China is wrestling with how to reconcile its extreme censorship system with the need to create films the world will want to watch.
Xie Fei, a professor at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, recently sparked a debate on government control over the film industry when he called for replacing the country’s censorship procedures by a movie rating system with ratings similar to those used in the United States. Xie wrote in an open letter:
In the past few years, there were so many unwritten laws when censoring movies. Unwritten laws such as: ‘ghosts are not allowed in contemporary settings,’ ‘extramarital affairs are not allowed,’ ‘certain political incidents are not allowed,’ etc. The censorship system [in China] is not defined by law, but done according to individuals.
Such rules are killing artistic exploration.
Beijing-based filmmaker Dayyan Eng responded saying that with more foreign films entering the domestic market, local directors struggle to compete. He blames it partly on the censorship system.
It’s [Censorship] restricting what we can make. And I think that everyone has been finding out, especially this year, because the local films have been killed by Hollywood.
If Hollywood is allowed to make whatever they want, and actually most of them, the big budget ones anyway, are being shown in China, we are at a disadvantage because the system that’s in place to regulate or censor this things is not the same for Chinese films and for Hollywood films.
Eng’s latest film, Inseparable , was the first wholly local production to feature a Hollywood star, Kevin Spacey. Eng says the censorship system influenced the way he wrote his movie.
When I first started out doing the story and writing the script and even up to shooting and editing it, in a way I have to censor myself a little bit. For example, there would be certain scenes I want to do, but I would think ‘Maybe it is not going to pass the censorship if I do it this way, if I go too far’ so I tend to pull myself back little bit.
Although Chinese lawmakers recognize that domestic films are facing increasing pressure to compete with foreign films, they did not directly respond to Xie Fei’s suggestions that a US-style rating system was better than China’s censorship rules.
Similar proposals surfaced in 2007, after nude scenes in the Ang Lee film Lust Caution were cut before the film’s release in China. But censors put an end to the idea when a senior official from SARFT said that such a system would not be appropriate for China.
But now, with a growing number of actors, directors and producers sharing their views online, it has become easier for critical voices to contribute to the national discussion. Film producer Robert Cain has consulted Hollywood and Chinese studios on co-productions since 1987. He says that by not establishing a rating system, the Chinese government is patronizing its public:
There is no need to treat everyone in China like a child or an infant that can be hurt by certain topics in movies. Everyone knows that people have sex, everyone knows that crime takes place and it seems very hypocritical to me that the government wants to pretend, at least in films, that these things don’t happen in China.