Movies in manacles

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2012-12-18 20:20:10

Lust, Caution (2007) Photo:IC
Lust, Caution (2007) Photo:IC

"After days of thinking and revising, [I] wrote this 'open letter for the call of replacing movie censorship with a rating system,' … without continuing reform, there is no future for the movie industry in China…"

Along with these words, 70-year-old Beijing Film Academy professor Xie Fei published an open letter on his Sina Weibo on the night of December 15. In less than three hours, his appeal won many supporters, including famous directors like Wang Xiaoshuai, Zhang Yuan and He Ping.

It was not the first time the proposal of a rating system for movies on the Chinese mainland was raised. And the censorship system has long been criticized.

When movies like Lust, Caution (2007) and Mystery (2012) were screened, many people complained about the edited content. As the system exerts pressure on the film industry, Xie's open letter offers insiders a chance to vent.

Censorship outdated

In his open letter, Xie pointed out that the censorship system was established in the 1950s, and although over the decades it was amended and refined, it is no longer suitable for the current society. "Due to factors like imperfect related laws and the qualification differences among officials, the process of censorship often goes contrary to the articles in the Constitution," he wrote.

He added that the current censorship system has "already lost its real significance in [benefitting the healthy development of] society, the economy and culture. Instead it has become a set of rules that constrain the flourishing of the cultural and entertainment market, prevent the exploration of artistic ideas, and waste administrative resources."

Therefore, Xie suggested the management of movies should be handed down to society and the market. "Under the supervision of laws and [government] administration, let the creators, publishers and distributors make their own checks."

Debate round

Xie's supporters agree that a rating system can better protect juveniles from exposure to graphic violence and sexual content, while meeting the broader demands of the market. Additionally, it would provide an environment with more creative freedom for moviemakers.

Also there are supporters who further develop Xie's idea.

"Having a rating system does not replace censorship on movies, but ratings should be part of the censorship system," movie critic Yu Xin wrote a reply on Sina Weibo. "After censored movies get their approval for public screening, there should be a rating assigned to those movies."

Yet, there are opponents who think the bad quality of certain movies is not due to the lack of a rating system.

"What do Chinese audiences mostly need at the moment? How can Chinese movies keep a virtuous cycle? Are these underground movies that in the name of [having a different] ideology the so called art movies? Or [are they] works that have already matured? You can find the answer in theaters. [Look at] how popular Lost in Thailand is," a scriptwriter who wants to stay anonymous told the Global Times.

He further noted that "most opponents of movie censorship are those underground directors."

"[People] should not use the censorship system as an excuse for making terrible movies," he said.

Roadblock ahead

The authorities in China have thought about a rating system as well.

According to a report in China Business News, Zhang Hongsen, the then vice director of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT), said at a forum in 2004 that they had been working on a rating system for a long time and it might come out soon.

Yet, in 2010, Zhao Shi, the later vice director of SARFT, said in a reply to a foreign reporter that currently a rating system did not fit the Chinese market.

As the report on said, Zhao pointed out that after conducting research in China and abroad, they found that theoretically a rating system could meet the different demands from different age groups and classes. But in practice, the system has not been very successful. Even in some countries that have a very developed movie industry, there were instances in which adolescents were able to enter theaters where they were prohibited.

A foreigner who analyses China's film industry and declined to be identified said, "SARFT is unable to solve the access conundrum. The widespread sale of illegal DVDs in the mainland would completely nullify any benefit that a rating system might have in controlling adolescent access to adult content."

"SARFT is caught in a dilemma," Shi Chuan, vice chairman of Shanghai Film Association, told the Global Times in a phone interview. "On one hand they want to make reforms, but on the other hand they do not know where to go and are afraid of the negative results that may come along."

Shi said we have to admit that even if the censorship system still exists, the restrictions have become looser. Yet he believes the biggest negative influence of the censorship system is not how many movies are unable to be screened in public theaters, but "it makes directors set forbidden zones on themselves."

He explained that when directors are creating works, they will have shackles in their minds, thinking some things might be untouchable and therefore give up very good ideas.

Also, Shi said that to have a law that clearly explains the rating system is the very foundation. Otherwise, when a movie raises a dispute, there would be no legal basis to refer to. 

Even with support, reform is unlikely to happen soon. "The passage of a single law can take three to five years in China," Shi said, adding there will be little influence if those who promote the law are only movie insiders. To bring change requires the support of all sectors of society.

Posted in: Film

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