Lights, Camera, Cut: Censorship in Chinese Cinema
For years, Beijing has defied calls to stop censoring films and adopt a ratings system. Tom Fearon reports on the fine line Chinese directors and screenwriters tread to balance artistic integrity and profitability.
For more than 60 years, China’s Communist rulers have used cinema as a medium to carry their message, seeing its role as a commercial enterprise as less important. And for many years, one of the government’s most effective means of controlling what is left on the cutting room floor has been its refusal to introduce a film ratings system.
As the world’s fastest-growing movie market and the largest film industry outside the United States, China’s growth in this area has been nothing short of blockbuster proportion. In 2013, box office spending hit more than US$3 billion, up 35 per cent year on year. Over the past decade, the number of cinemas in the country has grown tenfold, reaching more than 13,000. Open-air theatres that once screened grainy revolutionary films have been replaced by modern multiplexes, where urbanites don’t balk at paying 180 yuan (US$30) for the latest 3D blockbuster, even if it’s missing a few scenes or a few new ones, shot in China, have been added.
In early 1998, James Cameron’s blockbuster Titanic flickered to a small yet powerful audience in the projection room of the China Film Group’s Beijing headquarters. Seated in the middle was the country’s then president Jiang Zemin who, at the urging of his propaganda chief, had been tasked with deciding if the movie in its uncensored form could sail into Chinese theatres.
The movie’s climax that night wasn’t when Leonardo DiCaprio slipped to his watery grave or even when the ship plunged into an iceberg; it unfolded as Kate Winslet posed naked for her portrait.
Jimmy Wu, then general manager of Paramount-Universal joint venture United Cinemas International, fought to keep the scene despite orders from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), China’s main censorship body to axe it.
“I explained how the portrait was critical to the story, and how if the scene was cut the audience wouldn’t understand where it had come from,” recalled Wu, today the chairman of cinema investment company Lumière Pavilions.
Frustrated and wary of blowback from Hollywood, Wu called the state council’s propaganda chief, a bridge partner and close associate of his uncle, who after some wrangling arranged a private screening for Jiang to decide if the film in its original form was shipshape. The president gave it his nod, but the nude scene was cut 15 years later when the movie made its return voyage to Chinese cinemas in 3D.
Among consumers fuelling the trend towards increased censorship are parents concerned about films that aren’t always suitable for audiences of all ages, despite being endorsed as such by the government.
When Zhang Yimou’s epic The Flowers of War was released in 2011, much of its violence and scenes of sexual assault were kept in to highlight atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers during the Nanjing Massacre in World War II; one scene, in which a bound woman is raped and stabbed by a soldier, was a common cue for parents to escort crying children from cinemas.
Wu, who has lobbied for a film ratings system in China since 1995, said classifying movies should be “mandatory for society and the film industry”.
“As a cinema operator, I constantly get complaints from angry audiences about why kids are allowed to see certain movies. We get a lot of complaints from parents for not telling them in advance if a movie isn’t suitable for kids, some who even ask for refunds. But we can’t stop parents from taking their children to see certain movies,” said Wu.
Momentum to bring in a film ratings system grew in 2004, when the government sought public consultation to draft the country’s first film law. Despite generating fanfare from state media, the bill that would have paved the way for a ratings system was rejected by lawmakers the following year.
Cinema lobbyists who are also members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a political advisory body that convenes each year, have abandoned their calls for a ratings system at the behest of leaders, said Wu.
“Officials knock on every [cinema representatives’] door and say: ‘Do not submit any proposal for a ratings system.’ I know some of the members are prepared, like [directors] Zhang Yimou and Feng Xiaogang, to submit this proposal, but officials tell them not to,” he added.
As the sole licensed importer of revenue-sharing films, the state-owned China Film Group has bottleneck control over which international films make it into the country. Each year, 35 foreign movies are allowed to be imported and return up to 25 per cent of gross ticket sales to copyright holders.
However, Hollywood’s quest to cash in on the Chinese market has meant conceding to “suggested edits” proposed by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), China’s cross-media watchdog created when SARFT and the General Administration of Press and Publication merged in April 2013.
When Cloud Atlas hit Chinese cinemas in January 2011, the sci-fi epic was cut by 40 minutes. Skyfall, released by the China Film Group the same month as part of its tactic to limit foreign films’ box office takings, suffered a similar fate, with scenes that featured a Chinese character being killed by a French hit man scrubbed.
Jonathan Landreth, a veteran media and entertainment journalist who opened the Hollywood Reporter’s Beijing bureau, said bowing to censors is necessary for overseas filmmakers to clinch a coveted spot at Chinese cinemas.
“There’s no sign that the studios really care [about movies being censored]. Frankly, directors seem to be caving as well. No director has stood up and said, ‘Forget it. We’re going to turn our backs on this for artistic integrity,’” he said.
“The result of having no ratings system is that it is at the whim of the censors to decide what goes into the theatres. Censors can hide behind the lack of a ratings system to block any film.”
Despite having influential friends in the government and the clout of being from a showbiz family, Wu has still been left frustrated by officials, which he describes as the “least liked among all watchdogs”.
“The current government wants to have more control. Over the past decade, China has politically gone backwards. Censors should be educated. The door to the country is open and cannot be closed,” said Wu, the nephew of 1930s silent film actress Hu Die, better known in China as “Madame Butterfly”.
During the film development stage of Wu’s 2006 domestic thriller Curiosity Kills the Cat, he received a phone call from the head of the Beijing Film Development Lab, who said reels containing sex scenes would be burned.
“I went to the lab to talk to the general manager, who told me that they must destroy the scenes; otherwise, the film bureau would punish them,” Wu recalled.
Wu explained the standoff over the phone to the film bureau’s deputy chief, who ordered the lab’s general manager to stand down. In another brush with controversy, promotion of the movie was pulled at the last minute on China Central Television’s movie channel, CCTV-6, in what Wu alleges was a ploy from the producers of Curse of the Golden Flower, a big budget drama that edged out Wu’s film as China’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2006 Academy Awards.
After a round of heated late-night phone calls between Wu and the film bureau, CCTV-6 relented and aired the promotion.
“A lot of young directors have no such power or guts to do this kind of thing,” Wu laughed. “The biggest problem is the lack of transparency. You can see how many movies have been ruined because of this process. Graduates at film academies are like caged birds. For this generation [of filmmakers], I don’t think they can make great movies.”
Officials from SAPPRFT did not reply to Index’s interview requests.
In China’s soft-power offensive, cinema has been one of cultural pillars, even if cracking the overseas market has meant relying on martial arts-dominated epics, such as Hero (2002) and House of the Flying Daggers (2004), along with Sino-US collaborations of more recent years, which include The Karate Kid (2010) and Man of Tai Chi (2013).
In an effort to speed up its quest for cinema’s holy grail, an Academy Award, the government took the rare move in July 2013 of loosening some controls on filmmakers by no longer requiring screenplays to be approved before filming begins.
Robert Cain, a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987, said having screenplays reviewed by censors is a “scary prospect” for Hollywood, which has led some filmmakers to think twice about what goes into their screenplays.
“As movie production companies become more aware of China, there has been a degree of self-censorship,” said Cain, a production executive on the 2008 Academy Award-nominated film Mongol, which was partially shot in China.
“As long as there’s a single party concerned about controlling messages received in the media, it’s hard to see the government ceding that control to others. What weighs on the side of having less censorship is that China has had a really hard time distributing its films, TV programmes and, ultimately, its culture abroad.”
Even though few Chinese directors and screenwriters have the celebrity of their American rivals, Landreth said this doesn’t reflect a lack of skilled home-grown filmmakers.
“There are plenty of talented writers in China. However, many of them have grown up in a system where they are always looking over their shoulder. They know that if they write without fear or favour they might not get distributed, hence they can’t make a living out of it. It is about self-censorship.”
A common argument not to adopt a film ratings system is that it presents a slippery slope; censors often quash calls to classify films by claiming it would result in a surge of gratuitous pornography and violence.
“It seems somebody higher up, way above the censorship board or the film regulating agency, has determined that the adoption of a ratings system is tantamount to permitting all immoral things to be depicted on screen and, ultimately, the degradation of Chinese society,” said Raymond Zhou, well-known film critic and the author of A Practical Guide to Chinese Cinema 2002-2012. “This mentality is similar to the era before China opened the stock market, when some people deemed it as the surest sign of capitalism and hence the fall of socialism.”
Zhou, also a columnist at the state-run China Daily, describes censorship as one of “three forces”, along with piracy and domestic filmmakers’ lack of familiarity with genre conventions, that threaten to stifle the creativity of Chinese directors and screenwriters.
But he also points out the benefits of the current system, saying it encourages domestic filmmakers to push the boundaries of censorship.
“It forces a filmmaker to think of ingenious ways for expression, which is sometimes more artistically interesting than a direct statement. For example, no homosexual content is allowed under the current system, yet there are many movies with obvious gay characters or heavily gay content,” he said. Wayne Wang’s 2011 historical drama Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a case in point, Zhou said, highlighting a relationship between two female characters that draws on “lesbian customs popular in some parts of China in the old days”.
“You may say it is a form of hypocrisy, but hinting at something is a more sophisticated form of artistic expression and also conforms to Chinese tradition and aesthetics. Of course, if you want to be China’s Quentin Tarantino, you’ll be doomed.”
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