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Citing Public Mood, Possible Anger, China Bars Release of ...Geisha... Film

By David Barboza
THE NEW YORK TIMES


SHANGHAI, CHINA

A week before “Memoirs of a Geisha” was scheduled to open at movie theaters here, the Chinese government canceled the showing of the Hollywood film, reportedly because of concerns that it could spark public anger and rekindle anti-Japanese sentiment.

Officials at Sony Pictures Entertainment said they were notified of the cancellation early this week. Film industry officials and the Chinese state media said last week that government officials were worried that the public could be outraged by seeing three of the Chinese-language world’s leading actresses portraying Japanese geishas.

The decision is a big setback for Sony Pictures, which planned to distribute the Columbia Pictures film here, as well as for the film’s Chinese stars, Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li, and Michelle Yeoh, a Malaysian-born actress also popular for her roles in China.

But anti-Japanese sentiment has run high over the last year after Japan’s prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where 14 Japanese war criminals are among the 2.5 million people enshrined.

Chinese newspapers and television programs are often filled with stories about Japan’s occupation of the country in the 1930s and ’40s. And many Chinese openly express anti-Japanese feelings, even in a country that embraces Japanese brands and welcomes Japan’s huge investments in Chinese factories.

According to film industry officials who were briefed on the Chinese government’s decision this week, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television canceled the film’s scheduled Feb. 9 release after reviewing the Chinese script of “Memoirs of a Geisha,” overturning an earlier decision to approve the film.

Jim Kennedy, a spokesman for Sony Pictures Entertainment in Los Angeles, said: “We were pleased by their acceptance of the film in November, and we’re disappointed by this decision.”

Chinese officials were not available for comment. Government offices are closed this week for the Lunar New Year holiday, and state film officials could not be reached.

Film industry officials who were briefed on the government’s decision said the Chinese officials expressed concern that the public might react negatively to a movie featuring China’s best-known actresses as geishas, whom many Chinese consider to be prostitutes.

Zhang, who was nominated for a Golden Globe as best actress for her role in “Memoirs of a Geisha,” previously starred in Ang Lee’s film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the highest grossing foreign film in U.S. history, and in Zhang Yimou’s action films “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.”

Despite the official ban, the film has been widely available on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai in pirated DVD format for as little as $1. And many Chinese Web sites are now offering free downloads of the movie with Chinese subtitles.