I am a patriot, insists censored director

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The Independent Online

It should have been the greatest moment in the career of one of China's best-loved actors. With only his second effort behind the camera, Jiang Wen won the Cannes Grand Prix for his epic tale of Japanese wartime atrocities in China, Devils on the Doorstep. The crowd cheered, as his French wife embraced him.

It should have been the greatest moment in the career of one of China's best-loved actors. With only his second effort behind the camera, Jiang Wen won the Cannes Grand Prix for his epic tale of Japanese wartime atrocities in China, Devils on the Doorstep. The crowd cheered, as his French wife embraced him.

There was just one problem. Back home, Peking's censors had not approved the film's presentation in Cannes. Their reaction was swift: a media blackout of Jiang's 21 May triumph, followed by an embargo on its domestic release. Now, the fallout from Cannes has extended into a clampdown on the entire film industry, and 37-year-old Jiang himself faces the threat of a seven-year ban on directing or appearing.

The director's dilemma highlights both the limits of artistic freedom in China, and the rawness of war wounds still troubling relations across the East China Sea. While China says Devils is "not sufficiently patriotic", Japanese right-wing groups complain that it exaggerates Japan's brutal occupation of the mainland, and have pressured local distributors not to show the film.

"It's just like the character I play in the film," Jiang Wen told the Independent on Sunday in Peking last week. "The Chinese hate him, and the Japanese too!" Yet Jiang, famous for his crew-cut and Peking slang, claims to be in the dark about the censors' concerns. China's conservative Film Bureau has rebuffed all attempts at a meeting, and film insiders suspect it is piqued more by Jiang's unauthorised success abroad than by the actual film. Official anger is rumoured to extend right up the Chinese Communist Party leadership.

While other film directors have previously earned rebuke for winning at foreign film festivals, the government's actions appear more than ever out of step with the times. China's urbanites can read racy novels, surf the net, and buy pirate videos of Hollywood and Hong Kong flicks. But as soon as they enter a cinema, they step back in time. "Literature is much more liberal than film," explains Shen Yue, director of the well-regarded Fragrance of the Sun. "It takes effort for officials to read and understand books. For films, the censors can just sit there, making cuts as they like."

Ever since Chairman Mao demanded that art should "serve the people", Chinese cinema has been harnessed to the cause of socialist construction. Despite a thaw since the Eighties, many taboos remain. Besides Devils, four other newly finished films are buried by bureaucratic opposition. Given the tighter restrictions, Shen is not shooting anything this year. His first film, Dancing Girl, failed at the censors. "The Chinese authorities still regard film as a propaganda tool, not a commodity," says Shen. "For them, cinema is a symbol of the liberal intellectuals who must be controlled. If the Bureau is tolerant with Jiang, everyone will push for more freedoms."

Lined up against the liberals is the powerful figure of Ding Guangen, party propaganda chief. He blasted Jiang at an internal seminar in June, then fired a broadside at The Terminator, criticising Chinese central television for showing an Arnold Schwarzenegger film festival when the actor came to support the Special Olympics for mentally disabled children. Perhaps more disturbing are Ding's henchmen. This clique is young (by Chinese government standards), familiar with the West, charming when meeting "foreign friends", and ruthless in suppressing the unorthodox.

Yet their hold is starting to slip. While the media in Peking obeyed the news blackout on Jiang's victory, the press in Shanghai and Guangzhou ignored the ban. When a Chinese website posted the Bureau's official verdict on Devils on 21 April, wired film fans could log on to language of another era. "The behaviour [of the Chinese civilians] depicts the Chinese as not hating the Japanese troops as they should. The Japanese military anthem is played many times throughout the film. This signifies the strength of the Japanese military and severely hurts the feelings of the Chinese people."

Questioning his patriotism hurts Jiang's feelings. He is the the son of an officer in the People's Liberation Army. The bloody climax of his 160-minute epic mirrors a massacre perpetrated near his home village in Tangshan, Hebei province. He remembers village elders recalling the deaths of 1,000 men, women and children. "I'll never forget the descriptions of Japanese soldiers killing the villagers. Only expert swordsmen could decapitate with one stroke; some took many goes, cutting the shoulders or the scalp. The body fell forward, but the head sat looking at everybody who knew them."

Yet by attempting a more human and complex portrait of the war, via the relationship between two Chinese peasants and a captive Japanese soldier, Jiang broke the convention that paints good guys and bad in broad brushstrokes. "I don't hate the Japanese people," he says, "only their militarism." He resisted efforts by the film's backers to change the title, as "devils" remains the most common term for Japanese. There is no love lost even after all these years. He also sought to challenge the Chinese trait of looking for scapegoats for their own problems.

Of the storm his film has stirred he said: "I only regret that it has been banned. The Chinese and Japanese peoples, and other countries too, need to see such films. This film is pro-peace and anti-war, but the government has banned it and the Japanese are angry. It should be a warning to us all: the threat of war still exists."

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