Chinese Directors Unite in Demand for Censorship Reform

2012-04 BIZ China Illustration H IPAD

The dominance of western brands in China has long been a sore spot for the country's leaders. Chinese authorities have begun to take greater notice -- and umbrage.

Veteran filmmaker Xie Fei calls for Beijing to replace its "arbitrary system" with standardized ratings, as young directors rally to his support on Chinese social media.

HONG KONG – Chinese filmmakers from across generations and movie-making backgrounds have united in calling for an overhaul of Beijing’s much-maligned film censorship system, with most calling for the establishment of the internationally common system of classifying films in accordance to their suitability for audiences of different ages.

Prominent directors such as Zhang Yuan (Beijing Bastards, Crazy English), Wang Xiaoshuai (Beijing Bicycle, 11 Flowers), Gao Qunshu (The Message, Golden Horse award-winner Beijing Blues), He Ping (Warriors of Heaven and Earth, Wheat) and Zhang Yang (Shower, Getting Home) have spoken out on Sina Weibo (China's version of Twitter) in support of Xie Fei’s letter, addressed to the state-run Film Bureau and published on the director’s Weibo account on Saturday.

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In the letter, Xie questioned the Film Bureau, a branch under the official media regulator, State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), as being arbitrary in its decisions of banning projects or blocking releases.

Xie writes: “These years, when some films were [sent to the bureau] for filing and censorship, we would hear of requests which are not listed out in law, such as how ‘there shouldn’t be ghosts in modern stories’, ‘there should be no transit [through time]’, ‘extra-marital romance is not allowed’ or ‘certain political and historical incidents should not be written about’. This illustrates how the current censorship system is not practiced according to the rule of law, [but] the rule of man we have wanted to get rid of a long time ago.”

“Everyone should be equal in front of the law – and all forms of art should be equal as well,” Xie continued. “Imagine if the writer Mo Yan had to open a file and get permission before he is to write a novel, and then had to have his work read by 30 or 40 people from literary experts and people from departments representing workers, youngsters, women, the law enactment agencies, teachers and ethnic minorities – and for them to give opinions and make amendments to every paragraph and every word. Do you think he would have won the Nobel Prize he has today?”

STORY: Chinese Studio Boss Yu Dong Calls For Censorship Reform

The 70-year-old filmmaker –- who won a Silver Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1990 (with Black Snow) and then shared, with Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet, the event's top prize in 1993 (with The Women from the Lake of Scented Souls) –- revealed how the authorities have failed to provide any feedback for a film he’s now consulting on, four months after the producers submitted it for censorship. According to official regulations, censors should allow filmmakers to know of their decision within 20 working days, Xie said, and the delay represents “administrative inaction.”

Xie said the project – which he declined to name – might have run aground with officials because of its depictions of homosexuality as well as the appearance of Lin Biao, Mao Zedong’s heir-apparent until 1971, when he died in a plane crash in Mongolia in what the Chinese government now describes as an attempt to escape from the country after a failed coup.

The director has since followed up his email by posting an article to Weibo about international film classification systems and another about the history of banned mainland Chinese films in the 1990s. The Hollywood Reporter's calls to the SARFT for a comment went unanswered.

Zhang Yuan, who spent years on an official blacklist in the mid-1990s for producing unsanctioned films and screening them at film festivals abroad, retweeted Xie’s message and said in his own Weibo account today: “We hope this time all filmmakers can unite and fight for our future like warriors!”

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Meanwhile, He Ping wrote in response to Zhang’s message: “Master Xie is already in his 70s and he has made some noise for the future of Chinese cinema, and for the creative space of a younger generation of filmmakers. He has examined film creators’ concerns from a constitutional level. As juniors, we salute him.”

This surge of dissent among filmmakers follows similar comments demanding reforms of censorship laws from industry figures like Yu Dong, CEO of China’s biggest film distributor Bona Films, and Wang JianlinChina's second richest man and owner of Wanda Group, which this year acquired American theater chain AMC Entertainment.

The screening of an uncensored version of the the Wachowski siblings' anti-authoritarian thriller V for Vendetta on a movie channel on the country’s state-run television network last Friday stoked debates further about what the future holds for media regulation under the country’s newly-installed leader, Xi Jinping.