There’s been much debate among Chinese netizens lately over whether or not 2012 is pro- or anti-China and the implications, and perhaps not-so-veiled messages, contained in the upcoming Red Dawn. The original Red Dawn, made in 1984, revolved around a group of American teenagers fighting for survival after their small town is invaded by Russian and Cuban armies. In the 2010 remake the invaders are Chinese. While 2012 is showing in theatres all across the mainland, it’s doubtful Red Dawn will be welcomed as warmly. Censorship of films is par for the course here in China. The political situation means that certain topics and attitudes aren’t deemed acceptable for general consumption, so the censors govern much of what we can and can’t access when it comes to the internet, literature, and movies. The Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television governs which films can and cannot be released.
However, we shouldn’t single China out for criticism, as films have been banned in the West from the early days of Hollywood right up to modern times; efforts have been made to halt the broadcasting of films thought to be morally questionable or offensive, especially in strictly religious countries. From the banning of Night Riders in 1908 to the stalling of The Profit in 2002 (a film criticising Scientology chief L. Ron Hubbard), film censorship has been part and parcel of the movie industry.
But the situation in China is particular interesting. It isn’t just to avoid moral opprobrium that movies are banned here. In fact, the release of many Hollywood movies is stalled for a different reason: to benefit the national film industry. Chinese movies are often overlooked in favour of whichever blockbuster action, thriller, or romantic comedy hits the cinemas from America. Blocking the release of Hollywood films makes sure that local film talent is honoured, and the Chinese movie industry flourishes.
The run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics was an interesting time for film in China. Horror movies were banned in February 2008, apparently for fear that visitors’ psychological well-being might be compromised if they happened to see a fright flick. In late 2007, the China Film Group implemented a three month ban on American movies. It wasn’t a question of censorship; it was an outright ban, and the true reason isn’t clear. It was either to get America back for selling weapons to Taiwan, or for their support of the Dalai Lama, or it was to clear the holiday season cinemas of everything but Chinese movies. Films which fell victim to the ban were Enchanted, Beowulf, and The Pursuit of Happyness. Once the ban was lifted, the quota returned to 20 foreign films per year, in the hope that Chinese films would attract at least half of the box office gross. However, a spokesman from the China Film Group denies all knowledge of such a quota. “There’s no such thing,” he told a movie reporter.
China’s film lords react badly to attack, too. When Sharon Stone put the Sichuan earthquake down to karma in May 2008, there was talk of a complete boycott of her movies in China.
But it isn’t just foreign films which are banned in China. Many home grown directors and writers have had their work outlawed. The group of filmmakers known as the Fifth Generation have made many of the films that have been banned in China over the past couple of decades. The first group of cinematographers to graduate from the Beijing Film Academy after the Cultural Revolution, the Class of 1982 included Zhang Yimou, Zhang Junzhao, and Chen Kaige, who were the first to push Chinese films outside onto the world screen. It was the subject matter chosen by the Fifth Generation that made their work so controversial and ripe for banning. Many depict the hardships of ordinary Chinese people during and after the Cultural Revolution and throughout the Mao era, including Hibiscus Town (Fu Rong Zhen) directed by Xie Jin in 1986, and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite (Lan Feng Zheng) from 1994.
Films are also banned because of risqué or questionable content. He Jianjun’s 1995 movie Postman (You Chai) was prohibited thanks to its morally bankrupt lead character, a postal worker who becomes obsessed with the people whose mail he reads. This eventually leads to incest with his sister, and much voyeurism along the way. Somewhat surprisingly, the movie’s ban was lifted in 2004. Less fortunate was 1997 film Xiao Wu directed by Jia Zhangke. It tells the story of a young pickpocket living in Jia’s home city of Fenyang in Shanxi Province, and seems pretty innocent, but the censors clearly objected to any glorification of crime.
Some Chinese film directors try to avoid censorship by promoting and releasing their films outside of China. However for Wen Jiang, this strategy backfired. The multi-talented writer, director and actor worked on Devils on the Doorstep (Guizi Lai Le) which was premiered at Cannes in 2000 and won the Grand Prix. Wen’s tale of North China under Japanese occupation during World War II charmed and impressed audiences in the West, but the State Administration back in his homeland weren’t so happy. They claimed that he hadn’t cleared the script with the authorities, and so banned Guizi Lai Le. The same thing happened to Wang Xiaoshuai with his Beijing Bicycle which won several awards at the Berlin Film Festival in 2001 but was banned by the State Administration for not having sought authorisation. Likewise, Yang Zhimou was banned from moviemaking for two years after failing to submit the script for To Live (Huo Zhe) in 1994. As with Wen’s and Wang’s films, Zhang’s went on to win many awards including the Cannes Grand Prix and a Bafta.
But the latest generation of Chinese movie makers refuse to be silenced. Nicknamed dGeneration (d for digital) or post-6th generation filmmakers, these new-wave cinematographers use hand-held cameras, cinema verité techniques and documentary styles. Like Wen Jiang, they submit their work to international film festivals regardless of the consequences, and seem to be reaping the benefits. Ying Liang’s first feature film, the 2005 Taking Father Home (Bei Yazi De Nan Hai) won five awards at contests including the Tokyo Filmex and the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Their work, and that of filmmakers associated with the New Documentary Movement, shows the dedication of Chinese filmmakers to continue to make movies, despite the pressures they may face at home or the critical, if not commercial, acclaim which may await them abroad. Whether they are welcomed back into the fold, like Zhang Yimou, or remain in some sort of exile, China is producing many talented filmmakers who are instrumental in expanding and deepening understanding, both in China and abroad, of the rich plurality of contemporary Chinese life and art.
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