Chinese Directors Express Doubt Over Censorship Reforms

Director Jia Zhangke has often tested the boundaries of China's film censorship system.

Filmmakers such as Cannes' best screenplay-winner Jia Zhangke have been quick to question the ambiguities of the Chinese government's new screenplay approval process.

The Chinese government’s move to relax some regulations on domestic filmmakers has been met with a mix of encouragement and skepticism by many of the country’s top directors.

On Wednesday, the government announced that it was dropping 20 items from its list of oversight responsibilities, including the requirement that filmmakers must submit a completed script or thorough treatment for censorship approval before the given movie can go into production. Instead, some projects now will be able to simply post a brief summary, or treatment, on the administration's website for review and approval. However, the change will not apply to all proposed films, as some international news outlets have reported. According to government regulator, the State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SGAPPRFT), only movies that address “ordinary topics” will be exempted from full-script approval.

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An article carried in the news section of Chinese tech giant quoted an official linked to SGAPPRFT as saying that "ordinary topics" means anything except projects that "touch on ethnic, religious and foreign-affairs issues." Screenplays that do relate to such sensitive topics will still need to get full-script approval before production can begin. "Moreover, for screenplays with themes that are conveyed vaguely, [censors] will also request checks."

Chinese directors were quick to point out the considerable ambiguity and wiggle room this wording leaves in the system.

Retweeting the comment on his Weibo account, director Jia Zhangke, who won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes in May for his provocative film A Touch of Sin, laconically added: "What can I do, as all of my films involve the Han?" referring to China’s major ethnic group, which makes up 92 percent of the country’s population.

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In another report about the relaxation of the regulations on -- the website of China's official state mouthpiece, People's Daily -- director Zhang Qi was quoted as saying how the change offers limited help to filmmakers, since "the censorship of completed films still exists."

Chen went on to express the worry that the risks of censorship for so-called "ordinary films" will now fall completely on the shoulders of producers and filmmakers, as they won't know whether their movie fits what is allowed until after it is completed, rather than at the outset. He also said that he is concerned that some directors will become even more cautious by trying to guess what the censors' tastes are.

"However, I hope this will be a good start," he added.

Retweeting the People's Daily story on the censorship changes, director Wang Xiaoshuai -- who was censured in the 1990s for making films without official approval, and once turned in a film (Frozen, 1994), under the pseudonym Wuming ("Anonymous") -- also questioned the definition of the "ordinary-topic films."

"This 'ordinary' might not be very ordinary at all -- we'll just have to see," he wrote, drawing tweets of approval from fellow filmmakers He Ping and Lu Chuan.