[Marxism] China's 1925 revolution as backdrop

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Sat Dec 30 17:17:39 MST 2006

Perhaps it's just the kinds of movies I like to see, and their quality is
surely uneven, but I'm struck lately at the number of movies with the
troubles of the world as formative, highly influential backdrops to the
stories being presented. Some of them present quite strong political
statements, some just have the politics on the sidelines, but they're
quite powerful in their ways.

The new movie THE PAINTED VEIL, set in China during the 1925-27
revolution, which serves as a backdrop for the marital and relationship
travails of a British scientist and his dissatisfied and unhappy wife, who,
in the aftermath of being caught cheating, is presented by her husband
with an unattractive dilemma: Follow him to the outback where he will
work as a bacteriologist during a cholera outbreak, or he'll file divorce
documents. She must decide within twenty-four hours. This movie is an
exceptionally beautiful visual feast, but much more. The two leads here
are examples of nuanced characters, not stick figures, who find in their
placement in a terrible situation, a road toward a deep human communi-
cation which didn't exist at the time they were married. I've seen many 
beautiful movies in recent times, but few as emotionally alive as is this. 

The Chinese revolution is the movie's backdrop, not at the center of the 
narrative, yet it seems to give this viewer, at least, a sense of what the
period must have seemed like, to these foreigners stuck a million miles
from nowhere. At one point, Edward Norton's character, who speaks a
fair amount of Chinese, tries to explain the necessity to shut off the
village water supply because cholera is being spread through it. He's
having some difficulty getting the message across, in part because of
his limited language capacity, in part because the villagers don't know
where they'll get their water (a special acqueduct is constructed later).
The Kuomingtang officer, who'd been silent until then, speaks up and
offers to help him explain, telling him to feel free to speak English or
Russian, both of which he'd learned in Moscow.

In an interview with Charles McGrath for the New York Times, the main
star, Edward Norton, explained:

''The novel is almost unremittingly bleak,'' Mr. Norton said. ''And
the reason is I think Maugham had a pretty dim view of the potential
of British colonials to change. But I went on the assumption that if
you were willing to allow Walter and Kitty to grow, then you had the
potential for a love story that was both tragic and meaningful.''
''We've let Walter become the proxy for the arrogance of Western
rationalism,'' Mr. Norton explained, talking about how Walter is
baffled when the Chinese are insufficiently grateful for his help in
fighting cholera. ''Walter means well, but he's the folly of empire,
and that adds a whole new dimension to what happens in the story.
It's a metaphor for the way empires get crushed.''

There were an unusually-large number of Chinese in the audience, too,
deriving I supposed a peek at their homeland at a certain point in its
history. The interaction between the Chinese government office which
had to vet the script and the producers indicates that the office sees
its responsibility as including keeping up a sense of the historic roots
of the country, then a poverty-ridden semi-colony struggling to free 
itself from foreign domination, to the world-power China has become
since the triumph of the revolution in 1949. The bitter rage which in
1925 fueled anti-foreigner riots in Shanghai are still embedded in the
consciousness of the Chinese people it would seem.

The Chinese revolution continues to shake the world, and at the same
time China's success has served to hold up the shaky economies of the
west as well. Not that the west is overly grateful, but they're deeply
addicted to low-priced Chinese commodities, so even when they have
something to gripe about - such as Chinese currency, they keep it in
pretty soft tones.

Walter Lippmann
Los Angeles, California




Unveiling China's past

'The Painted Veil' is unflattering to China, and still government
censors approved it. But that doesn't mean Hollywood has free rein in
the country.

December 21, 2006

WITH SCENES OF xenophobic Chinese and riots against foreigners, 
the new film "The Painted Veil" provides a view of early 20th century
China that is unusually realistic — particularly for a film made in
China and altered by government censors. But as with so many things
involving the Asian giant, the filmmakers' experience shows that
Hollywood is still taking one or two steps back in China for every
step forward.

The main problem for the studios is that, in any given year, Beijing
allows only 20 foreign films to be shown in Chinese theaters. The
government usurps the distribution duties on those films, deciding
when and where to release a film and how to promote it. After the
government skims off its take, the producers are left with less than
one-fifth of the ticket sales. If the film does well, as was the case
with "The Da Vinci Code," it may suddenly be yanked from Chinese
theaters for no apparent reason. And when the government wants to
showcase a local production it favors, it winnows the competition by
barring all foreign films.

To avoid the quota, the blackouts and the tiny share of the
box-office receipts, U.S. filmmakers can team up with a Chinese
production company. That's what the makers of "The Painted Veil" did.
They lined up a Chinese investor — a joint venture that counts Warner
Bros. among its owners. Doing so gave them the same benefits 
enjoyed by Chinese filmmakers, including guaranteed access to the
fast-growing Chinese theatrical market. But it also meant that their
script would have to be approved by the Chinese film bureau, as would
the final version of the movie. In other words, because the movie
producers wanted access to Chinese movie screens, they allowed
communist censors to control content destined to be seen by audiences
around the world. That's a remarkable capitulation, not only in terms
of how filmmakers behave within China, but everywhere.

In some ways, the script-approval process may actually have improved
the film. Eager to avoid simplistic, negative portrayals, the film
bureau pressed the filmmakers to flesh out Chinese characters and
historical events, such as anti-British riots in Shanghai. After the
filming was done, the bureau demanded more cuts in exchange for the
permit needed to release the movie in China. The filmmakers could
have refused, but they would have been forced to buy out their
Chinese partners and abandon theaters there. Ultimately, the censors
settled for less than one minute's worth of cuts from a two-hour-plus
movie — a thinner slice than many filmmakers make from U.S. releases
to obtain a PG-13 rating instead of an R.

Still, the nature of the cuts rankled the filmmakers, and rightly so.
Ostensibly, Chinese censors have to ensure that any film released in
the country is suitable for viewers of all ages. But the trims sought
in "The Painted Veil" were not aimed at making the film amenable to
children. Instead, they were designed to make the depiction of the
Chinese people conform with the government's worldview.

Studio executives who've dealt with China for many years say the
environment there is better than it used to be, and the setbacks
aren't as severe as they were in previous decades. That's due in part
to pressure from Chinese filmmakers, who are tiring of historical
epics and fantasies. Nevertheless, it's difficult to accept that
releasing films in China means giving the ruling party more control
than any other large country demands and that no government should

More information about the Marxism mailing list