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.”