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HONG KONG – Rare as it is, but Chinese censors do sometimes allow once-banned films to be released for public consumption after a few years and many cuts. But not even the most optimistic China-watcher would have expected the way V for Vendetta took its bow in the country: uncut, in prime time, and on a channel of the government-controlled television network.
The sight of the film’s titular anarchist delivering a televised speech about “censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission” on CCTV-6, China Central Television’s movie channel – has set the Chinese blogosphere ablaze, with contributors expressing awe watching the film on official television and speculating whether this points to a more varied and less restricted media landscape.
The appearance of V for Vendetta on state television is just the latest of a string of released films with content which could easily bring discomfort to the Chinese ruling authorities. The Hong Kong film Cold War, which has secured 230 million yuan (US$ 37 million) in the mainland Chinese box office during its November run, revolves around the struggle between two assistant police commissioners aiming for the top job – a scenario which coincidentally mirrors the real-life factional fracas threatening the power-succession of the Chinese Communist Party last month.
China’s stringent (but sometimes ambiguous) film censorship system has been under pressure to reforms from inside and out during the past month. Speaking in Hong Kong at a cultural seminar last month, independent filmmaker Zhang Yuan – the underground director who has since made officially-sanctioned movies – have criticized the current system, which provide no distinct rules and age-classification criteria for directors to follow, as “ridiculous”.
Meanwhile, Bona Films CEO Yu Dong also called for reforms of China’s censorship system in a keynote speech at the ScreenSingapore event – marking the first time an established figure in the Chinese film industry has voiced his displeasure, in an international event overseas, about the country’s media-regulation mechanisms.
V for Vendetta was screened, with its lines dubbed into Chinese, on CCTV-6 at 10:07 p.m. on Friday, with the channel’s official Weibo account running a message offering a synopsis of the film so that “film buffs could have some fun”. This post – which both acknowledges the existence of the film and points to a rough sketch of the story – was itself a breakthrough, as information of the film has been kept off officially-sanctioned internet search portals such as Douban or Baidu.
While unavailable in official channels, the film has long been available as pirated DVDs and online downloads, and savvy internet users have also been able to “scale” the censorial firewall to secure information about the film from foreign websites. This is very evident in many of the messages posted on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, with bloggers quoting lines wholesale and pre-empting the film’s crucial scenes before they appeared on screen.
While some complained the “harmonization” of the film’s Chinese title – it now reads as “V Special Forces” rather than “V the Revenge Killing Squad”, the long-held translated handle of the film – most applauded the “audacity” of CCTV-6’s move. The film remains available on CCTV-6’s website as part of the channel’s re-view schedule: tv.cntv.cn/cctv6/.
“It was a film closed off by all those blocked websites,” wrote blogger Xu Cuofei. “It took me a long time to finally find it, and now I’m watching it off CCTV. Seems like there’s progress in society after all.” He was joined by Qingqingzhai, who said the official broadcasters “are going against the gods” in showing the film.
Even mainstream and official media outlets made references to the screening, with Southern Daily running an instant report on its Weibo account, first quoting a line from the film – “People should not be afraid of their governments – governments should be afraid of their people” – before describing the “surprise” shown by net users towards the sanctioned screening. Global Times, known for its frequent pro-establishment editorials as one of the central government’s mouthpieces, also mentioned the screening in a comparatively neutral post.
The CCTV screening of an uncensored cut of V for Vendetta on a Friday evening was astonishing not just because of its theme, but also because of how the titular character’s masked persona has been adopted by social activists in Hong Kong and mainland China in anti-government protests in recent years. It is understood that approval for screenings on CCTV-6 comes directly from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, Beijing’s premier media regulators.
Much hope has been placed on China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, to bring liberal reforms to his country. The 59-year-old, who took over the post of the Chinese Communist Party’s general secretary last month, is the scion of a political clan and a political moderate with a long history of contact beyond China – he first visited the US in 1985 as a low-ranking provincial official, and was given the task of announcing an increase of Beijing’s foreign-film quota during his stay in Los Angeles early this year.
While messages have seen netizens energized by this latest turn of events, filmmakers and industry figures are more reserved about putting too much significance onto the Vendetta screening.
“Things do change from day to day,” a Hong Kong filmmaker who have had experience working on mainland co-productions told The Hollywood Reporter. “Sometimes even officials themselves do not know who they should take their orders from.”
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