Standing Up to [CENSORED] in China


Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedIn.Feng Xiaogang directors guild photo

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

April 21, 2013

Last week one of China’s most prominent movie directors, Feng Xiaogang (Aftershock, Back to 1942), boldly seized the opportunity on national television to speak out against his country’s media censorship policies. It’s difficult for western filmmakers to imagine how painful it must be for their Chinese counterparts to contend with artistic repression, but Feng poignantly conveyed this pain in his words and his expressions.

In his heartfelt acceptance speech for the honor of “director of year” from the China Film Directors Guild, Feng grew teary-eyed when he referred to the “torment” that China’s filmmakers must bear. The torment he was referring to was censorship, but in the video of Feng’s acceptance speech the word “censorship” was bleeped out, as can be seen at the 3:51 minute mark

It is it forbidden not only to criticize the Communist Party’s iron-fisted censorship rules, but to even utter the word “censorship” in the wrong context is verboten.

Feng knows all of this, of course; his Film Directors Guild speech was just the latest in a string of public criticisms he’s levied at SARFT and its restrictions on artistic expression.  A lesser director would undoubtedly be prosecuted for such misbehavior, but Feng’s fame and international visibility make him ‘too big to jail.’

The heart of his message is encapsulated in this passage from his speech:

A lot of times when you receive the order [from the censors], it’s so ridiculous that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, especially when you know something is good and you are forced to change it into something bad. Are Hollywood directors tormented the same way? … To get approval, I have to cut my films in a way that makes them bad. How do we all persist through it all? I think there is only one reason — that this bunch of fools like us love filmmaking — are entranced by filmmaking — too much. (translation excerpted from Rachel Lu’s Atlantic magazine article “Chinese Film Director’s Censorship is Torment“)

Last year the director Lou Ye (Summer Palace, Mystery) took his dissatisfaction a step further: when his dramatic film Mystery was subjected to the censors’ scissors, he tweeted the details of the censorship process to the public in a series of postings on his Sina Weibo account. After weeks of waiting for a decision as to whether his film could be exhibited, Lou tweeted:

I’m waiting for an answer: Can the film be released on time without any changes, yes or no? The answer is so simple but so difficult–[the process] makes me feel disappointed and sad, but I also feel a sense of understanding and support. China’s domestic film industry needs everyone to work together. I totally accept the fact that I’m a director in the age of film censorship. I just want a dialogue [with the authorities], and a dialogue is not a confrontation. There are no winners and losers in a dialogue. There are no enemies.

Both Feng’s and Lou’s pleas were met with widespread approval and support from China’s general public. The job of the censors is ostensibly to promote Confucian morality, political stability and social harmony, and these are noble aims, but in carrying out their edicts they sometimes risk defeating these purposes by offending the sensibilities of their fellow citizens.

As Rachel Lu put it in her Atlantic article, “Many exclaimed the decision to bleep out Feng’s mention of censorship was ‘painting the eyes on a dragon,’ a figure of speech which refers to the finishing touch necessary to bring something to life. In other words, the ironic result may only have rendered Feng’s message more poignant.

Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at rob@pacificbridgepics.com and at www.pacificbridgepics.com.

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Memo to China: 6 Things You Can Do Now to Start Making Watchable Movies


by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

March 8, 2012

MEMORANDUM

To: Those calling the shots in China’s film industry

From: A concerned foreigner

Re: Unsolicited but well-meaning advice

===============================================================

Dear Chinese Film Honcho:

I’ve just read a report from an official-sounding Beijing organization called the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture, which tries to explain why “many good Chinese film productions have not yet reached the mainstream audiences overseas.”

Excuse me, but do they know something I don’t? What good Chinese movies? Your movies don’t reach mainstream audiences overseas because they’re generally unwatchable. Even your own people, who have extremely limited movie-going choices thanks to your restrictive quota system, are staying away from these mediocre pictures.

It’s not that Chinese filmmakers can’t make good movies. People like Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai, Wu Tianming, Liu Jiayin, Lou Ye, Tsui Hark, Wayne Wang, Justin Lin, and others have shown the world that they know how to make artistic and crowd-pleasing films. In perhaps the ultimate compliment, Hollywood gave a Best Foreign Language Oscar to your Taiwanese brother Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a while back. More recently the Best Picture Oscar went to a movie (The Departed) that was adapted from a film (Infernal Affairs) written and directed by three of your own Hong Kong brothers, Alan Mak, Felix Chong and Andrew Lau.

No, Chinese filmmakers and storytellers aren’t the problem, it’s the rules and threats you shackle them with. And your often atrocious behavior. You just can’t seem to play nice with others.

So, herewith, some unsolicited advice on how you can do better. Follow these rules and before you know it you’ll be making films that people may actually want to see.

  1. Cut the Hypocrisy – What’s with all the censorship when you let your people watch anything and everything they want on the internet and pirated DVDs? How come I can buy a copy of Saw 4 or The Human Centipede on any street corner in Shanghai but I can’t depict a character in my movie carrying a gun or smoking a joint? Do you really think your people are so sheltered and chaste that their minds are in danger of being polluted by a two-hour movie theater experience?
  2. Stop Treating Everyone Like Children. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to protect your children from inappropriate content, but do you really need to apply rules that are appropriate for 4 year-olds to prevent everyone over the age of 17 from seeing images of sex, violence, and other ‘objectionable’ activities? We all know you’re having sex; there are 1.4 billion of you for heaven’s sake! Stop pretending it doesn’t exist. An intelligent film rating system would be a big improvement.
  3. Feed the Writers and Artists – You have so many brilliant artists and writers in China. Please stop locking them up. Try investing in them instead. Let one hundred flowers bloom, and don’t cut them down when they do. Good movies need good stories and creative thinking. Here in Hollywood we have a thing called ‘development.’ It means investing in a writer and his or her story before you start making the movie.
  4. Take Risks – Stop asking us to guarantee you a 30 percent secured return on movie investments when you know we need risk capital. Don’t plead ignorance of capitalism—you guys are the best capitalists the world has ever seen. And show some imagination. Aren’t you tired already of backing Ming dynasty kung fu retreads or anti-Japanese WWII propaganda films or the 215th remake of The Monkey King?
  5. Learn Some Manners – Let’s face it, you know you need Hollywood. We’ve already figured out how to make movies the world wants to see. So show us a little respect. You keep coming over here saying you want to do business with us, making promises, signing contracts, then disappearing off to Vegas and Disneyland never to be heard from again. Or you seduce us into coming over to you with promises of investment when all you really want to do is milk us for information and ideas or ask us to work for you for free. We’ve got enough bullshitters over here, thank you. If you believe in guanxi then start acting like it!
  6. If You Have Money, Stop Talking About It and Start Investing It. If You Don’t, Then Please Go Away! – Okay, we get that you’ve figured out how to publish press releases about your supposed new billion dollar fund and your Goldman Sachs advisors. We get that it’s fun for you to see your name in bogus stories in Deadline. Enough talk. If you really want to participate in the global film market, then put your money where your mouth is.

You think I don’t know what I’m talking about? Fine. Why don’t you ask Feng Xiaogang, your most commercially successful filmmaker? I know he’ll agree.

Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at rob@pacificbridgepics.com and at www.pacificbridgepics.com.