Rambo busts through China's `open door'

Rambo has hit China. And, as usual, it's mission accomplished. ``First Blood'' is hugely popular here. New feature films from the United States are relatively rare in China, and this one comes just three years after its release in the US. Except for two short-lived film festivals, only a few US movies -- usually dated classics -- have been shown in public theaters here, which is probably part of the explanation for Rambo's triumph.

Chinese filmgoers -- like those everywhere, it seems -- are attracted by the raw action. And there is another advantage. The simplistic plot presents viewers with a point of view Chinese officialdom finds agreeable:

Oppressive capitalist authorities (represented by US Army troops and officers, state police, and a sheriff wearing a US-flag shoulder patch), turn on a brave, although somewhat distraught, citizen who has faithfully served his country in the Vietnam war. The veteran soldier is driven to resist the arbitrary brutality of his own government and leads his pursuers through an action fantasy that both glorifies violence and affirms one man's right to rebel.

``Cruel, too cruel!'' exclaimed one woman, during early scenes of the film at a recent showing in Peking.

``I don't know much about the background, but artistically it was very good -- better than Chinese films,'' said one young father leaving the theater with his five-year-old daughter. (There are no film ratings in China. Everything, apparently, is considered family entertainment.)

It is mainly Westerners here who have objected to ``First Blood'' as brutal and fascist -- in short, not the sort of inspiring samples of Western culture that China should be letting in through its ``open door.''

In a recent article in the English-language China Daily under the headline ``Why does China import trashy films?'' long-time China resident David Crook wrote that many American ``foreign experts'' living in Peking were ``amazed and horrified'' when ``First Blood'' opened here last month. The British schoolteacher said he expected the Chinese would react in a similar fashion.

But most Chinese have simply enjoyed the entertainment. Violence is a relative newcomer to films made in this country. There have been formula war movies in which China's enemies are routinely killed, giving satisfaction but little excitement to the viewer. But violence for entertainment's sake was introduced with the martial-arts films in the early 1980s. The most violent and controversial of these was the popular film ``Shaolin Temple'' released in 1982.

The violence in ``First Blood,'' however, is not the old-fashioned, Errol Flynn variety in which countless enemies fall in hand-to-hand combat, the way they do in Hong Kong's and now in mainland China's martial-arts films. Doing combat with Rambo, on the other hand, requires some high tech. Rambo's enemies use helicopters, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and big guns, the likes of which most Chinese viewers have never seen.

Most Chinese press reviews praised ``First Blood'' for its ``good artistic quality'' and its portrayal of the courage of Vietnam veterans who were betrayed by their country.

Some Chinese who have seen the film said they understood little about Rambo's connection with the Vietnam war, though one young man recalled that Chinese soldiers also had difficulty adjusting to civilian life after China's own war with Vietnam in 1979.

There have been a few halting attempts by reviewers to squeeze out some serious analysis. One article in the Peking Evening News said the film reveals the ``American people's antiwar mood.'' Several reviewers suggested that Rambo reflected the US public's awareness that the Vietnam war was wrong, vindicating the Chinese view that justice was on Hanoi's side. (China was North Vietnam's principal ally during the war.)

``First Blood'' appears to violate several rules governing the import of foreign films. In a recent magazine interview, Hu Jian, general manager of China Film Import & Export Corporation, said that foreign films should be free of sex and violence and should depict ``no unhealthy scenes nor superstitions.'' The films also should be historically and scientifically truthful and do no harm to China's relations with other countries, he said.

But foreigners who have negotiated with the Chinese over film rights say price is the ultimate censor. The licensing fees for most box office hits in the West are financially beyond the reach of the China Film Import & Export Corporation. A spokesman for the company would not reveal either how much they paid for ``First Blood'' or why it was chosen.

Besides Rambo, the company has struck a deal for ``Tender Mercies,'' which played in urban theaters earlier this year. Many Chinese thought it was a sentimental tale similar to their own productions.

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