China’s depressed directors

New stage play invigorates debate about censorship

China’s depressed directors

Poking fun at the censors: Chen Daoming

Regular readers of WiC may remember director Feng Xiaogang’s earthquake action drama Aftershock, which pulled in nearly $100 million in receipts domestically. But most cinemagoers in the US will have never heard of the film, which took only $60,000 in American ticket sales. Similarly, Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly, which topped the domestic box office, hasn’t even managed to find a distributor abroad.

Why are Chinese movies struggling to be commercial hits in America?

For answers, say the nation’s film directors, look no further than Sorrow of the Comedy, which recently completed its 18-day run at Beijing People’s Art Theatre.

The play is about a comedy writer who needs the approval of the censor (played by one of China’s most respected actors, Chen Daoming) for his work.

The censor in question knows nothing about drama and has no interest in the comedy. But he fancies himself as an artistic type, and spends the next week tearing the script apart and pushing for his own changes.

The play is clearly designed to mock China’s current censorship system under SARFT, the industry regulator, says Raymond Zhou, a China Daily columnist. Zhou, seemingly surviving the censor’s scissors himself, goes on to blast the system as “so inane and so completely out of touch with reality that it is a miracle any good work survives relatively unscathed.”

Feng himself, who directed Chen in Aftershock, agreed. The director wrote on his weibo that the play had resonated with him strongly. Then he lashed out at SARFT for its “ridiculous” oversight, which Feng said was detrimental to creativity.

For instance, plots that involve the police have to get approvals from the Ministry of Public Security (three times, too: for the script, the rough cut and then the final cut).

If a story includes ethnic minorities, the same vetting process takes place, this time with another government agency.

And if part of your plot takes place in a foreign country, the Foreign Ministry has to give the green light, to make sure the film will not give offence to the country in question.

Even fantasy films and science fiction comes in for scrutiny, with censors claiming concern that audiences in some parts of the country (presumably real hillbilly types) may take make-believe at face value. These films will need a general edit too.

How would Hollywood ever cope with such a process?

In a revealing comparison, China Daily’s Zhou ran a quick analysis of the last 40 Best Picture winners at the Oscars. Had directors in China tried to film those same scripts only three would have been granted approval by Chinese censors to enter production, he thought (in case you’re wondering: Driving Miss Daisy, Dances with Wolves and Rocky would have got the thumbs up from SARFT).

Many directors are fed up.

“The reason why Chinese filmmakers don’t want to make any more films is very simple,” one told an industry blog in Hong Kong. “To shoot a film is like having a baby, and censors are like the doctor who tells you that your baby isn’t normal. They tell you first there is a problem with the leg; then they amputate the leg. But it isn’t over. Next they tell you that the hand isn’t right. They get that cut off. But the problem hasn’t gone away, because it’s the baby’s head that’s wrong. So they cut that off for you. By the time the doctor’s finished, you don’t even recognise your child.”

One result is the extensive output of formulaic history movies (see WiC50). Subjects and themes less likely to pass muster in a contemporary setting – graft, political infighting and public unrest – have a better chance of finding their way into historical drama.

Given all the restrictions, it’s not surprising that hardly any of the 526 Chinese films made last year interest foreign audiences. Western viewers also find Chinese period pieces “difficult to follow”, says the Los Angeles Times. And that means that the industry in China is in danger of “turning into another Bollywood: healthy on its own continent but limp abroad.”

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