China bans 'Memoirs of a Geisha'

BEIJING - "Memoirs of a Geisha", the Hollywood blockbuster about the life and loves of a Japanese courtesan featuring Chinese actresses in the lead roles, has fallen victim to Sino-Japanese tensions and been banned in China by high-ranking officials.

"Geisha" received the seal of approval from China's powerful film regulator SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film and Television) and distributors had since been awaiting a release date.

However, sources in the film business say the decision to ban Rob Marshall's movie came from higher up in the government.

They say top officials fear the sight of some of China's most beloved actors -- Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, as well as Hong Kong star Michelle Yeoh -- playing Japanese courtesans could prove inflammatory on the mainland.

Ties between the two neighbours hit a post-war low in April last year when thousands of Chinese took to the streets to protest against Japan's wartime aggression and they have not improved much since.

China believes Japan has not atoned enough for its invasion and brutal occupation from 1937 to 1945.

Against this background of tension between Asia's two powerhouses, the Chinese media has been filled with speculation for weeks about when, or if, "Geisha" would open in China.

The tentative release date given was February 10, but it seems the film, adapted from Arthur Golden's best-selling novel about the life of a geisha in Tokyo in the years around World War Two, has touched a nerve.

And now, as a result, it will not be shown in Chinese cinemas.

A number of scenes have proved controversial, including one where the main geisha character, played by "House of Flying Daggers" star Zhang, "sells" her virginity to a group of men.

The film, due to be distributed in China by Columbia Tristar, had even entered the dubbing process, normally the final step before release.

After premiering in the U.S. in December, it was originally set for a gala opening in Beijing on January 9.

But haggling between the producers and the censor delayed the opening date.

Censors subsequently passed "Geisha" for viewing but still no date for a premiere had been fixed and the movie opened instead in Hong Kong on January 12.

The Chinese government is keen to keep a tight grip on public morals and SARFT limits the number of foreign films allowed in China to around 20 a year.

Expectations were high in China about "Geisha", which was the first Hollywood mega movie to boast Asian actors in all the main roles.

The film is widely available in pirate DVD shops, including top-quality copies of screen versions made available to members of the Academy which votes for the Oscars.

Relations between China and Japan are complicated at the best of times.

Ties have remained tense since last year, when Japan approved the publication of a history textbook that the Chinese believe minimises atrocities carried out during the occupation of China from 1931 to 1945, including the "Rape of Nanking" in 1937 when thousands of Chinese were killed.

The Chinese are also angry at Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's regular visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine, where war criminals are buried alongside the war dead and which China sees as a potent symbol of Japan's past militarism.

The reaction to the idea of Chinese actresses playing Japanese roles has been a mixture of pride and horror.

Some bloggers have expressed delight that such high profile roles in a major international film should have been given to Chinese stars.

The fact that no Japanese actors had a big enough reputation to merit casting in the film was taken as a compliment to China's growing power in the film business.

However, others have expressed outrage at the prospect of Chinese women playing geishas, saying China's most fragrant lovelies should not be playing "Japanese prostitutes".

We apologise for any inconvenience caused.

- INDEPENDENT

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