29 March 2012

Yellow Earth

Hearing former Melbourne Film Festival Director, Ronin Film co-founder and all-round movie buff Geoff Gardner speaking on ABC Radio National’s Movie Time this afternoon reminded me of the debt owed to Geoff by cinema-goers everywhere for his role in stimulating the distribution of fifth generation Chinese films in the West.

In 1984 I was Deputy Secretary of the Department of Trade and in that capacity accompanied Prime Minister Bob Hawke on his February 1984 visit to China.  Australia’s exports to China were fairly limited in those days, the principal products being wheat, wool and iron ore.  China was still emerging from the Cultural Revolution and only in the early stages of the policy of “opening to the outside world” which began in 1979.

A number of opportunities began to open up as a result of Hawke’s visit and I found myself a regular visitor to China following up on an increasingly diverse portfolio of opportunities.

After the 1984 Federal Election we had a change of Minister. Lionel Bowen moved on to become Attorney-General, and John Dawkins became Minister for Trade.

Early in 1985 I went to see Dawkins about the China trade agenda. I had a cordial but pretty forthright conversation with him. I said that a lot of things were happening in the trade and economic relationship with China, most of them were his responsibility but a lot of people in other parts of government were climbing onto the bandwagon and he needed to assert himself or things would become very untidy.  I said that it would be a good idea for him to designate someone in his office to be responsible within the office for all matters relating to China so that we would have a single point of contact with whom we could liaise and whom we would keep up to date.

I went on to say that I would be making another visit to China shortly and as I would be going around the various Ministries and central agencies that were important to our objectives in China, if his designated adviser were to accompany me it would be a good opportunity for him to gain a first-hand view of what was going on.

Dawkins thought for a while and nominated Geoff Gardner, who had just joined his staff as an adviser.

A couple of days later Geoff rang me to say that he was aware of an interesting sounding Chinese film which had been completed a few months before but had never been cleared for release, apparently because there was some political ambiguity in the film that made it a bit problematic for release to domestic audiences. It was in a sort of limbo land – it had neither been released nor refused permission. Basically, the Culture Ministry was wondering what the hell to do with it.  Geoff wondered whether it would be possible for us to arrange to have a look at it while we were in Beijing.

I replied that if there were anyone who could organise that it would be our Senior Trade Commissioner in Beijing, Dr Jocelyn Chey, who had had a previous posting in the Australian Embassy Beijing as Cultural Counsellor and who knew everyone who was anyone in the Chinese cultural scene. I got in touch with Jocelyn, and by the time we arrived in Beijing the viewing was all set up.

That film was Yellow Earth (see here), Chen Kaige’s directorial debut, with marvellous cinematography by Zhang Yimou.

I was unable to make it to the screening unfortunately but Geoff and Jocelyn did, and they told their Chinese hosts that they thought it would do well in Australia.  This must have been an attractive proposition for the Ministry of Culture because it would enable the film to be released without engaging the political problems with domestic release, and it was an opportunity for the Ministry to earn hard currency.  In those days, despite growing international reserves, China still thought of itself as a country desperately short of hard currency and individual ministries were always chronically short of it.

Arrangements for the film’s distribution were made fairly quickly (presumably with the assistance of the redoubtable Andrew Pike of Ronin Film, who was running Canberra’s Centre Cinema in those days) and the world premiere of Yellow Earth was held in the good old Centre Cinema, with Chen Kaige in attendance.  I had the great pleasure of seeing it at last on that occasion.  So don’t believe what you read on IMDb suggesting it got its first airing on 10 September 1985 at the Toronto Film Festival – Canberra was the place, I would guess in about June or July 1985.

The film was a great success, and went on to greater things, and as a result of that success we were treated to that succession of electric shadows from China directed by Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) and his colleague Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad, The Road Home and The House of the Flying Daggers).

I am not suggesting that those films would never have seen the light of day without Geoff’s intervention, but that is how the story began, and I for one am deeply grateful.

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