Pudong - are aimed mainly at expatriates. Says Hsu: "We decided to build an international club because foreign business people in Shanghai don't have anything to occupy them outside of work. Magazines, newspapers, television, films - they are all tightly controlled by the government. [Expatriates] don't have enough entertainment, so the club will fill the social gap."

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