By Ron Gluckman /Beijing
NO LIMOS DOUBLE-PARKED IN THE LOT. There were no paparazzi with flashes blazing by the front door. Still, a major buzz gripped Beijing in late May for a landmark cinematic debut: "Terminator 2." Landmark for many reasons, even if timely didn't quite apply.
Never mind that the rest of the world had seen the quirky science fiction film nearly a decade ago, or that most at the Beijing Youth Theater had already seen it too, on bootleg video discs not unlike those brazenly on sale for $3 in the lobby.
The showing qualified as a premier, since "Terminator 2" had never been officially screened in China. None of Arnold Schwarzenegger's films have. Not because of the violence, inane plots or questionable values. At least, not particularly. Like all western films, they fall victim to strict quotas allowing only a trickle of Hollywood's output into this politically sensitive realm.
So, even after helping save a fictional, post-apocalyptic world, earning box office receipts of $500 million in the process, the Terminator's Chinese debut, however tardy, could be considered a major event.
The Terminator himself traveled to Beijing for the May 18 opening, which kicked off China's odd Arnold Schwarzenegger Film Festival. Odd in so many ways that bemused observers had a hard time picking out which was most peculiar: The former Mr. Universe flexing his rock-hard pecs on stage in this skin-shy land? The selection of Mr. Schwarzenegger, not generally renowned for his acting, as the West's first star singled out for a film festival in China? Or opening with a decidedly violent flick thick in Americana themes, not to mention what is an even bigger No No to mainland censors --- on-screen nudity?
No wonder Arnie was beaming as he watched the curtain come up on the first of seven of his films, which will be screened in cinemas around the country or on national television, all for the first time during the week-long festival. Arnie's arrival in China followed in the footsteps of many others from Hollywood, who marvel at the untapped box office potential of China's billion people. Yet this star wasn't here in hopes of prying open the mainland market. In fact, all proceeds from the festival, and the point of Mr. Schwarzenegger's personal appearances, were to benefit the same cause. Arnie had but one item on his agenda. "I'm here for the children," he said.
The Terminator blasted through China on a whirlwind tour (after Beijing, he and his sizeable entourage visited the coastal city of Shanghai and southern China's Shenzhen) for Special Olympics, an international organization that hosts sports programs for people with mental retardation. Launched in 1985, China's branch of Special Olympics serves 50,000 youngsters who enjoy the same sporting events as participants in 160 other nations. However, the Chinese chapter has ambitious goals. Within four years, China hopes to expand programming to half a million children.
Even so, that would only meet a fraction of the need. Based on worldwide norms, China might be expected to have 20 million people with mental retardation. Despite massive outreach, especially in recent years, official estimates say China's special schools serve only an estimated 360,000 children and adults in need nationwide.
In this way, the screening of "Terminator 2," might not seem such an unlikely opening night choice. After all, the story is about a heroic strongman who travels back in time to protect a young boy who is in horrible danger.
"I've been all over the world," said Schwarzenegger, as he met officials at the state guesthouse earlier in the day. "I've visited so many countries on behalf of Special Olympics over the years and seen the most amazing conditions. In some places, it's like the Dark Ages. Some kids with mental retardation are locked into hospitals. Some who are crippled are actually chained to wheelchairs."
Whether Schwarzenegger had China's abysmal record of human rights and hospital care in his trigger sights or not was uncertain, but the point of his message was clear. "Mental retardation shouldn't be any different than a knee injury," said the muscle man. "It's just another obstacle to overcome."
Arnie knows lots about overcoming obstacles and reaching goals. Born to a poor family in Austria, Schwarzenegger, 52, was a repeated Mr. Universe from the age of 20. Despite a much-ridiculed accent and stereotypical series of roles as Hollywood beefcake, he successfully stretched from cartoonish parts like Conan the Barbarian and exploded out of the action genre to become one of Hollywood's most bankable leading men.
He showed his comic streak often in China, especially when responding to
questions from curious fans and Chinese reporters. When one asked about the
secret of his successful marriage to Maria Shriver, a television newscaster who
is the niece of former President John F. Kennedy --- Arnie is a staunch
Republican supporter and fundraiser, he smiled and did the diplomatic
thing, deferring to his wife. Maria responded: "This would take up an
entire press conference, but in three words. Exhilarating. Exhausting.
Maria was along on the tour with much of the other Kennedy clan. They arrived in China in all their fluffy-haired, charismatic glory. Mother, Eunice Shriver, who founded Special Olympics three decades ago, didn't make it, but she was joined by her father, Sargent Shriver, former ambassador, director of the Peace Corps, and vice presidential candidate, and brother Timothy Shriver, who serves as president of Special Olympics worldwide.
There were other stars on the bill at a lavish dinner at the Great Hall of the People, among them, Hong Kong pop idol Andy Lau, who postured shamelessly for Phoenix Television, which hosted the bash, and Deng Pufang, disabled son of Deng Xiaoping, and chairman of China's Disabled Persons' Federation. Other performers included some of the beneficiaries of this tour, the mentally-retarded children of China. They conducted the orchestra at the Great Hall and welcomed Arnie the next day to the Great Wall, where he ceremoniously lit a giant torch to kick off the massive Special Olympics campaign in China.
Perhaps most moving was the delivery of Tim Shriver, who drew breathtaking comparisons to uncles Bobby and John Kennedy. With a constant smile and familiar chopping hand gestures, he told thousands in the crowd at the Great Wall, that "the whole world is watching you." On behalf of the millions of mentally-retarded children in China, he implored the crowd: "Will you give them a chance? Will you give them a chance? Will you give them a chance?"
Later, he explained the strategy for China. "Basically, we have a simple goal: to change the attitudes in China, so that every person with a mental disability is treated with respect and kindness. It's the same goal we have everywhere in the world. And the challenges everywhere are the same: indifference and ignorance."
Perhaps, but many believe the challenges are greater in China, where the huge population and pressing poverty combine with a cultural dependence on ancestor worship and family filial obligations that are undercut by the one-child rule. For generations, children with defects have been abandoned or abused. Likewise girls, who cannot carry on the family name or obligations.
Still, Schwarzenegger insisted, with education and support from social organizations, such attitudes can be altered. As to the notion that people with mental retardation have no place in Chinese society, well, as his on-screen character so forcefully put it: "That's terminated."
Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, but who roams around Asia for a number of publications, such as the Wall Street Journal, which ran a much condensed version of his travels with Arnie around China in May 2000. All pictures by Ron Gluckman.
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