NEW YORK – The Chinese government has canceled the release of "Memoirs of a Geisha" — a decision made amid speculation that officials are worried the sight of Chinese actresses playing Japanese geishas would stir a backlash.
The film originally was cleared for distribution on Feb. 9, but the State Administration of Radio, Film and TV reversed itself over the weekend, a U.S. film industry official said Wednesday on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release that information.
The official reasons weren't immediately clear, and Chinese authorities couldn't be reached because offices were closed for a national holiday.
"We were pleased by their acceptance of the film in November and were disappointed by this decision," said Jim Kennedy, a spokesman for Sony Pictures Entertainment, which had planned to distribute the film in China.
"Memoirs," based on the best-selling novel by Arthur Golden, features "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" star Ziyi Zhang, former Bond girl Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li from "Raise the Red Lantern" as geishas — entertainers skilled in dance, song and conversation.
The casting choices had stoked traditional Sino-Japanese tensions even before its scheduled release, with postings on a Chinese Web site denouncing Zhang as an embarrassment to China.
Many Chinese are still upset about Japanese World War II-era military atrocities in China and the lack of what they feel is a proper apology for them. Historians generally estimate the Japanese army killed about 150,000 people during its 1937-38 occupation of China's Nanjing city, then known as Nanking. Chinese historians put the death toll at as high as 300,000.
Producers Douglas Wick ("Gladiator") and Lucy Fisher and director Rob Marshall ("Chicago") previously told The Associated Press the casting was an exhaustive, meticulous process that considered acting ability, star power and physical traits.
The film's cancellation won't have a much of a financial impact on Sony, the U.S. film industry official said. A typical Hollywood film released in China would make only about $500,000, he said, because of low ticket prices, attendance and piracy.
Illegal copies of the movie are already available in China, which has come under heavy criticism for rampant piracy. High-quality "Memoirs" DVDs surfaced in Shanghai weeks ago.