Chinese Censorship still a problem for filmmakers
Recently The Economist reported that Lu Chuan had once again garnered a spot of controversy…
Censorship for filmmakers in China continues to be something of a hot topic. In the 7 July issue of The Economist, they reported how Lu Chuan’s latest film, The Last Supper – starring Daniel Wu, Liu Ye and Chang Chen – due for release on 5 July has been pulled indefinitely after the censorship committee found too many parallels between it and recent events in the communist party.
Lu’s film, set in 206BC, retells a well-known tale of a feast at Hong Gate where a despot betrays his closest ally to gain power and establish a new dynasty. Against a backdrop of recent political upheaval where rising star Bo Xilai was purged from the Communist Party of Chongqing, censors decided on a more cautious approach – particularly with a once-in-a-decade leadership transition looming this autumn. They were concerned it could ‘affect social stability’ in China.
No stranger to controversy, Lu’s The City of Life And Death, about the 1937 Nanjing massacre, aroused public discourse. His portrayal of one Japanese soldier as sympathetic angered audiences and the film was pulled from screens two weeks later.
This must come as particularly disheartening for a filmmaker whose first film The Missing Gun hardly played safe in terms of plot, but still managed to find critical acclaim both in China and internationally. Particularly as when I spoke to Lu in 2006 off the back of the UK release of Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, he was optimistic that censorship was becoming more relaxed in China, if only because of ‘the economy’ as he put it, or more bluntly avarice.
More recently that definitely hasn’t been the case. Filmmakers may gripe about how they can compete with Hollywood, yet the official list of film topics banned includes undermining the constitution and the promotion of superstition, with many more unofficially banned. At the box office, foreign films take over 65%, with James Cameron’s Titanic 3D the highest-grossing film of 2012 so far.
In 2010, the Chinese authorities attempted to pull Cameron’s Avatar from 2D screens in order to play the decidedly awkward historical film Confucius, based on titular philosopher but with a heavy emphasis on war and military tactics. It bombed at the box office and soon Avatar was playing in most screens again.
It seems obvious that this creative stifling is not benefiting Chinese cinema. And while Lu Chuan remains hopeful his film may be released within China, he may have some wait.
These repercussions are felt keenly in Hong Kong; in a film market that has sharply declined since the handover of 1997, co-productions and filming on mainland China have opened up a whole new audience – but at what cost?
Despite special dispensations within Hong Kong territory, co-productions made in China have to adhere to their strict censorship rules; for instance there can be no ambiguous end for bad guys, they must be apprehended and/or punished. Leading to no end of alternative endings for Chinese versions of Hong Kong films – one of the most famous being Infernal Affairs. (I’ve always wondered what they did with Infernal Affairs 3 in China…)
In a recent discussion with one Hong Kong filmmaker, he told me he thought it hadn’t necessarily been a good thing for film in the last 15 years. It wasn’t just the move towards historical epics – though you begin to understand why so many play safe or even white wash history – it was more the genres and topics that were being lost. He lamented the genres all but gone, like ghost stories and gambling films. He was concerned by the local stories that were being lost, and praised filmmakers strongly proud in their home, like Derek Yee and Johnnie To.
The current climate of caution on Chinese authorities part, making it more difficult to obtain censor permits in mainland China, which may ultimately have a positive effect: it’s pushing Hong Kong filmmakers, such as Benny Chan, back to filming within Hong Kong where they don’t have to adhere to those rules. The filmmaker was pleased that there were 24 productions filming in Hong Kong earlier in the year, which is more than there’s been for a while…