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Hong Kong Bows to Beijing in Turning Away 3 U.S. Films

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not coming soon to theaters in Hong Kong: “Seven Years in Tibet,” “Kundun” and “Red Corner.”

In the clearest sign of self-censorship since Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty, three U.S. films thought likely to offend China have yet to find a buyer here.

Two of the movies, Columbia/TriStar’s “Seven Years in Tibet,” starring Brad Pitt, and Walt Disney Co.'s “Kundun,” directed by Martin Scorcese, focus on China’s invasion of Tibet, homeland of exiled Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama.

Beijing officials, angry at the Hollywood glorification of the spiritual leader they call “a slave master,” have banned the films in China and temporarily halted business dealings with the three studios that made them.

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Although Britain returned Hong Kong to China on July 1, the territory doesn’t have to abide by Beijing’s bans and has its own thriving film industry. And despite new laws here that forbid supporting independence for Taiwan and Tibet, two areas China considers its own, the films can legally be shown, Hong Kong officials have declared.

So far there are no takers.

“I will not be buying these films,” said Tony Wong of Cinemation Films International. “They are too sensitive politically. There are a lot of good movies--why buy one that might cause trouble?” Wong said he personally wanted to see the films, but Hong Kong moviegoers may not even be able to view the films on video, since the distribution rights usually are sold in a package.

“I’m waiting for the pirated discs,” he said with a laugh.

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To Disney and the other studios, Beijing’s outrage is no joke. Earlier this year, the Chinese government demanded that Disney cancel the release of “Kundun” and threatened the company’s commercial projects in China. Last month, China’s Ministry of Radio, Film and Television included the other studios in its ire, ordering a temporary stop to film imports and cooperation with Sony’s Columbia/TriStar and with Disney and MGM.

“Taking up Tibet and human rights issues, those films viciously attack China and hurt Chinese people’s feelings. . . .” the edict said. “We must maintain sharp vigilance.”

“Kundun” is scheduled to open in the United States on Christmas. A Disney spokesman at the Burbank headquarters said the company had yet to feel any commercial fallout. But he confirmed that Disney has retained former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a consultant to smooth the way for their China projects, including a long-sought theme park in the world’s most populous country.

Pascal Diot, who is handling Asian rights for “Kundun” for Disney’s international distributor, said Beijing’s words had cast a chill over a movie he thought would be hot in Hong Kong.

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“Because of what China has said, the film distributors don’t want to take any risk,” Diot said. “They think it might be rejected in Hong Kong or face censorship. From the beginning, they were quite reluctant to buy it.”

Despite China’s backlash, several more Western films critical of China’s role in Tibet are in the works, including “Windhorse,” a low-budget film about Buddhist nuns jailed for their beliefs. The film features clandestine footage shot in Tibet with a “tourist’s” movie camera.

In “Dixie Cups,” Dalai Lama devotee Steven Seagal will play a CIA agent working with Tibetan rebels in the 1960s. The film is based on the true story of Tibetan freedom fighters who were secretly trained by the CIA in Colorado. In addition, Merchant Ivory, best known for “A Room With A View,” is working on a film about the Chinese military’s suppression of a 1987 uprising in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa.

China is countering what it considers Western propaganda with its own film, “Red River Valley,” about Britain’s invasion of Tibet in 1904, and a TV documentary about the Dalai Lama, depicting him as the “leader of a theocratic, feudalistic and primitive slaveholding society.” The documentary premiered in China in August and will be screened in London after “Seven Years in Tibet” opens there this month.

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That makes “Red River Valley,” which won no prizes last week at the third annual Shanghai Film Festival, the only Tibet film likely to hit Hong Kong’s screens. Phoenix Pictures, run by Shanghai-born Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy, won international distribution rights for the film after providing script and casting help. Thus, U.S. audiences will be able to compare the different pictures.

“The viewpoint of the American films is very different from ours, which focuses on the friendship of the Tibetan people and the Chinese,” said Lin Jie of the distribution arm of the Shanghai Film Studio, which made the movie.


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