After making four historical dramas in a row, Chen Kaige’s latest film looks like being more unusual. The director, best known for Farewell, My Concubine and Forever Enthralled, announced last week that he is taking a break from historical films. Not only is his new film going to set in modern-day China, the plot will revolve around something much more contentious – the country’s growing obsession with the internet.
Searching tells the story of a girl who enrages netizens with an internet photo in which she neglects to give up her seat on the bus to a pensioner. They start to come after her, and she kills herself.
As a plot it is not wholly out-of-the-question, given the real-life intensity of ‘human-flesh search’ in China, a form of online vigilantism in which netizens dig up the details of those who incur their wrath.
The film stars two of China’s most promising actresses Gao Yuanyuan, who takes the lead role, and Chen Ran, who plays Gao’s friend. Yao Chen, China’s microblogging queen, plays the reporter that breaks the story.
Director Chen said he chose the topic because there are few movies that have focused on the development of China’s freewheeling internet culture, says Tencent Entertainment.
“Everyone knows that to film a story of 2,000 years ago is very easy, but to put our daily life into the silver screen is very difficult. I feel like I’m skating on thin ice,” says Chen.
As we reported in WiC120, ongoing censorship has forced filmmakers to avoid many contemporary themes, and often make movies about historic events to avoid controversy.
In choosing internet vigilantism, Chen has opted for a bolder path. His topic touches on many sensitive areas, like the limited room for expression in much of the state media or the weakness of China’s courts in curtailing the activities of corrupt officials (see WiC18).
But as the phenomenon has gained in popularity, human flesh searches have also become more prurient, expanding to marital affairs, sex scandals and other behaviour deemed to offend public sensibilities.
The campaigns can be sweeping and intense, usually aiming to get the target of the search fired from a job or shamed in the public eye.
In an early case in 2006, a Hangzhou woman appeared in online content mistreating a kitten. Her location was then gleaned from the images online. She was vilified and eventually lost her job.
But the most recent targets of the human flesh search are the 18 bystanders said to have ignored the plight of 2 year-old toddler Yueyue (see Talking Point).
Netizens have tracked down the identities of several of the 18 and posted their information – including home towns, occupations and contact details – online.
One of the group – a hardware merchant known only as Mr Chen – told the Southern Metropolis Daily that he has since been receiving death threats.
Others now raise the need for greater regulation of netizen behaviour of this type of manhunt, with some lawmakers calling for changes to legislation relating to the security of online information, says China News Service.
Perhaps that is one reason why Searching – slated for release in 2012 – may have a smoother ride in getting past the censors. The authorities in Beijing have grown warier this year of the power of the internet (particularly with the rapid rise of Sina Weibo). So they may well approve of a film with a message that the web is not always a source for good.
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