Action, cut, and cut again

By Yang Jinghao Source:Global Times Published: 2012-9-19 20:10:04

A scene from White Deer Plain. The movie was screened on September 15 after several delays. Insiders speculate that the delay was due to sexual scenes in the film. Photo: CFP
A scene from White Deer Plain. The movie was screened on September 15 after several delays. Insiders speculate that the delay was due to sexual scenes in the film. Photo: CFP

The protagonist of director Lou Ye's latest film murders a garbage collector. But when the film board told him that the death, which he envisioned as a brutal killing, had to be limited to two sharp blows, Lou was furious.

"It's ridiculous to keep only two hits, which would make the audience think that he is an experienced killer," said Lou. "This seemingly minor change can alter the meaning of the whole movie and lead to a completely negative portrayal."

Just 41 days prior to the domestic premiere of Mystery, his first production since a five-year ban issued by the nation's top film regulator following his 2006 film Summer Palace, Lou faces another censorship that he sees as unacceptable.

The 47-year-old Chinese film director told the Global Times that the film went through all censorship steps and was granted screening permit from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) before competing at the Festival de Cannes in May.

Besides the order to reduce the violence, a sex scene was shortened.

Lou said the sudden blow would impact the whole production of the movie and bring great losses.

On September 7, he announced on Sina Weibo that he would disclose all censorship information on the platform. This "bold resistance" soon drew extensive attention, pushing the stern system at the center of debate.

According to his Weibo updates, the attitude of SARFT kept changing, and didn't match what he was told by the Beijing film authority, which was in charge of preliminary censoring.

An anonymous employee with SARFT's film department told the Global Times on Monday that the shooting was approved as a domestic film before it was revealed to have been a French co-production.

Lou said that the application for a co-production was also signed off on by SARFT, blaming the top film regulator for going back on its own decision.

With negotiations in a deadlock, whether Mystery will be released remains a mystery. The censorship standards have been puzzling most directors. Even today, whether potential improvements can be expected is still considered with mixed feelings.

Sharp scissors

Undoubtedly, Lou is not the only Chinese director to have encountered such setbacks, but is one of only few choosing to "confront" the authority, though he stressed this was dialogue not confrontation. 

When the fate of Lou's film is still up in the air, the long-expected White Deer Plain, adapted from a classic novel of the same name, has triggered a tide of criticism over censorship.

Disappointed with the 156-minute art piece, an overwhelming majority of viewers pointed their fingers at the censors, who are accused of hamstringing a great opus that was supposed to be 220 minutes long.

In the original work, the story lasts until the eve of the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, while the movie stops just before the War of Resistance Against Japan (1937-45) begins. Director Wang Quan'an later revealed that about 20 minutes worth of scenes was cut from the ending.

Some even said the film reflected the tragic situation of Chinese films under censorship.

Cheng Qingsong, a director and screenwriter, said it is not uncommon to see films being censored in various ways before being screened. "Just think about the hundreds of films that have been banned for not meeting the censorship requirements," Cheng told the Global Times.

During the past decades, quite a few films that won prizes at major international film festivals were not allowed to be shown domestically, including To Live by Zhang Yimou and Farewell My Concubine by Chen Kaige. Though the film administration has always cited unauthorized participation in international festivals as the reason, many of the works were set in sensitive historical periods, such as the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

In 1998, when Jiang Wen submitted his Devils on the Doorstep, about Chinese villagers at the end of World War II, he was turned down for "exaggerating the passivity and lack of wisdom of the Chinese people while boosting the enemy's aggressiveness."

Detailed content revision requirements were also listed, including a sex scene deemed too long with "strong visual and sound effects" and being accused of causing "intense and uncomfortable sensory stimuli."

Directors must consciously self-censor sexual content for a precious permit. According to a film censorship regulation enacted in 1997, long scenes of kissing, fondling and bathing as well as scenes about homosexuality are all forbidden, among others.

The authorities also believe violence will increase violent tendencies in people. 

Li Yang, whose first film Blind Shaft won international recognition but was barred from China, had to compromise with the film administration before his second film, Blind Mountain, was aired in 2007.

In the original ending, the heroine, an abducted woman, tried to murder her husband with an axe, but when it was shown in China, the woman was rescued by the police.

"Though only different by one or two shots, the tragic hue of the movie was largely crippled," Li said. "Film is a manner of expression, and censorship is just like having half our lips sealed."

Zhou Xing, a professor at the School of Art and Communication at Beijing Normal University, who is a member of SARFT's censorship committee, told the Global Times that all the revisions are made to protect teenagers and maintain civility and ethics.

Creativity stifled

Therefore, every screen-aimed filmmaker has to be overcautious and often find themselves at a loss on how to cater to the censors.

According to a SARFT list published in 2007, the panel is composed of more than 30 members including publicity officials, film studies academic and industry professionals. 

Renowned director Feng Xiaogang said during a meeting of the nation's top political advisory body last August that to ensure resolute "safety," very basic criteria are used to make judgments, deriding many of these as laughable.

The aborted screening of the much-anticipated No Man Land directed by Ning Hao, known for his "Crazy" series of films such as Crazy Stone and Crazy Racer that were full of black humor, well illustrates the problem. Zhao Baohua, a playwright working as a member of the censorship board, pointed out that most figures in the movie are "negative" role models.

He claimed that as a guardian of the nation and citizens' safety, the police are depicted as stupid and incompetent, and that such artistic expression is "harmful to the image of China and its nationals."

Feng noted that under such circumstance, many directors would have to shun works reflecting social reality and swarm to historical themes. Lou echoed this opinion, saying that it is commonly known that "the further away from the reality it is, the safer a film will be," and that this is becoming a popular way to avoid strict censorship.

The Chinese film industry is facing an embarrassing situation. While the market is expanding rapidly, well-received domestic films rarely emerge.

"Domestic films have been floundering even without censorship. The system only worsens the situation by helping overseas films to kill Chinese ones," said Lou.

Imported films also face strict censorship, especially those with Chinese elements. But they are increasingly popular with Chinese filmgoers who often disregard domestic ones.

Lou said the censorship restricts the filmmakers' freedom of creation. Meanwhile, numerous bad productions also shift the responsibility to the system. "That's why we say it harms the progress of films."

Persistent struggle

Thankfully, directors such as Lou have never ceased fighting to improve the country's film environment. In 2003, Lou appealed for more transparency in the examination process.

During a proposal submitted to SARFT, Lou suggested that the censorship criteria and the identity of the board members be open to both filmmakers and the public, while the revision requirements be openly published. He took this as a significant step toward implementing the rating system adopted by countries like the US.

Grass-roots forces have also sporadically joined in the attempts to make a positive change. In November 2007, Dong Yanbin filed a lawsuit against a Beijing cinema and the SARFT after failing to watch the uncut version of Lust, Caution by Ang Lee.

However, the court rejected the case as Dong couldn't provide a complete version as proof. When the film was released in the Chinese mainland, over seven minutes of explicit sex scenes vital to the story were cut, and some viewers reportedly flew to Hong Kong to see the full version.

Wang Zhenyu, a Beijing-based lawyer who took on the case, told the Global Times that they intended to draw attention to citizens' rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

"People have the right to express their opinions via film or TV, but such rights have been constrained by a series of administrative ordinances without legal status," said Wang.

Actually, the film regulator has not been numb at the public outcry. As early as 1989, a circular referring to film ratings in order to protect minors was issued, which finally went in vain.

With more filmmakers repeatedly advanced the proposal on important occasion such as the national political consultative conference, the SARFT stated in a notice in 2004 that it would explore how to establish a rating system that fits China, but no moves have been seen.

Zhou acknowledged that censorship stifles creativity to some extent and also affects the audience. "But it's hard to say which one is more advantageous."

Under the rating system, productions would be freed of restrictions but some films would only be available to certain people in limited cinemas, said Zhou. He added that more time is needed for China to be ready for such a system considering the lack of self-discipline and effective supervision.

Li said the problem lies in whether the government is determined to carry forward such reforms. "Each industry can establish its own rules, just like traffic regulations."

Zhou noted that censorship has already been loosened compared with the past. "Authorities should encourage young filmmakers to produce more creative works in improved ways while the directors should also take a long, hard look at their declining creativity."

After most of his movies have been banned, Lou is anxious about another possible misfortune.

"I hope SARFT can respect the censorship decisions it has made and let Mystery be released as scheduled," his latest Weibo entry claimed.

No doubt, audiences will need to wait patiently before the Mystery is unlocked.

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