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Hollywood stars in China have to learn the political lines

Hollywood filmmakers risk having their movies shut out of the lucrative market if they criticize China's government. But if they are too friendly, human rights groups may complain.

February 16, 2012|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • Actor Christian Bale promotes "The Flowers of War" at a showing of the film in Beijing last year. He later tangled with police as he tried to visit a dissident under house arrest.
Actor Christian Bale promotes "The Flowers of War" at a showing… (Andy Wong / Associated Press )

Reporting from Beijing — The Chinese Communist Party sent a pointed message to Christian Bale recently: You will not work in this town again.

The movie star's attempt to visit a prominent Chinese dissident under house arrest ended in a televised scuffle with plainclothes police and a chiding from authorities in December.

"If he wants to create news, I don't think that would be welcome in China," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said of Bale, who had been in Beijing for the opening of his film "The Flowers of War."

The Bale dust-up was the latest collision between Hollywood heavyweights and autocratic China. These days, the lure of the world's fastest-growing entertainment market is irresistible to productions from abroad, and China is eager to entice them for the cachet that comes with having global movie stars pump up the domestic film industry.

On Friday morning in downtown Los Angeles, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping is scheduled to attend the formal unveiling of plans by DreamWorks to build an animation studio in Shanghai in partnership with two Chinese state-owned media companies.

But such shared interests can sometimes run aground on political sensitivities. Performers and production companies that don't tread carefully can find themselves in trouble with Chinese officials, or conversely find themselves criticized by human rights groups for being too soft.

Hollywood movie studio Relativity Media was threatened with a boycott by rights groups after it shot a scene for a comedy, "21 and Over," in Linyi, a city in Shandong province, where local officials have been holding the blind activist Chen Guangcheng under house arrest and brutalizing his supporters. The company has said it didn't know that when it added the scene at the behest of a Chinese financial partner.

On the other hand, it was an attempt to see Chen on Dec. 15 that got Bale in trouble with authorities. The actor, traveling with a CNN crew, had driven 12 hours from Beijing, but was stopped, roughed up and forced to leave town.

People who know Bale, who has been more involved in environmental than political issues, believe he was trying to counter the perception that he had been co-opted by the Chinese government by appearing in "The Flowers of War." A spokeswoman for the film said Bale would not comment, and his publicists did not return telephone calls.

The film, directed by Zhang Yimou, one of the government's favorite directors, has been criticized as an overly propagandistic depiction of the Japanese occupation of Nanjing in 1937.

Beijing doesn't exactly maintain a blacklist, at least as Americans might know the concept from the McCarthy era. But there are many Hollywood stars who are unwelcome here, more often for behavior off screen than on.

Richard Gere is persona non grata for his longtime activism on behalf of Tibetan independence. Sharon Stone's films have not been shown since her offhand remark at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival suggesting that a devastating earthquake in China that year was "karma" in retribution for the treatment of Tibetans.

Steven Spielberg was one of the first Hollywood directors to work in China, going to Shanghai to shoot 1987's "Empire of the Sun," which featured a young Christian Bale. But Spielberg also fell from grace after withdrawing as an artistic advisor to the 2008 Beijing Olympics in protest of Chinese policy in Sudan. His films are still shown here, but he hasn't been invited back.

All performances in China need government approval, but the rules are not clearly spelled out, adding an extra element of anxiety.

"We have never been told explicitly, 'Don't do X, Y or Z,' by our Chinese partners,'" said Alison Friedman, head of Beijing-based Ping Pong Productions, which imports cultural events to China. "But you do want to make sure your performers know this is not the time to wear your 'Free Tibet' T-shirt."

Janet Yang, an American film producer who has worked in China since the 1980s, recalls that when she assisted Spielberg on "Empire of the Sun," she was worried that somebody would spark an incident.

"I felt the need to write a long memo to the cast and crew discussing what I thought were China-specific manners: courtesy, showing respect, what is acceptable and not," Yang recalls.

For her forthcoming film, "Shanghai Calling," about a Wall Street lawyer who moves to China, Yang said she felt no need to prep the cast except to advise an actress who is an active blogger to be careful about what she wrote.

"There is so much more leeway nowadays about what is acceptable," Yang said. "But still, China is not for the faint of heart."

In recent months, Beijing has seen a steady parade of top American performers, some of whom appear here without being paid.

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