China Town

A film crew from mainland China comes to St. Louis to make a movie about the cultural conflicts that occur when East meets West

But Zheng is more artist than pragmatist today. He's interested in discussing the film's theme, which might be best expressed as "family values" -- a subject that shows what both divides and bridges East and West.

Gua Sha, says Zheng, focuses on cultural differences and how those differences can create dramatic conflict. At the core of Gua Sha are distinct attitudes toward family. "For a Chinese person, the issue of family is very important," says Zheng, sounding unwittingly as if he's on the American campaign trail. "The feeling of love families feel for a child is extremely deep, but how they show their love is very different from American families.

"The hope, or expectations, they have for a child is very important. They will punish the child in order to show love, for the benefit of the child." He says the intense concern for children has escalated with the government's one-child policy. "Parents hover around the child like an old hen," he laughs. "When they come to this country, however, they don't know how families in the U.S. are. They're not familiar with U.S. traditions, so they commit mistakes."

Tony Leung and Xu Zhu between takes of a scene in Gua Sha.
Jennifer Silverberg
Tony Leung and Xu Zhu between takes of a scene in Gua Sha.
St. Louis' Dennis Zhu: The 5-year-old actor gets more attention on the set than the international film star.
Jennifer Silverberg
St. Louis' Dennis Zhu: The 5-year-old actor gets more attention on the set than the international film star.

These "mistakes," Zheng argues -- and hopes to present in his film -- are really cultural misinterpretations. For example, where Chinese immigrants might be seen as obsessive in one area of child-rearing -- education, for example -- they can be seen as neglectful in others, at least to Western eyes. "Even if you look at Chinese immigrants in the U.S., they will give children a lot of homework themselves. They will spend a lot of money for a child's education. Yet with all that emphasis on the child, they will not mind leaving a child at home alone. It is very normal to leave a child alone in China." Zheng explains that for all of China's social upheavals in the 20th century, the country still remains a place where neighbors and extended family members contribute to a child's rearing, where a community watches out for a child as one of its own.

In Gua Sha, what the Chinese family considers love, Americans see as abuse. "And that becomes a story about culture."

These are not the kinds of stories Chinese filmmakers could have made just 20 years ago, before a new openness became evident in Chinese society and in Chinese films such as those of Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, To Live). Says Zheng, "Twenty years ago, if they had made such films they would have been thrown into jail. They'd be afraid to even think about it." Creative ideas are being pursued that would have been unheard of before, when art was always about politics and served as a "propaganda machine" for the government. "There's a huge difference," he says. "For instance, I'm here now." But more important than foreign locations and the ability to work internationally, says Zheng, "We can talk more deeply about human nature."

Zheng perhaps speaks from as much political optimism as political reality. The Chinese government has suppressed and censored the great Zhang Yimou's work but, because of his immense international reputation, has chosen not to treat him with the severity it reserves for other Chinese dissidents. Even Zheng Xiaolong's own Beijing Natives in New York, according to some Western critics, can be seen as both dramatic soap opera and Communist polemic -- a harsh vision of the cruelties of American capitalism.

But there's no doubt that Zheng is driven by the inspiration of a new Chinese cinema, a cinema that is being changed by money as much as by politics. With China's new economic climate comes the increased demand for profit. With the government no longer the sole movie financier, stories are made with an eye toward the box office. Scripts are still submitted for approval to the Chinese Film Commission, which concerns itself with the sexual content as much as it does the political (as with Hollywood before the 1960s, Chinese filmmakers are bound by strict moral codes, which include the number of centimeters of neckline that may be exposed and how many seconds a kiss may last). But once the script has passed bureaucratic muster, "You look for financing yourself. You have to find money. You have to promise the money can be earned back. How commercial a film is has become very important."

But the investment capital is available. Zheng says many private companies -- advertising firms, trade and business corporations -- are investing in films, banks have special lending policies for the film industry and money is still available from the government. All the major American film studios now have offices in Beijing as well.

Zheng is even considering using test audiences for the first time -- a new concept for Chinese filmmakers. He believes a story such as Gua Sha, which focuses its drama on cultural conflicts, is the type of story that will appeal to international film audiences. "Way back when, China and the U.S. could completely ignore each other. It once took two months to reach the U.S. by boat; now it takes an 11-hour plane ride, or we can just talk on the phone. You cannot avoid the other culture. There are all those sneakers made in China, and the Chinese smoke American cigarettes." Zheng alludes to the recent World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, which, besides the riots, brought forth agreements for the exportation of American rice to China.

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