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Banned in China

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

As China gradually opens itself to the world, particularly during and after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, certain aspects of the country's culture and governance have inevitably come under far greater international scrutiny. One such area that has caused no end of bemusement and consternation is the activities of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), the Chinese censors who have rapidly become notorious around the world for their strictness, and for their predilection for banning productions, which, to the casual observer at least, may seem wholly innocuous. This has manifested itself in a number of high-profile examples of Hollywood blockbusters falling foul of the censor's knives - for example, the Tom Cruise vehicle Mission: Impossible III being trimmed as a result of showing too many scenes of clothes being hung out to dry on balconies, the calculatedly pan-Asian production Memoirs of a Geisha being banned for possibly arousing anti-Japanese sentiment, and the rather harmless children's film Babe being banned on the grounds that pigs cannot talk in real life.

However, behind such headlines, and behind the ever-murky cloud of rumors is a far more interesting practice of domestic and other Asian productions being banned and censored. Of course, China is by no means the only country in the world to prohibit certain films made within its own borders, though again in this case the productions in question tend to attract a lot more interest, often being seized upon by the international media, or being trumpeted at festivals as causes. This is frequently compounded by the fact that, unlike in the West, Chinese censors are equally likely to turn their frowns towards works by long established and respected directors as they are towards productions from the low budget or independent end of the cinematic spectrum. This has inevitably had a considerable effect on the development of the country's film industry, and to an extent has played a role in shaping the kind of productions for which it has become known.

Why Ban Films?

This leads to the question as to why so many films seem to be banned in China. There are of course a multitude of reasons for this, ranging from the bizarre to the mundane. In terms of Hollywood and other foreign releases, the simple truth is that many are withheld, rather than actually banned - an important distinction, though one which is often overlooked. This is generally for bureaucratic and economic purposes, in an attempt to boost local production and to ensure that screens are not overwhelmed with overseas films. Particularly important for Hong Kong filmmakers in this respect is the fact that as of 2004, Hong Kong productions are considered local and therefore not subject to such processes. Although this give access to a new market, sources of revenue and funding, it does inevitably mean that a number of films have been denied release or have emerged in truncated form.

In terms of actual content, the Chinese censors are sensitive to the usual triggers that apply all over the world, such as sex and violence, though usually with a greater degree of strictness. Nudity, homosexuality, extramarital affairs, and indeed anything deemed to be morally or socially irresponsible, even if handled in a discreet manner, tend to land films in trouble, indicating a kind of ethical censorship. This has in particular resulted in productions dealing with gangs or triads being outlawed. Recently, there has been a movement against supernatural and fantastic themes, with filmmakers being encouraged to stick to subjects more grounded in reality. This was also the situation during the 1980s, with martial arts films and thrillers being discouraged, meaning that Mainland filmmakers largely missed out upon the boom of the Hong Kong New Wave. Even today, Mainland genre films are relatively rare. Unsurprisingly, one of the main causes for films being banned, and probably the cause which attracts the most attention, is political content. Certainly, any kind of social criticism, negative portrayal of the government or revisionism - either based on current or historical events - is usually enough to result in a film being refused release, and often also results in those involved being censured in some capacity, with directors frequently being banned along with their works.

Although it's just about perceivable that the Chinese censors have been lightening up somewhat in recent years, this kind of state intervention can be seen as a hangover from the Cultural Revolution, which effectively robbed the film industry of any kind of creative freedom until the late 1970s. The Revolution itself remains a virtually taboo subject, as many directors have discovered to their cost, such as Peng Ning whose Unrequited Love was banned in 1980, Xie Jing whose Hibiscus Town was banned in 1986, and Tian Zhuangzhuang whose 1992 Blue Kite was not only banned but deemed so offensive that it also earned him a 10-year ban from making films.

Other political factors have resulted in bans, for example in relation to the sources of funding for films, especially with regards to the tensions between Mainland China and Taiwan - a situation which has on several occasions led to confusion when it comes to international awards nominations. One thing which has become abundantly clear is that the censors are likely to react negatively towards any directors who choose to screen their works at overseas festivals prior to receiving official approval for their release. Oddly enough, this has resulted in a number of films being banned which should really have brought the country considerable pride and acclaim. A prime example of this is director Wang Xiaoshuai's 2001 Silver Bear-winning film Beijing Bicycle, banned due to the fact that he submitted it to the Berlin Festival prior to receiving permission to do so. At this point, Wang had already made a habit of bypassing authorities and censors, with his previous films like Frozen and The Days also banned at home and praised abroad.

Big Name Bans

As noted, possibly the only thing to be said in favor of the Chinese censors is their sense of equality in terms of banning the works of established and first-time directors alike. Certainly, although undoubtedly harsh, this does in a way make them at least seem more even-handed than in the West, where the ratings system quite blatantly favors the bigger film studios, with the works of major directors often slipping through unscathed despite controversy.

Indeed, many of the most high-profile Mainland Chinese directors have evoked the anger of the censors at one time or another in their career. A case in point is Fifth Generation director Zhang Yimou, one of the country's chief cinematic exporters, having won praise internationally for hits such as Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, and who recently presented China to the world by directing the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games. Despite this state-approved success, and the fact that his debut film Red Sorghum had won international awards, Zhang was once somewhat of a thorn in the censors' sides. This was seen in 1989, when his film Ju Dou, starring top Chinese actress Gong Li, was banned despite his having reset the drama from the 1940s of the original novella upon which it was based, to the pre-communist 1920s to deliberately avoid such accusations. Strangely enough, the film, which was Japanese-funded, was actually put forward as China's candidate for the Best Foreign Film Oscar that year, although Zhang was not allowed to attend the ceremony.

Following this, Zhang's 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern was initially banned, apparently due to the government being unhappy with it being partially Taiwanese-funded. Thankfully, the film was eventually released, and again went on to earn an Oscar nomination. After managing to avoid controversy with The Story of Qiu Ju, he ran into trouble again in 1994 when his To Live was banned for its satirical portrayal of various policies and campaigns of the Communist government. Finally, although it escaped an actual ban, his 1997 film Keep Cool was the subject of much grumbling from the censors, again for political reasons.

Another internationally acclaimed director whose works have seen him battle with the authorities is Zhang's colleague Chen Kaige. Right from the beginning of his career his films were subject to state criticism, with both Yellow Earth and The Big Parade being cut for release. Most famously, his best-known film, the 1993 Farewell My Concubine, was initially banned in his home country despite winning the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes, mainly for its tackling of homosexuality and its depiction of the country's tumultuous modern history. Following its hailing around the world as a masterpiece, the film was grudgingly released, albeit in cut form. The controversy continued with his next films, as the luscious production Temptress Moon, starring Gong Li and Leslie Cheung, was banned outright on the Mainland for its scenes of drug use and sex, and historical epic The Emperor and the Assassin was shorn of around 30 minutes for release. Perhaps unfortunately for Chen, neither his awful English-language debut Killing Me Softly nor his recent bloated would-be blockbuster The Promise were prevented from reaching screens.

Although Taiwanese, Ang Lee is an interesting case, being one of the few Asian directors to have successfully conquered Hollywood. Despite his 2005 film Brokeback Mountain being banned in Mainland China for its graphic take on homosexual cowboys, following its Oscar win he was described by Chinese authorities as being "the pride of Chinese people all over the world, and he is the glory of Chinese cinematic talent." His next film, the Eileen Chang adaptation Lust, Caution, generated a great deal of controversy for its sexual content, which resulted in its being heavily cut for Mainland release. More interestingly, the film's lead actress, Tang Wei, found herself the subject of an imposed Chinese media blackout after SARFT apparently issued a memo stating that all adverts and print involving her were to be withdrawn, including a high-profile commercial for Pond skin care products. Although no official reason for this was given, the blacklisting was apparently due to the sexual nature of her performance, and the fact that her role glorified the activities of traitors.

Young Rebels

The Sixth Generation has thrown up a number of directors who have consistently managed to land themselves in hot water. Sixth Generation pioneer Zhang Yuan's 1993 gritty youth subculture anthem Beijing Bastards, which was screened abroad without permission, was banned, as was, unsurprisingly, his East Palace, West Palace, China's first gay-themed film. The latter also cost Zhang his passport in 1997 when he tried to go to Cannes without approval.

Lou Ye caused a stir after his 2006 film Summer Palace was entered at the Cannes Festival without being approved by SARFT, inevitably resulting in a ban for both film and filmmaker. In fairness, Lou should have seen this coming given that the film deals with the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests, a subject which meant that the film was never likely be released domestically. This was actually Lou's second ban, with his 2000 outing Suzhou River earning him a two-year blacklisting for his having screened it internationally without approval.

Jia Zhangke, current darling of the international arthouse set thanks to the likes of Still Life, is another who has baited the censors at various times throughout his career. His 1997 directorial debut Xiao Wu, released overseas as The Pickpocket, may have proved a hit at numerous international festivals, grabbing prizes at Berlin, Vancouver and San Francisco, though it was banned back in China. Interestingly, this was essentially due to the fact that the director chose not to bother applying for state approval for his tale of an angst-ridden thief, instead releasing it independently overseas. He made two more films, Platform and Unknown Pleasures, under ban before finally getting government approval in 2004 for The World.

Jiang Wen is another director whose films have felt the wrath of the censors, with his 2000 outing Devils on the Doorstep having reportedly earned him a 5-year ban for being unpatriotic, supposedly sympathizing with the Japanese during World War II. Perhaps more importantly, the ban was a result of the actor/director having entered it at Cannes without permission, where it went on to win the coveted Grand Prix. The ban having passed, his latest film The Sun Also Rises was released without hitch, and went on to win a number of awards and nominations around the world.

Blind Shaft, from director Li Yang is a film which also managed to win itself both awards overseas and a ban at home. Although the film is a bleak tale of murderous coal miners which explicitly criticised the modern industrial development of China, highlighting corruption and greed, Li insists that he had no political agenda during its production - in fact, the book upon which it was based actually received the country's highest literary award. Despite this, and despite its winning the Silver Bear at Berlin, both the film and director were banned. Li's follow up, the 2007 Blind Mountain, continued his exploration of the same theme, this time tackling the depressing subject of the modern slave trade in China through the story of a woman forced into marriage.

A more recent example is Lost in Beijing, which was directed by Li Yu and which starred Tony Leung Ka Fai and Fan Bingbing in a dark tale of urban disaffection and greed. Strangely, although the film was initially released in cut form, shorn of much of its nudity and sex, it was later withdrawn completely, apparently due to its depiction of immorality in modern China.

Made in Hong Kong, Banned in China

Whereas in the past, especially during the Cultural Revolution and the following decades, Hong Kong productions were largely banned in Mainland China due to their apparently capitalist themes, the recent handover and opening up of the market have seen considerable growth in the popularity of joint productions and releases. A great many Hong Kong films, although not officially banned, are still simply not considered for Mainland release due to their themes, particularly with regards to gang-related thrillers or supernatural dramas. Inevitably, a few big films have been banned, such as Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer (supposedly for not awaiting certification and being potentially religiously offensive) and Johnnie To's triad hit Election (although interestingly enough its sequel was released uncut directly to DVD). A number of blockbuster releases which have made it to Mainland screens have done so in different versions to those shown in Hong Kong, for example Infernal Affairs, which came complete with an altered conclusion that hammered home the message that crime does not pay (and which effectively rendered the sequels pointless). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Hollywood remake, The Departed, was banned outright, despite its Oscar success, due to its mentioning the possibility of a Chinese nuclear strike against Taiwan.

As with the Mainland, the censors have often refused to turn a blind eye to productions simply due to the presence of top stars. Martial arts legend Jet Li has seen a number of his films banned on the Mainland, including The Bodyguard From Beijing and his Western-produced outings Romeo Must Die, Kiss of the Dragon and Cradle 2 the Grave. Not even Hong Kong megastar Jackie Chan has been immune, with his recent sequel smash Rush Hour 3 being banned for its depiction of Chinese triad gangs in Paris.

The Effects of Censorship

Unavoidably, all of this censorship has had a variety of effects on the Chinese film industry. In terms of content and political themes, the fact that directors are effectively barred from criticising or even commenting upon the government or historical events has inevitably meant that many officially approved films have a certain air of nationalism. Although this is not to say that there is a predominance of propaganda, films from Mainland China do tend to lack the cynicism seen in those from other countries, where the medium is an acceptable arena for free speech and discussion. Similarly, with sex and morally questionable behavior generally being prevented from reaching the screen, many SARFT-approved Chinese films at times can come across as being rather tame, again at least in comparison to those from other parts of the world.

Despite these restrictions, there is no doubt that Chinese directors are continuing to flourish. Although this is in part due to the fact that talented individuals will always find ways to work around and within such rules, it is also due to the fact that even if they receive bans at home, directors and films are still likely to be received with open arms overseas, particularly in Europe. This is not to say that any such filmmakers have abandoned their Chinese heritage - indeed, many exiles have returned home to continue their careers after their bans have ended. Similarly, there have been very few films which have shown the kind of anger or reactionary response that this kind of censorship might well have inspired. As such it is clear that the situation, and the relationship between directors and the censors, and indeed between directors and the country in general, is complex, and not simply an issue of artistic and political repression.

Besides this, it is certainly worth noting that for all the efforts of the Chinese censors to ban and cut films of their offensive or incendiary content, for the viewers themselves this frequently amounts to very little in the face of the massively widespread pirate DVD market, which effectively means that any film from anywhere in the world is usually available for sale on street corners.

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