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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