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Hollywood's New China Syndrome

'Red Corner,' 'Seven Years in Tibet' and 'Kundun' take the country's human rights record to task, especially regarding its treatment of Tibet. How will the Chinese react to filmdom's scrutiny?


In director Jon Avnet's upcoming film, "Red Corner," Richard Gere portrays an American lawyer who travels to the People's Republic of China to negotiate a massive telecommunications deal, only to find himself ensnared in a brutal and Kafkaesque judicial system after being framed for murder.

In "Seven Years in Tibet," director Jean-Jacques Annaud tells the story of a European mountain climber, played by Brad Pitt, and his relationship to Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. In one scene, Chinese communist military officers are shown brutalizing Tibetans and kicking an ornate sand sculpture that the Tibetan monks have created as a goodwill gesture to the Chinese.

And the Dalai Lama--long a thorn in the side of Beijing's leaders--is the centerpiece in director Martin Scorsese's "Kundun." China made it clear late last year that the Walt Disney Co.'s business plans in that nation could suffer if the movie were released in U.S. theaters. Disney stuck by Scorsese.

Hollywood will roll out all three films with much fanfare later this year, but the real challenge for the studios involved--MGM with "Red Corner," TriStar Pictures with "Seven Years in Tibet" and Disney's Touchstone Pictures with "Kundun"--will be how they deal with the political fallout the films are sure to engender in China.

Both "Seven Years in Tibet" and "Kundun" are set against the backdrop of the communist Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet. In recent years, Hollywood actors like Gere, Harrison Ford and Steven Seagal have voiced their support for the Dalai Lama.

While the studios say the films should be viewed for their entertainment value, rather than for any political messages, there is no denying that taken collectively, the three movies shine a spotlight on Beijing's human rights record.

"I think people who deride Hollywood for being a bunch of liberal do-gooders should bite their tongues," said Avnet, who noted that his own film is partly intended as "a pretty good shot at the Chinese judicial system," which he said is part of the government's mechanism that stifles dissent.

The controversy over "Kundun" erupted late last year when China dropped not-so-subtle hints that Disney's plans to expand its business in their country could be jeopardized if it released the film.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Cui Tiankai told reporters last November: "Concerning the film you mentioned, I am sure you understand our position--Tibet has been Chinese territory since ancient times. Any action which distorts Tibetan history and sings the praises of the Dalai Lama is counter to the facts and is wrong and, of course, unpopular."

Responding cautiously, Disney issued a terse statement: "We have an agreement to distribute the film, and we will honor it."

After its initial explosion over "Kundun," the Chinese government lately has taken a more passive-aggressive stance toward the Tibet-China fad in Hollywood.

Soon after the "Kundun" issue first surfaced, for example, China, through its Shanghai Film Studio, rushed into production its own high-profile Tibetan epic, titled "Red River Valley." The $1.7-million production tells the story of a 19th century British mission to Tibet that pretends to be friendly while actually planning an invasion.

Former TriStar Pictures chief Mike Medavoy, who was born in Shanghai in 1941, helped the Chinese filmmakers in casting British actors for the movie. Medavoy's Santa Monica-based company, Phoenix Pictures, also carries the sales rights to the film outside China.

Medavoy said that he became involved in the project through his friendship with Zhu Yongbe, head of the Shanghai Film Studio, but he denied that the film is a political statement against the Dalai Lama.

"The truth is, it's not about the Dalai Lama or any other aspect of [his influence]," Medavoy said. "It's about Tibet." Medavoy added that the film itself deals with a period of Tibet's history that involved British colonialism.

The film was released in China in April and did well at the box office. Chinese officials praised the film as "holding aloft the banner of patriotism in Tibet." Film minister Sun Jiazheng described the movie as "the best I have seen in my post."

Outside of some dramatic footage of the mountains, which were filmed at over 18,000 feet, others said the film had little to recommend it. One businessman who viewed the movie in China put it this way: "Typical [Communist] party drivel."

At the same time, Chinese authorities have reveled in the story, first published last spring by the German magazine Stern, that the central character in "Seven Years in Tibet"--Heinrich Harrer (played by Pitt) was a member of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party.

The news brought this headline in the People's Daily newspaper, mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party: "Harrer, Dalai Lama's Former 'Teacher,' Was a Nazi."

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