Hollywood’s New China Syndrome


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.”

The writer, Li Jianhua, could barely contain his delight. Stern, Li wrote, “disclosed that Hollywood has invested some $60 million in making a movie based on Harrer’s book. The Tibet craze set off by Hollywood is being used by a Nazi to advertise himself.”

In another obvious counterplay to the coming China-Tibet movies, Beijing has just released a 90-minute television documentary about the Dalai Lama. The documentary, first shown in Beijing on Aug. 24, features interviews with 20 “witnesses” who knew the Dalai when he was growing up in Tibet.

The documentary claims to show how the Dalai Lama “signed an agreement with the central government on peaceful liberation of Tibet”; “how he maintained close cooperative ties with the central government between 1954-56"; and, “how, afterwards, he followed a separatist path.”


But China’s government, in general, has been particularly sensitive on Tibet, possibly because the 15th Communist Party Congress is set for later this month.

For example, when U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R.-Va.) managed to sneak into Tibet recently as a tourist and then spoke of finding “unspeakably brutal conditions,” the Chinese government reacted immediately by publishing long articles, quoting American and European scholars, claiming that conditions in Tibet have never been better.

For Disney, which won praise last year for its support of Scorsese from artistic rights supporters, the decision came with a price. The company now finds that business deals it had been negotiating with China before the flap--particularly the construction of a theme park near Shanghai--have been frozen.

When asked to comment last week about the ongoing controversy, Disney issued another short statement: “The Chinese government has expressed their concerns about ‘Kundun,’ and we continue to discuss the issue with them. Our existing businesses in China, including television and consumer products, continue to operate as they have in the past.”

In fact, it is doubtful that China will take any sweeping economic sanctions against the U.S. film industry over “Kundun” or the other films, according to a foreign businessman who is an entertainment consultant in China.

“On the economic and trade front, I don’t think they would be willing to pull American films out of China,” the consultant said. “That does not go with their bid to join [the World Trade Organization]. Of course it is China. It’s kind of a sexy domestic political issue for them [an overwhelming majority of Chinese support government’s policy on Tibet], so you never really know.”

Imported American films are by far the most popular films at the box office in China. Revenue sharing on foreign (mainly American) movies accounts for about half of total box office, which is estimated unofficially at about $300 million.

“Chinese studios need this revenue to support their local productions,” said the consultant.


Meanwhile, the studios are taking great pains to downplay whatever politics might be attached to their three films.

At MGM, for example, executives describe “Red Corner,” which is scheduled for release Nov. 26, as a tense story of a man trapped in a legal system he does not understand--much like Alan Parker’s 1978 film “Midnight Express,” which told the harrowing tale of a young American brutalized in a Turkish prison after being caught smuggling drugs.

In “Red Corner,” Gere’s character is assigned a court-appointed lawyer, played by actress Bai Ling, who informs him that in China if a person is convicted of a capital crime, the death sentence is usually carried out within a week.

Avnet said that while China’s legal system, like America’s, provides a defendant with a court-appointed attorney, in China “there are hardly any criminal lawyers and virtually none have competence to handle a case of [the film’s] magnitude. And almost no one would want to take it on.”

The director said he wanted to focus attention on a particular part of China’s judicial system--the Beijing Intermediate Court. It is that court, Avnet said, that acts as a mechanism of the government to repress dissent. Avnet noted that the Chinese are “extremely guarded” about their criminal system; proceedings are not allowed to be photographed and anyone who tries will find “a guy who puts a gun to your face.”

Avnet, who like the star of his film is a supporter of the Dalai Lama, pointed out that “Red Corner” is not about Tibet nor the Nobel Prize-winning spiritual leader. Nonetheless, he said the film could cause trouble for certain Chinese citizens who were brought to America on visas to act in the movie and have since returned.

“They may suffer recriminations,” Avnet said. “They chose to do the movie knowing that possibility exists.”

While Avnet does not deny there are political overtones to his film, MGM officials prefer to avoid political perceptions.

“I don’t think [“Red Corner”] is in any way, shape or form a political movie,” said Gerry Rich, MGM’s president of worldwide marketing. “It’s about a man caught in a legal system. This is the first time that the communist Chinese legal system has been portrayed as painfully accurate as it is. We went to great lengths to assure authenticity and accuracy.”

Rich also said the movie, which the studio intends to market solely as a thriller, is not meant to portray the Chinese as villains.

“There are bad guys [in the movie] but with every thriller there are bad guys,” Rich said. “We’re not making an editorial comment on the Chinese people per se. We’re emphasizing the difficulties [in] and nature of the Chinese legal system.”

He said MGM has not yet formulated how it will release the movie overseas. “As it stands,” he said, “the Chinese government will elect to receive only 10 non-Chinese [language] films every year. My guess is ‘Red Corner’ will not be one of them.”

Meanwhile, Sony and Disney also could step on land mines when they release their Dalai Lama-themed movies.


“Seven Years in Tibet,” produced under Sony’s TriStar Pictures banner, is scheduled for limited release Oct. 8, opening wide two days later, while Disney is looking at a Christmas Day release for “Kundun.”

John Jacobs, president of worldwide marketing at Mandalay Entertainment, which produced “Seven Years in Tibet,” said that the film is about one man’s physical and spiritual journey in Tibet set against real-life events.

“This was a book written by an Austrian mountain climber who went to Tibet and had his life changed,” Jacobs said. “He was one of one or two foreigners [who entered] the Secret City. It’s an amazing story.” Jacobs noted that only a small portion of Harrer’s book dealt with the Chinese invasion of Tibet.

TriStar has such high hopes for the film that it has been entered in the Toronto Film Festival, which begins Thursday.

Disney’s marketing strategy on “Kundun” was still being firmed up last week. A spokesman said that studio officials are waiting for Scorsese to deliver a print so they can make decisions on how the marketing campaign should proceed.

Still, with a cast that includes no stars and some Tibetan relatives of the real Dalai Lama, the selling point of the movie will likely be Scorsese himself.

One Hollywood observer said movies that deal with China’s judicial system or Tibet are, by their very nature, fact-based stories, but as with all facts, they come with different viewpoints.

“Obviously, there is more than one point of view on the facts,” said Tom Pollock, chairman of the American Film Institute. “Just because a picture is fact-based doesn’t mean there aren’t other points of view. Look at ‘JFK.’ ”

Added Pollock: “I know the Scorsese movie is telling the Dalai Lama story--from the point of view of the Dalai Lama.”

Tempest reported from Beijing, Welkos from Los Angeles.