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The Beauty of Tolerance
Chinese audiences observe a new twist to a Disney movie
By Sudeshna Sarkar & Cao Qingqing | NO. 13 MARCH 30, 2017
A still image from Beauty and the Beast (2017) movie (IC)

Liu Zhitong and Yu Qingliang had no idea that watching a movie with their 10-year-old daughter could be akin to walking into a minefield.

The family had gone to see Disney's new fantasy film Beauty and the Beast, which had been released globally since March 17. The film was shrouded in controversy after director Bill Condon talked of an "exclusively gay moment" in the film, a "confused" relationship between two male characters and a "payoff" at the end.

Voices from fans

Yu, a 40-year-old working mom, was unaware that the film was not showing in Malaysia as the censors had wanted some scenes cut or that an Alabama theater owner had refused to screen it, saying, "If we cannot take our 11-year-old granddaughter and 8-year-old grandson to see a movie, we have no business watching it."

Plainly taken aback after being given a rundown on the anti-homosexuality backlash the film had triggered in parts of the world, even before it was released, Yu said they had come to watch it because of Emma Watson, who plays the role of the main character, Belle, in the latest Hollywood version of a story that originated centuries ago with different versions around the world.

"My daughter is a diehard Harry Potter fan and has watched all the Harry Potter movies," Yu said. "She is a big fan of Watson, who played Hermione Granger in the series. Also, she read the tale as a child and loved it."

Yu and her husband found nothing amiss in the musical. "We loved it," 50-year-old Liu said. "It's a good story," his wife added. "It teaches us about the power of love."

Joanne Cheng, an award-winning filmmaker who shuttles between Beijing and New York, called the "gay moment" a non-issue. "I agree with the Chinese censors for not making a big deal out of it," she said. "LeFou, Gaston's 'gay companion,' is a very minor character whose existence provides a humorous counterbalance to Gaston's aggressiveness and eventual ruthlessness. By the way, the gay issue is a human issue and should never be censored."

Gaston is the film's villain who, despite his dashing looks is the actual "beast" while LeFou, his sidekick, is one of the characters in the "gay controversy."

Cheng, known for her documentaries trilogy on China's bound-feet women, Golden Lotus: The Legacy of Bound Feet and Red Farewell, said her takeaway from the film is Belle's fiercely independent spirit, besides the time-honored theme that love transcends all.

"It's one woman's struggle against a whole village, a miniature society that ridicules knowledge and female power. Belle's evolution and her awakening to love and kindness should inspire every girl around the globe," Cheng said.

She felt attention should be given to more critical issues such as the positive role of women in society, in the family and in the workplace. "As a Hollywood tradition, the film has an ultra-happy ending. But all women must know this is a fantasy film. In reality, a prince is not and should never be a woman's solution," she cautioned.

Andrea McDermott, a British embroiderer and an avid cinema and theatergoer, also believes that the issue was overblown. "I was on the edge of my seat waiting for those exclusively gay moments and all I could see was one second when a magic piano spun masses of ribbon around a man and dressed him up like a woman and he seemed to like it," the 65-year-old said.

"At the end, there was another second when the same man waltzed with another man, but then it was a scene when everyone was dancing in joy to be rid of the curse. If I had blinked my eyes, I would have missed those moments. It seemed to me to be a deliberate ploy to drum up viewership. Nothing draws people more to theaters than a juicy, suggestive controversy."

McDermott said the fairy tale had a special place in China. "Few people remember it was probably China's first Broadway-esque production," she said. "When the People's Republic of China celebrated its 50th anniversary of founding in 1999, there was a stage production with an all-Chinese cast. There were two directors, one from China and one from Japan. The production showed a unifying spirit."

A co-production with Japan's Shiki Theater Co., which undertakes projects to promote cultural exchange with foreign companies, and which enjoyed more than 60 performances, was directed by Zhou Qixun and Isamu Furusawa.

LGBT rights

While the foreign media were surprised that Beauty and the Beast created no untoward splash in China, homosexuality has existed in Chinese history and literature for a long time. Chronicled references to same sex practices have been found as early as in the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.). In 1997, homosexuality was decriminalized and in 2001 the Chinese Psychiatric Association removed the term from the list of psychiatric disorders.

Besides having a social and cultural presence, the LGBT community is becoming a growing economic influence as well. As a new rising class of consumers, they are impacting market trends, tourism and related industries.

In Hong Kong, activists are bidding to hold the Gay Games, also called the Gay Olympics, in 2022. If they are successful, the event is expected to bring the local economy HK$1 billion ($128 million). Founded in San Francisco in 1982, the event is held every four years, like the Olympics.

"As Hong Kong strives to become the first Asian city [to host] the Gay Games, I am proud to say that Hong Kong society has been receptive of the LGBT community on many fronts, and the trend is encouraging," said Benita Chick, a member of the bidding team. "If the bid is successful, the Games will provide an important impetus for the equality movement in Hong Kong and the region."

Commenting on the "fair-mindedness" of Chinese censors in the treatment of Beauty and the Beast in the context of this trend, she said recent surveys by Hong Kong's Equal Opportunities Commission and the Chinese University of Hong Kong on public attitudes to the LGBT community have found that the society as a whole has been more receptive than in the past. "We can only foresee more embracing of diversity going forward," she added.

Reactions on Social Media

Weibo user Ling Rui: It's funny how some people are okay with a love affair between a human and a beast yet find homosexuality intolerable.

Li Xiaoshui Xiangrikui: The earlier Disney princesses were too weak and hardly had any skills. Snow White's job was to lie in bed and wait for a prince's kiss. Cinderella's job was to find one of her missing shoes. But Belle is an intellectual.

Dingshendeng: Belle invents the "washing machine," which frees her from tedious chores and allows her more time to read. Emma Watson suggested changing Belle's blue dress into a pair of trousers. She also refused to wear corsets. To avoid viewers criticizing "Stockholm syndrome" [where the captive begins to empathize with the captor], the film emphasizes the equal status of Beauty and the Beast. All these have strengthened the feminist color of the film.

Even before the film was shot, Watson said in a high-profile way that it would be a "feminist" movie, which struck a chord with a large number of female moviegoers. Today, women dominate consumption. It was a wonderful idea at this time to use feminism to lead female consumption.

Linghun: The prince in the beginning belonged to the same kind of people as Gaston, narcissistic, selfish and needing salvation. Yet while the enchantress found the ugly heart beneath the prince's handsome appearance and changed him into a beast, she turned a blind eye to the cold and selfish Gaston even though she lived in the same village.

Why would she salvage the prince instead of Gaston? Is it because the prince had love deeply buried in his heart that needed to be roused, while Gaston had no love at all and had to be given up?

Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan

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