French lessons

Audiences surprised as censor allows politically sensitive film to screen

French lessons

Revolutionary role: Anne Hathaway stars in Les Miserables

China’s annual quota for foreign films is 34, and of these 14 must use “enhanced-format technology” such as 3D or IMAX.

Hence, it is a battle among filmmakers to secure one of these coveted places.

Movies such as The Lady – the story of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi – don’t make the cut because of their political content. Other films have got approval, although often not in their original format. The recent adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas was cut by 40 minutes to remove nudity and sex scenes, while the James Bond film Skyfall was censored to remove scenes portraying the Chinese in a negative light (see WiC180).

All of which has left audiences wondering how the latest screen adaptation of the musical Les Miserables – which grossed $3.9 million in China in its first weekend, according to the Hollywood Reporter – made it past the censors almost uncut.

In fact, how Les Miserables got into Chinese cinemas at all has been puzzling many onlookers. After all, it is loaded with political content, including scenes in which citizens take ‘to the barricades’ to defy the government of the day.

Based on Victor Hugo’s novel of 1862, the film tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man sent to a labour camp for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. He then finds redemption by embracing Christianity (also a sensitive issue in China).

The musical reaches its climax during the abortive revolution of 1832, when the death of a popular political leader, high prices and flourishing social inequality spur a group of young radicals to lead an uprising against the restored monarchy.

The revolt even occurs on June 5, which is only a day after one of the most politically sensitive dates in China’s own political calendar. That June day saw student protestors cleared from Beijing’s streets in scenes not dissimilar to those portrayed in Les Miserables. The 1989 protests were triggered by the death of the former Communist Party General Secretary, Hu Yaobang, who was perceived to be a reformer.

References to the events of that summer are still tightly controlled in China but some Sina Weibo users managed to squeeze coded comments past the censors.

“I kept thinking what people on the square back then would feel if they saw this movie!” wrote one weibo user.

Another reflected: “One can easily make the connection with the ‘walking’ in [city] squares back in the old days.”

“Walking” became code for “protesting” in 2011 when a small group of activists tried to foment Arab Spring-style demonstrations by calling for people to go for a stroll in certain locations at fixed times.

Other weibo users saw similarities between the failure of the ideals of the French Revolution of 1789 and the situation in China today. “We are a nation born out of revolution but our leaders now occupy the emperor’s old palace,” wrote one.

Yet others felt that the censors knew exactly what they were doing in permitting a story about a failed uprising to hit the screens. “The reason they allowed this movie here is because the youngsters engaging in revolution were quickly killed and nobody joined them. This is exactly the message the government wants the Chinese people to hear,” suggested another contributor.

On Tuesday the government announced for the third year in a row that it intends to spend more on internal security than it does on external defence, a move that may illustrate concerns about the potential for domestic instability (the internal security budget was set at Rmb769.1 billion, or nearly $125 billion).

Given the reaction to Les Miserables among some of China’s cinema audience, the anxiety may not be misplaced.

“Do you hear the people sing?” asked another weibo user, quoting the revolutionary anthem from the film.

“People’s pursuit for an equal and free society will never cease,” she added.

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