Strategic retreat?

A TV drama gets pulled – was it a commercial move or the censor at work?


Zhang Yuqi: hit the headlines for her role in the film version

The first Quentin Tarrantino film to be released in China – Django Unchained – was screened for just a a single day before disappearing. The movie, a pre-Civil War slavery drama starring Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio, was pulled abruptly for what the regulators called a “technical problem”. A month later it was rereleased in fewer cinemas as well as in a version that was three minutes shorter than the previous offering. Most of the missing scenes were violent ones, even though the film’s producers had already made “slight adjustments” for Chinese audiences by turning “the blood to a darker colour” and “lowering the height of the splatter of blood”, according to Zhang Miao, director of Sony Pictures’ Chinese division.

A major television drama called White Deer Plain disappeared just as dramatically last week, slipping off the primetime schedule after premiering its first episode on Jiangsu Satellite TV and Anhui Satellite TV.

No official explanation has been offered for its sudden departure.

Since its orginal publication in 1993, White Deer Plain has been classed as one of the great contemporary novels of Chinese literature. Written by Chen Zhongshi, the story follows the struggles of two rural families in an impoverished part of Shaanxi province between the end of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

In fact, the novel had already suffered from official scrutiny itself. Even though the book went on to win the Mao Dun Literature Prize in 1997, Chen was asked to make numerous alterations to make it more palatable to the censors. The plot was a racy one, with graphic depictions of sexual intercourse, and the tale also included rape, which didn’t sit well with the regulators.

Previously, art-house director Wang Quan’an tried to tackle the challenging material in adapting the novel into a 160-minute film, starring Zhang Yuqi and Zhang Fengyi. Production dragged on for years – all the while, Wang was rejigging the script to get the green light from the authorities – before landing on the big screen in 2011 (see WiC165).

The critics didn’t appreciate his labour of love, however, describing it as “exhausting” to watch and saying that it lacked focus.

Undeterred by the experience of his predecessor, director Liu Jin decided to try his luck at transforming the book into a TV series. Wanting more realism, he sent the cast and crew to the countryside to experience rural life for a month so that they could have a better understanding of the story and its characters, says People’s Daily. In fact, the whole process of making the series took nearly 15 years from start to finish and a hefty budget of Rmb230 million ($33.4 million).

“This is a very magical production, and everyone involved gives their all,” Liu proclaimed as it was launched, adding that the drama wasn’t just about rural life, but also highlighted a key period of modern Chinese history.

The audience response to the first instalment (and for the moment, the only one) was largely positive, making it more of a shock when the second episode failed to materialise.

“I have watched the first episode twice, and was very much looking forward to a new episode last night. I never expected that it wouldn’t air,” film director Du Ren lamented on his weibo account.

The reasons for the shutdown are yet to be revealed but the two TV stations that purchased the rights to broadcast the show are trying to sound hopeful that it will air again. All the same, the timeline sounds vague. “In order to pursue better broadcasting impact, the drama White Deer Plain will be broadcast someday. Thank you for your attention,” they explained.

Some industry insiders say that they aren’t surprised that the series was pulled. Filming had concluded back in early 2016 and even with post-production, it is unusual for a drama to take so long to be broadcast. Perhaps that was because the censors had demanded more edits.

Media regulators are rumoured to have been especially focused on White Deer Plain because TV dramas and films that involve sensitive historical periods – like the establishment of the People’s Republic – are subjected to higher scrutiny.

Other commentators thought that the political undertones of the series were the likely culprit. In the book, one of the characters devotes herself to the Communist Party only to be accused of being a Kuomintang spy. She is buried alive by her Communist comrades. And then there is the story of her father: an uptight, moralistic clan chief who tries to uphold Confucian values despite the changing of the times. His sons turn out to be the biggest villains in the story, suggesting the degradation of society as a whole.

An article about the show’s disappearance on the Global Times that hinted at political pressures behind the decision suddenly disappeared itself, stirring more speculation. Yet it seems strange that the series was yanked when the biggest hit of the moment – In the Name of the People (see WiC362) – has also been dealing with a touchy topic, namely corruption in government.

“On the one hand, the epic political drama In the Name of the People has continued to be a big hit, with audiences, suggesting that the censors have become increasingly open minded to allowing such sensitive topics to broadcast on air. On the other hand, White Deer Plain was suddenly cancelled without any explanation. So the reality is, when it comes to what is allowed to air, the censors have done little to relax the restrictions,” complained Yule Ziben Lun, an entertainment blog.

An alternative theory is that the show’s distributors took the decision to withdraw it for commercial reasons.

“I think this is not a bad idea [pulling the series off air]. After all, In the Name of the People is so popular that all the other series that have been airing around the same time are casualties. I am hopeful about White Deer Plain returning,” one netizen wrote. “Running away is cowardly but at least it is effective,” another agreed.

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