For a country that wants to project "soft power," China is wrestling with how to reconcile its censorship system with the need to create films the world will want to watch.
Xie Fei, a professor at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, recently sparked a debate on government control over the film industry when he called for abolishing the country’s censorship procedures in favor of a movie rating system similar to that used in the United States.
“In the past few years, there were so many unwritten laws when censoring movies,” Xie wrote in an open letter that was reposted tens of thousands of times online. “Unwritten laws such as: ‘ghosts are not allowed in contemporary settings,’ ‘extramarital affairs are not allowed,’ ‘certain political incidents are not allowed,’ etc. The censorship system [in China] is not defined by law, but done according to individuals.”
Such rules, Xie wrote, are “killing artistic exploration.”
According to Xie, several directors had been ostracized because of the subjects they chose for their early films. Among them, Zhang Yuan, whose 1993 independent film, Beijing Bastards, depicted the life of Beijing’s disaffected youth. Censors banned the movie, and Zhang was prohibited from making films in China for the next 7 years.
In a microblog, Zhang expressed gratitude. “Thank you old Xie," he wrote, "for letting out such a mighty voice. Xie represents our rallying cries.”
Beijing-based filmmaker Dayyan Eng, who reposted Xie Fei’s comments on his microblog account, says that with more foreign films entering the domestic market, local directors struggle to compete. He blames it partly on the censorship system.
“It's [Censorship] restricting what we can make. And I think that everyone has been finding out, especially this year, because the local films have been killed by Hollywood,” Eng says.
Although Chinese lawmakers recognize that domestic films are facing increasing pressure to compete with foreign films, they did not directly respond to Xie Fei's suggestions that a U.S.-style rating system was better than China's censorship rules.
The Chinese government protects its local film industry by imposing a quota of foreign movies allowed in China each year. The number was increased in February from 20 to 34.
In addition, movie theaters are financially rewarded for choosing to show local films. But, according to official statistics, the share of Chinese-made movies has dropped this year to 41.4 percent of total ticket sales.
“If Hollywood is allowed to make whatever they want, and actually most of them, the big budget ones anyway, are being shown in China, we are at a disadvantage because the system that’s in place to regulate or censor this things is not the same for Chinese films and for Hollywood films,” Eng says.
Eng's latest film, Inseparable, was the first wholly local production to feature a Hollywood star, Kevin Spacey. Eng says the censorship system influenced the way he wrote his movie.
“When I first started out doing the story and writing the script and even up to shooting and editing it, in a way I have to censor myself a little bit. For example, there would be certain scenes I want to do, but I would think ‘Maybe it is not going to pass the censorship if I do it this way, if I go too far' so I tend to pull myself back little bit,” he explains.
China's dragon seal
Prior to distribution in Chinese theaters, all screenplays in China must be approved by the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), a censorship body established after the Communist Party took power to ensure that cultural products were in accord with the ideological and political aims of the party.
SARFT does not publicly disclose the details of its decisions, but it gives a list of general, prohibited themes. They range from criticism of social order and the government to topics that “tempt people’s degeneration.”
Recent calls to abolish the "shencha," as the censorship process is called in Chinese, and substitute it with a rating system are not new.
Similar proposals surfaced in 2007, after nude scenes in the Ang Lee film Lust Caution were cut before the film's release in China.
As early as 2004, Chinese media reported that a rating system would "come out soon," but in 2010 they quoted a senior official from SARFT saying that such a system would not be "appropriate" for China.
But now, with a growing number of actors, directors and producers sharing their views online, it has become easier for critical voices to contribute to the national discussion. Last September, Director Lou Ye publicized his frustration over cuts SARFT requested for his latest film.
“We must not be afraid of movies! Movies are not so scary, and not so important,” Lou wrote on his microblog account. “If a country, a system feels frightened by movies, it definitely is not because the movie is strong, but it is because they [the country and the system] are weak.”
Film producer Robert Cain has consulted Hollywood and Chinese studios on co-productions since 1987. He says that by not establishing a rating system, the Chinese government is patronizing its public.
“There is no need to treat everyone in China like a child or an infant that can be hurt by certain topics in movies,” Cain says. He adds that censors could still retain political control over the content but make allowances on other themes.
“Everyone knows that people have sex, everyone knows that crime takes place and it seems very hypocritical to me that the government wants to pretend -- at least in films -- that these things don't happen in China.”