×

‘Banned filmmaker’ is a relative term

China's authorities still maintain hold on directors

SHANGHAI — George Orwell might have put it this way: All underground films are banned, but some are more banned than others.

China’s authorities have spent the last decade taking tentative steps toward relaxing their iron grip on the film industry, gradually allowing in more foreign pictures and letting domestic production companies work independently of the state-owned studio system.

But their practice of slapping bans on directors who take independence too far suggests real change is a long way off.

“We had all the right permissions to shoot, but the plot changed during the shoot, and by the time we finished, it was a very different film,” recalls helmer Lou Ye, who was banned for five years from making and distributing his films in China in the wake of the acceptance of his movie “Summer Palace” into the Cannes Film Festival last year.

At the time, it was widely reported that the film — which featured full frontal nudity and scenes of the 1989 student uprising in Tiananmen Square — was banned because permission to play at foreign festivals had not been granted by the Beijing Film Bureau.

According to helmer Lou, however, the Film Bureau’s censors told him the ban was applied for “technical reasons. … They said that the picture and sound quality were not high enough for release.”

It’s a familiar story. Many of China’s most famous directors (among them Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Jiang Wen) have had bans of various lengths and degrees of severity applied at some point during their careers, often for playing their films in foreign festivals without Film Bureau permission.

Some might say it has even lent them a certain cachet — international arthouse distribs sometimes joke that nothing sells a Chinese film better overseas than a “Banned in China” sticker on the DVD.

Officially, Chinese films go through three stages of approval by the Film Bureau. Permission to shoot is granted after approval of the film’s script (sometimes just a synopsis is enough). Permission to distribute and, separately, permission to play in overseas festivals are granted after approval of the film’s final cut. Ironically, it is films such as “Summer Palace,” which pass the first stage but not the second and third, that are most often banned.

Truly underground Chinese films, which don’t apply for any approvals at all — around a dozen or so of which play at overseas fests each year — seem to escape punishment.

“A young director shooting an arthouse film on DV knows that he has no chance of distribution in China, so he probably won’t apply for permission to shoot, let alone permission to join a festival” explains Maria Barbieri, who helps select Chinese films for the Udine Far East Film Festival and consults for Venice Film Festival.

“But for a low-key film like this, the authorities often won’t care — it would never have had distribution in China anyway, so the director is usually left alone. It is the better-known directors — like Lou — who are more likely to get into trouble.”

Li Yang’s “Blind Shaft,” a story about corruption and murder in China’s notoriously dangerous coal mines, ran afoul of the authorities in 2003, though in his case even the length of the ban was unclear.

“I was told after I shot ‘Blind Shaft’ without any permission that I wouldn’t be allowed to shoot anything in China for a while,” he says.

Li’s ban appears to be over now, however; his latest film, “Blind Mountain,” cleared script approval last year (minus a few scenes cut by the censors) and is now in post.

“The difficult thing for filmmakers is that the censors don’t make the rules clear,” says Lou. “If we knew the rules, we could stick to them. But at the moment, each film seems to be judged separately.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Yoji Yamada-directed film is to open

    Tokyo Market: Shochiku Launches Horror, Comedy and Mystery Lineup

    Major Japanese studio, Shochiku has the honor of leading off next week’s Tokyo International Film Festival with its “Tora-san, Wish You Were Here.” The film is a revival of a beloved in-house drama franchise, directed by veteran Yoji Yamada, that is set as the event’s opening night gala presentation. Before that, the company has the [...]

  • The Truth

    Singapore Festival to Focus on Asian Excellence for 30th Edition

    For its 30th edition the Singapore International Film Festival has avoided programming novelty and instead focused on assembling excellence – mostly indie titles — from Asia and further afield. The festival, which previously announced local filmmaker Anthony Chen’s second feature “Wet Season” as its opening night gala presentation, announced the balance of its programming on [...]

  • Isabela Moner Dora the Explorer

    Film News Roundup: Isabela Merced Boards Jason Momoa's 'Sweet Girl' for Netflix

    In today’s film news roundup, Isabela Merced get cast opposite Jason Momoa, “Starbright” gets financing and AFM announces its speakers. CASTING Isabela Merced, formerly Isabela Moner, has come on board to portray the daughter of Jason Momoa in his upcoming revenge thriller “Sweet Girl” for Netflix. Momoa will play a devastated man who vows to [...]

  • Walt Disney HQ LA

    Disney Seeks to Throw Out Gender Pay Gap Lawsuit

    The Walt Disney Co. is seeking to throw out a lawsuit alleging that women employees are paid less than men, arguing that the suit is too sprawling and unwieldy to handle as a class action. Andrus Anderson LLP filed the suit in April, alleging that Disney’s hiring and pay practices have a discriminatory effect on [...]

  • Ford v Ferrari

    Christian Bale, Matt Damon to Campaign in Lead Actor Category for 'Ford v Ferrari'

    Christian Bale and Matt Damon will both campaign in the lead actor category for awards for their work in Fox’s upcoming “Ford v Ferrari,” Variety has learned. “Ford v Ferrari” follows an eccentric, determined team of American engineers and designers, led by automotive visionary Carroll Shelby (Damon) and his British driver, Ken Miles (Bale), who [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content