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HONG KONG — If there’s one lingering sore point between Hollywood and China, it’s Tibet.
For years, celebrity activists have annoyed Beijing by organizing charity concerts for Tibetan independence, shouting “Free Tibet” at awards ceremonies, and palling around with the Dalai Lama, whom the People’s Republic regards as a “jackal” and “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
In 1997, studios released not one but two films about Tibet, both of which were promptly denounced by Chinese officials, who also banned Brad Pitt and Martin Scorsese from the country as punishment.
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You would think, then, that the idea of a major studio collaborating with the Chinese government on a Tibet movie would not only be radioactive, but also absurd.
But such is the dependence of Hollywood on China now that the absurd has become real. Last month, DreamWorks Animation — makers of “Kung Fu Panda” — announced they were teaming up with the China Film Group, a state-owned company, to make “The Tibet Code.”
The movie will be an adaptation of a best-selling series of potboiler books that feature a set of adventurers and Tibetan Mastiffs traipsing around the Himalayan landscape in search of hidden Buddhist treasures.
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At the press conference, DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg batted away suggestions that the film could be tainted by politics, saying that the studios would “find a course to tell a great story and not step on political issues.” He stressed that it was simply a “blockbuster story” without any hidden motives.
The message from the Chinese side, which controls 55 percent of the deal, was a bit different. Han Sanping, chairman of the China Film Group, said that “The Tibet Code” would help broadcast Chinese culture, morals and values — a mission in line with Beijing’s goal of burnishing its global image.
While Hollywood has increasingly bent over backward for access to China’s growing box office, now the second largest in the world after the United States, the “Tibet Code” project marks a step into riskier territory.
Along with the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet is one of the most strictly controlled subjects in Chinese media. Coverage of the 100-plus Tibetan self-immolations is forbidden. The vision of Tibetan history presented in China is typically one of Han Chinese Communists liberating the region from brutality, feudalism and backwardness.
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“China has its own made-up story when it comes to Tibetan history,” says Michael Davis, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. “They claim that Tibet was a big happy part of China for hundreds of years, and most scholarship in the world outside of China disputes that.”
Much like in the West, Tibet has a growing attraction for many educated, urban Chinese. Even as tension between Han Chinese and Tibetans has increased, millions of tourists continue to flock to Tibet, with tourism growing 25 percent between 2011 and 2012. Young hippies called zang piao, or “Tibet drifters" flow to the region searching for spirituality.
A spate of recent movies and books portray Tibet as a land of exotic culture and mystical beauty — chief among them “The Tibet Code,” which sold more than 3 million copies, and spawned a series of imitators.
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Last November, Gao Yujie of the Tibet Daily criticized the fad for all-things-Tibet, saying:
“Looking over these books, you will find authors who understand Tibet to a limited degree, with most of their content based on rumor and conjecture."
While being advertised as a compendium of Tibetan culture and history, "The Tibet Code" avoids touching on the contemporary political reality in Tibet, where cities are under heavy surveillance and monks are arrested for subversion.
Tibet comes across not as a land of ethnic tension, but one of exotic culture and ancient wisdom.
“China has a tendency to try and present the story of its so-called ‘national minorities’ in a sort of classic colonial vision of these dancing natives and culture shows,” Davis said.
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"If [DreamWorks] gets this wrong, they’ll be able to show this movie in China and nowhere else. … At the same time that we have all these self-immolations, a ‘happy native’ story isn’t going to go over too well."
DreamWorks is hardly the only studio taking risks to gain access to the Chinese market. Already, American filmmakers have learned to comply with the fickle requirements of Chinese censors and film authorities.
Director Quentin Tarantino, who prides himself on being a provocateur, allowed censors to cut much of the sex and violence in “Django Unchained.” "Iron Man 3" changed the ethnicity of its villain, "The Mandarin," and added scenes for the Chinese version that showed a Beijing surgeon saving Tony Stark’s life. Even "World War Z," the newest film of Brad Pitt, deleted dialogue tracing the outbreak of a deadly virus to China.
While Tibet remains a passionate cause for many celebrities, their power over the studios may be waning.
As Professor Barry Sautman of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology notes:
“It’s not to say that there aren't people in Hollywood still committed to the Tibetan exiles’ cause, for example Richard Gere. But certain major studios have to take into account that they want to sell their movies in China. So they may not be so willing to immediately jump when they’re criticized. It's more divorced from political conceptions."
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