21 October 2002 | Thistlemark
A competent attempt at a sensitive subject
This film is rarely seen anywhere, which is a shame. It has a more balanced view of the subject than you would imagine, coming as it does from China, the main victim of the story it portrays. This latest showing, the first time I have seen it, was on Sunday 20th October 2002, on the nationwide Arte television channel, based in Hamburg, Germany. The theme of the evening was "Queen Victoria", and the Opium War was the unusual and bold first choice of a group of 3 programmes, the other two coming conventionally from Germany and Britain. One could never imagine the BBC or ITV daring to be so inventive, if they presented such a themed evening in Britain. I should declare an interest as a Brit, and one who lived in Hong Kong under the colonial govt for 12 years, leaving in the mid nineties, and having spent a considerable time working in China. This film doesn't just get a bad press, it gets NO press !
It deals with a subject, which has been THE major thorn in China's dealings with the West over the past 150 years, and the single most important factor in forming China's foreign policy strategy right up until the present day. The film is seemingly unobtainable in the west either on DVD or VHS. This particular viewing was all dubbed into German, so I cannot comment on the authenticity on the use of Cantonese dialect in the southern scenes and the use of Mandarin in the Beijing and Tianjin episodes. However, it is most unlikely that these would not be addressed, bearing in mind the fim maker. Similarly, as there are genuine British actors in the film, one would imagine their contribution to be reasonably authentic - certainly their body language was throughout.
Your first thoughts about this film would most likely immediately be to dismiss it as pure communist government propaganda, especially being released in 1997, the year of the handback of Hong Kong to China. But you would be very rash to make such a judgement. Many of the characters are drawn with sympathetic care, both on the Chinese and the foreign sides, and an authentic attempt to show the real causes of the war is made. Yes, there are stereotypes, but not as many as to cause you to lose your interest in the film's main theme.
This story needs to be told and for the British to acknowledge openly and without reservation what they did and the reasons why they did it. Interesting that they still really have not done so. Hong Kong to the average British person means designer clothes, Chinese takeaways and the opium war is still a large blank in the consciousness for most of the population.
The Germans have come to terms with what they did 60 years ago, it's time we learnt from their example and did the same with our own actions more than a century ago, enslaving an entire nation with government-sponsored illegal drug trafficking on a huge scale. If we tried that policy today, we would be the pariah of the UN !
See this film if you can - it is admittedly not a first-rank masterpiece, partially because of the stilted scenery, especially the foreign concession, which looks rather like part of Disney's Adventureland, and partially because of the lack of realism in certain parts of the battle scenes - the British army seems to have a suspiciously high proportion of oriental recruits! However, it is an opportunity to see an historical injustice from the side of the victims at last, and in a manner which any fair-minded person ought to acknowledge as remarkably unbiased in the circumstances.