More ban for the buck in China

Filmmakers hit over screening without permits

More Pusan festival coverage

BUSAN, South Korea -- When is it worth it for a Chinese filmmaker to forgo the Chinese authorities' approval process and bring a film to the international stage without the motherland saying you may go?

For Tsui Hark, whose "All About Women" pulled out of the 13th Pusan International Film Festival at the last minute because it had not obtained a permit from the Chinese Film Bureau, the answer seems to be never.

Screening a Chinese-made film internationally without a permit guarantees a ban for the film's theatrical release in China and could result in sanctions for its producers and director. For an established helmer like Tsui, known in China for such films as "Once Upon a Time in China" and "Seven Swords," which earned 83 million yuan ($10.2 million) at the Chinese boxoffice in 2005, the lucrative Chinese market is one that can't be lost.

Nevertheless, not all Chinese filmmakers have the kind of fame or commercial success Tsui has in China, and for many independent directors, the international market offers greater promise.

Lou Ye's 2006 "Summer Palace" screened at the Festival de Cannes as an official competition entry before Chinese censors approved it, resulting in a five-year ban for Lou from making films in China. However, it was picked up by U.S. and French distributors. The film's producer, Fang Li, subsequently produced "Lost in Beijing," which also was banned in China after a theatrical run.

International buyers agree that these controversies attract attention. "It creates a buzz for the film. I would certainly try to look at a film that is banned," said Jerome Bliah, president of International Films Distribution Consultants.

However, another school of thought is that bans are good for everyone but the filmmakers.

"The view of UIP is to always work with the Film Bureau, SARFT and China Film to modify a film for release in China if required," said Kurt Rieder, senior vp United International Pictures. "Ultimately, we hope that there will be an introduction of an enforceable rating system which would reduce the need for censor cuts.

"Enduring a ban only emboldens the pirates and is really in no one's interest if other options are available."

The bans seem to express the Chinese government's overall attitude toward the film industry.

"My sense is that there's not a lot of expansion of the film market, not a lot of cinema construction," said Richard Pena, program director at New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center and the New York Film Festival. "My impression is that the government is more devoted to television, since that's drawing the vast majority of people, like everywhere else in the world."

To some extent, dealing with these prohibitions is the legacy of China's fifth-generation directors. As the first Chinese filmmakers since 1949 to garner the interest of festival programrs, such helmers as Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang were the first to run the gauntlet between Chinese film authorities and the international market.

Zhang ("Hero"), now the nation's best-known film auteur, faced a ban for his 1994 film "To Live." Despite winning the Grand Jury Prize and a best actor award for lead Ge You at Cannes, the film received a 14-year ban in China that was lifted only in September after Zhang directed the spectacular Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Tian's "The Blue Kite," a critical depiction of life during the Cultural Revolution, was banned in China, and the director was consequently forbidden from making films in China for 10 years; the film screened at the Tokyo International Film Festival and won the Grand Prix.

The sixth-generation directors followed suit: Jiang Wen, who starred in Zhang Yimou's directorial debut "Red Sorghum," suffered a five-year ban after what was considered an unpatriotic portrayal of the Chinese in the Sino-Japanese war in "Devil on the Doorstep." None of director Jia Zhangke's work before 2004's "The World" were publicly released in China.

Many of the those films garnered awards in Cannes, Berlin and Tokyo and were picked up by international distributors.

However, this year, the nature of bans seems to be shifting. In January, Fang's "Lost in Beijing" was sanctioned after a much-delayed theatrical release in November and was already out on DVD before it was pulled.

Most surprising was a March directive aimed at Tang Wei, who was banned from working in China's film and television industry for two years for her extensive sex scenes in "Lust, Caution." An edited version of "Lust" already had received a theatrical release.

Tang's ban was the first such action taken against an actor or actress. Her co-star, Hong Kong's Tony Leung Chiu-wai, received no censure and has gone on to star in one of this year's biggest Chinese films, John Woo's "Red Cliff."

Such restrictions represent a change of tack for the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. The increasingly bold regulator, which won a struggle with the former Ministry of Information Industry (now incorporated into the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology) for control of all mass media, including online.

"They've become smart enough to know that it's much worse for them to ban the films," said Pena, who will be honored Monday in Pusan with the Korean Cinema Award. "It's so much better to let these people make their films and let them be seen by a few thousand people and just be done with it."

Pena sees the current situation as SARFT's new modus operandi.

"What they'll do is have the one official production. It's not like they want to create an industry," he said. "They don't seem to think that a lively film scene is essential to the cultural well-being of China. I think the government is perfectly happy to have John Woo or Zhang Yimou do a big film every year or two, but it's not like they're going to say, 'OK, now, we really want film to be something that the Chinese are known for.' "

Jonathan Landreth in New York contributed to this report.