BEIJING – It's officially barred from China's theaters, but Chinese movie fans are still watching "Memoirs of a Geisha" on plentiful pirated DVDs that hit the streets weeks ago.
"I saw it ... on DVD about a month ago. It was a good copy," said Meng Juan, a 23-year-old Beijing woman who paid $2.50 for the disc at a local shop.
Beijing canceled the release of "Memoirs of a Geisha" over the weekend amid concerns the sight of Chinese actresses playing Japanese geishas would stir a backlash in a country where anger over Japan's wartime aggression still runs deep.
But the communist government's ability to control pop culture has withered as Internet use booms and pirates flood the market with copies of unauthorized movies, books and music.
"Memoirs," based on the best-selling novel by Arthur Golden, features "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" star Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li from "Raise the Red Lantern" and former Bond girl Michelle Yeoh as geishas — entertainers skilled in dance, song and conversation. It was to be released in China on Feb. 9.
China didn't provide an official reason for the ban. Chinese offices were mostly closed for the Chinese New Year holiday Thursday. Calls to the State Administration of Radio, Film and TV and the state-owned China Film Group, the movie's distributor in China, went unanswered.
"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.
Industry watchers say it is hard know how many Chinese won't see "Memoirs" because of the ban. But one thing is certain: Pirated copies of most films far outnumber legitimate versions in China.
"The market consensus is that 95 percent of them (DVDs on the market) are pirated and 5 percent are legitimate," said industry analyst Wang Ran.
For any Hollywood blockbuster, there are "at least tens of thousands" of pirated copies on the mainland, said Wang, the chief executive officer of China eCapital Corp., a Beijing media consulting firm.
The piracy rate could be even higher for films that are blocked from distribution by the mainland authorities, Wang said.
China has been under pressure from the United States and other trading partners to stamp out its rampant piracy of goods ranging from books and movies to drugs and designer clothes.
But fakes are sold openly in Chinese shops and along the sidewalks of busy streets in most cities. Foreign companies say they are losing billions of dollars in potential sales.
Film studios, in particular, complain that Chinese authorities are creating a market for pirated copies by blocking legitimate imports of many foreign pictures.
Alice Tong, a 23-year-old marketing executive, said 98 percent of the movies she watches are pirated DVD copies. She said the last film she saw in the theater was the Chinese film "A World Without Thieves" in 2004.
Did she plan to see "Memoirs"?
"Yes, I want to see it because there are three Chinese actresses in that movie. I really like Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li and I think the topic, the theme of the movie, is interesting," Tong said.
She thinks it's unlikely the film could lead to an anti-Japanese backlash.
"It's just a movie," Tong said. "The selling point of the movie is that it's a film by Steven Spielberg and everyone has been talking about it for so long."
"Memoirs" was produced by Spielberg and directed by Rob Marshall.
China-Japan relations have been unusually testy in the past year following disputes over Japanese textbooks that downplay Japan's World War II aggression, competing claims to undersea gas and oil reserves, and visits by Japanese politicians to a Tokyo war shrine.
A spokesman for Chinese nationalist groups that helped to mobilize three weekends of violent anti-Japanese protests in Beijing and other cities last spring welcomed the ban on the film.
"It is really inappropriate for Chinese actresses to play these roles because of our historical background," said Lu Yunfei.
"At the very least it's a symbolic move," Lu added. "There will be no official market for this movie and in the future, this will make filmmakers really consider carefully whether they want to do another movie like this."
Postings to Chinese Internet chatrooms have denounced Zhang as an embarrassment to China for playing a character widely seen as a Japanese sex worker.
But Meng said seeing the Chinese actresses in traditional Japanese kimonos didn't bother her.
"Actually, I don't like the Japanese because of the war. The Japanese cheated the Chinese so badly but this movie didn't mention a lot about the war," said Meng, who works for a company that arranges housing for foreign students.
"Watching it, I just felt sad about the Japanese girls, sad about their life. It didn't make me think about China and Japan at all."