Nervous censors in China delay release of 'Memoirs of a Geisha'

Stars accused of treachery for playing 'prostitutes' as outrage and old hatreds smoulder over Tokyo's wartime atrocities
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The Independent Online

China's two most famous actresses, Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li, play the leading roles in the film, which was initially approved by the censors. But the state-run Film Bureau has changed its mind. Mao Yu, director of the bureau's propaganda and publishing section, believes Memoirs poses "complex" problems and is "too sensitive". There were complaints in Japan about Chinese actresses portraying Japanese women, but there is outrage in China, where many regard geishas as prostitutes. The 26-year-old Zhang, who shot to fame in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and has since become Asia's most famous actress, has attracted venomous criticism from her compatriots.

One blogger said: "She's sold her soul and betrayed her country. Hacking her to death would not be good enough." Other bloggers claimed that casting of Zhang as the geisha Sayuri is the equivalent of a Jewish actress playing a Nazi.

With Sino-Japanese relations at their lowest point in decades, the authorities are worried the film will revive lingering resentment over the Japanese treatment of Chinese women before and during the Second World War. Tens of thousands of women were raped by Japanese troops during the infamous Nanjing Massacre in 1937. Thousands more were among the estimated 200,000 Asians forced to work as "comfort women" in Japanese military brothels during the war.

Violent anti-Japanese protests erupted across China last year after the publication in Japan of a revisionist history textbook that glossed over the country's wartime atrocities.

But the casting of Zhang and Gong reflects the unprecedented popularity of Chinese stars, movies and film-makers. The Taiwanese director Ang Lee, for example, has just won a Golden Globe for his gay Western, Brokeback Mountain. With 260 films produced in 2005 by mainland and overseas Chinese, the industry is now the third-largest in the world after Hollywood and India's Bollywood, and is finding a worldwide audience.

That success poses problems for the Beijing authorities, who are struggling to maintain their traditionally tight control over creative matters. President Hu Jintao hosted a gala event last month for 700 luminaries of the Chinese film world at the Great Hall Of the People in Beijing. Mr Hu praised them for their part in the modernisation of China, but urged the filmmakers to "stick to the correct political direction all the time".