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The stone softens

Susanne Messmer reports on the Chinese film scene, and changing attitudes to censorship

Anyone who strolls through China's big cities today would find it hard to detect why something like film censorship is still practised. Everywhere there are Internet cafes where teenagers offer telephone sex, play computer games that are banned in the west, and play around with the most expensive cell phones on the market today. In front of the cafes, elderly people collect garbage as a way to improve upon their monthly pension, and children work in bands of beggars. There is more brutality on any street corner in China than in a splatter porn film. You have to ask yourself where the "collective conscience" is hiding, for whose "development" the communist film was once supposed to function, and for whose "protection" the censorship authority, or the so-called "Film Office," was established more than 50 years ago. And it's even more perplexing when time and again holy indignation sweeps through the western press, as was recently the case when the Chinese authorities made clear that in their view director Lou Ye should not have been allowed to show his newest film, "Summer Palace," in Cannes. And now he may be banned from his profession.

Scene from Lou Ye's "Summer Palace." Copyright Dreamfactory/ Laurel Films/ Rosem Films and Flying Moon

Ask around a bit in China's film scene, and you quickly gets the impression that no one is incensed any more about censorship, because it can do very little to curtail the truth or ban violence, sex or criticism from the screen. Today, people only get upset about censorship when it restricts the development of the Chinese film industry. If a western film is banned, that's even considered amusing. An employee of a DVD business, who did not want to be named, says: "Mission Impossible III" had to be shortened because Shanghai was shown in the film as a slum, with laundry fluttering from bamboo poles. "The Da Vinci Code" reportedly was dropped because an influential lobby of Chinese Catholics felt insulted by it. And "Pirates of the Caribbean 2" didn't make it past the censors because it has scenes of cannibalism. "Such anecdotes give an overall impression of Schadenfreude," he says, "a kind of gloating over the fact that Hollywood can't get a foot in the door in China."

It's clear that the censorship authority has recently been faced with the ubiquitous issue of the economy. The Chinese film industry only can develop if Chinese films can also be shown in China. Anyone who only produces and shows films abroad will fail to bring money home. There is more agreement among Chinese film-makers today on this point than a few years ago, and it seems the Chinese film censors have understood this. If you ask directors today what they think of censorship, you seldom get the answer that they couldn't care less whether own films were seen in Chinese cinemas or only available on pirated DVDs. Whereas a few years ago they might have compared censorship to a stone in a river and film to the water that finds its way around it, today they will say that much has changed within the censorship authority, and that the two sides have started to talk.

From Li Yu's "Fish and Elephant." Copyright Cheng Yong Productions

At any rate, that is how director Li Yu, born in 1972, describes the scene today. Five years ago she presented her film debut in Europe, "Fish and Elephant," the first Chinese underground film, which tells the story of a lesbian love affair. The film still cannot be shown in China. But "there are people in these public agencies who want to talk to us," she says.

From Li Yu's "Dam Street." Copyright Laurel Films

Her second film, "Dam Street" (2005), which won her a prize in last year's film festival in Venice, deals with a young woman in a small city who at one point in the 1980s becomes pregnant without having the requisite husband, and is cast out of society. Li Yu says she wanted to get this film through the censors from the very start. She wanted a Chinese producer, and to show the film in China. When the original screenplay for "Dam Street" was not accepted, she had to change it. She turned a small-time gangster and his child accomplice into a young woman and an innocent urchin. The end product and the original only share their basic premise: anyone who was cast out in a small Chinese city in the 1980s was forever blocked from civic life. "That's still something," says the director.

From Li Yu's "Dam Street." Copyright Laurel Films

"Only one or two years ago, you had to put up a bit of a fight to say what you wanted," she says. "But today I could probably even get the first version of the 'Dam Street' script through censorship. There has been a generation change there." The best example is her latest film, she says, which is to be called "Lost in Beijing." It will be about an under-age stripper and her parents, who run a bar (see PDF file here). Li Yu could hardly believe it when the censorship authorities waved her script through. "They were even reprimanded for that by the Propaganda Ministry," she says.

From Wang Chao's "The Orphan of Anyang." Copyright Li Fang Productions

A similar report comes from 42-year-old Wang Chao, whose 2001 film, "The Orphan of Anyang," a love story between a prostitute and a worker, was feted in the west. This film, too, is still officially banned in China. He edited his second film, "Day and Night," in keeping with the censorship demands so he could show it in China. The miner, who first sleeps with the boss' wife and then with the wife of his boss' son, is allowed only one of the two lovers in the Chinese version. Enough is enough, the authority decided – and the Chinese viewer can, despite the abridgement, figure out what's going on. Wang Chao got his third film, "Luxury Car," which won a prize last May in Cannes, past the censors without any demands for changes on their part. "I had a lot of doubts about one dark sequence where a thief steals an expensive car. But even that made it through in the end. I got all upset about nothing," he said.

From Yang Chao's "Day and Night." Copyright Li Fang Productions

And what about Lou Ye, who is now supposedly threatened with a ban? His film "Summer Palace" is a love story set against the historical background of the student protests at Tienanmen Square in 1989. It is told from the point of view of a romantic heroine, who experiences the event more as a sexual revolution than as a democratic one. "Summer Palace" is the first Chinese film to employ film montages of historical clips from the event. In addition, the viewer is confronted time and again with scenes of loose sex. The director, born in 1964, was in his mid-twenties in 1989; he was in Beijing and went just like everyone else day and night to Tienanmen Square. He waited more than 15 years to do the film. He had to make it. And so another clash was inevitable. It could well be that the censorship authority is much looser than it used to be. But if they accepted a film like "Summer Palace," they might as well disband.

And it seems like Lou Ye knew that from the start. "I always dive right into the filming and don't think at all about problems like censorship," says the filmmaker in an email interview from Paris, where he is involved in post-production on his latest film. On the other hand, he portrays his dealings with the censors as routine. He recalls his first film, "Weekend Lover," which took two years to clear the censors. His second film, "Suzhou River," celebrated in the west in 2000 as a precursor to a Chinese new wave, remains officially banned in China despite all his efforts. And he mentions "Purple Butterfly," his most recent film, in which he was supposed to make 40 changes but managed to get away with only four. "I would cut everything out of 'Summer Palace' if the Censorship Authority would only say something. But up to now they've remained silent."

From Lou Ye's "Purple Butterfly." Copyright Shanghai Film Studio, courtesy Wild Bunch

For Fang Li, Lou Ye's producer, who has also given a leg up to directors Li Yu and Wang Chao, the question is whether "Summer Palace" will ever be able to run officially in China. "But I Lou Ye will be banned from the profession," he says. Li, who presents himself as an adventurer, came to film-making like the virgin to childbearing and was unaware at first that you need an authorization before you start shooting. "The whole procedure with 'Summer Palace' in advance of Cannes was purely strategic, from both sides," he says. "I wanted to protect the film from being cannibalised by the press as new evidence against China's severities."

So, just a few days before the premiere in Cannes, he told the press that the film has nothing to do with 1989 and would not be shown without a green light from China. At the same time, he kept on phoning Beijing. "And the censorship authorities at first behaved in a model fashion," he reported. Up to now, the film has neither been criticized openly, nor been subjected to sanctions. "It looks like a change of style." The worst effect that the affair has had is not the destruction of the career of a filmmaker, but the economic disaster in which Fang Li is now stuck. But "What the heck!" says Li, who up to now has produced films like this one out of pure passion, earning his living by doing research for the Navy, among other thins. The next film he produces will probably be a commercial one. And there's little doubt he'll get that one through the censors.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Tageszeitung on July 19, 2006.

Susanne Messmer is a music journalist and filmmaker.

Translation: Toby Axelrod.

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