Don’t be too explicit

New movie reignites debate about sex in Chinese cinema – or lack of it

Don’t be too explicit

Zhang: steamy role?

Shipwrecked Spanish galleons marooned in the jungle; women disappearing into the sky like angels and star-crossed lovers trailed by clouds of butterflies. One Hundred Years of Solitude, the magnificent 1970 novel that made the reputation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, famously mixes history with sex and fantasy.

Like Marquez’ story, White Deer Plain, a book written by Chen Zhongshi in 1993, is an epic novel of three generations of peasants struggling on the Shanxi plain. And like One Hundred Years of Solitude, the book is also packed with explicit sex scenes. But the book’s vivid description of the radical changes that takes place in the Chinese countryside over a half a century quickly won over readers as well as critics. The book went on to win the Mao Dun Literature Award, China’s highest award for literature, in 1997.

It’s taken the better part of 17 years, but White Deer Plain has finally been adapted for the big screen. Directed by Wang Quan’an – whose previous works include Apart, Together, which won the 2010 Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear for Best Screenplay – the film will star veteran actor Zhang Fengyi (Farewell My Concubine, Red Cliff) and newcomer Zhang Yuqi (CJ7), says Beijing News.

There is a reason why it took so long to turn the book into a film. Prominent filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige were both said to have struggled to get the project off the ground. A complicated storyline and too many characters were commonly cited as major factors (it took Wang six years to develop the script). But many say the explicit sex scenes in the book had also proved problematic.

China’s censors are notoriously prudish and culturally conservative. Horror, violence (unless of the kung-fu variety), and sex are ruled out. At present, China has no proper ratings system, so films deemed unsuitable for children may not be shown to adults either. Three years ago, Lee Ang’s espionage thriller Lust, Caution, which is set in the early 1940s during the Sino-Japanese war, was only allowed to show after the explicit sex scenes were heavily edited, which led to critics saying that the Chinese film was no lust, all caution.

Already, White Deer Plain is drawing controversy. Wang told the mainland press that the film will not include the sex scenes for which the original is known because “[it] is a film relevant to nationalist spirit, it’s not a Lust, Caution kind of film.”

Although it still remains to be seen whether Wang will completely edit out the sex in the film, critics are outraged that Wang, a famous independent filmmaker, has caved to the pressure of the censors. Many say the scenes should be kept because they are a pivotal part of the story, though they don’t need to be as graphic as Lust, Caution.

Though Wang says his film is nothing like Lust, Caution, it is difficult not to make the comparison. Wang originally had Tang Wei, the lead actress in Lust, Caution, in mind for Zhang Yuqi’s role, says newspaper City Sun. But the actress, who was banned from Chinese screens for two years after Beijing disapproved of her risqué performance in the movie (see WiC2) – and as a result lost lucrative cosmetics endorsements – turned down the role because she wasn’t too keen about showing more skin.

It is understandable, of course. After a two year hiatus, Tang has finally been rehabilitated. Nothing says redemption better than playing Mao Zedong’s first girlfriend in The Founding of a Party, a prequel to the state-produced blockbuster The Founding of a Republic. Critics say letting the actress play the love interest of Mao means that central government censors are ready to welcome her back into the domestic film fold. Tang appeared earlier this year in a Hong Kong-based romantic comedy Crossing Hennessy.

When asked if she is worried that her role in White Deer Plain might cause trouble with the censors, Zhang was unfazed: “Nothing is going to change my passion for art,” she told the media at the press conference for the film. Too much of that passion, however, may harm her career.

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