It was the shot Chinese-American director Ren Wen had spent an entire day of his short 15-day shoot preparing for: a long take in which a supposedly sweet old woman brutally kicks the protagonist of the film out of the car, leaving him to die in the freezing night of a future world where the sun has flamed out.
But when Chinese censors handed “Last Sunrise” back to Ren with the single, vague piece of feedback that the film “showed too much of the darkness of humanity,” he realized the shot had to go. “The problem is they’re not specific, so we just had to cut whatever we thought they might find too dark or violent” — about four minutes of material, he says. More experienced Chinese colleagues had counseled him to cut more than he thought necessary. Not removing enough “shows that you have an ‘attitude problem,’ which will make the second round 10 times harder” to pass, he says he was told.
China’s notorious film censorship apparatus is as opaque as it is stringent, and has become even more difficult to fathom since last year, when the ruling Communist Party’s propaganda department took on oversight of the medium. Confusingly, its whims appear to be becoming simultaneously more lenient and stricter, with films on once-banned subjects hitting the theaters in droves even as others get yanked from high-profile festivals.
“You can’t say that the government’s management style is ‘improving,’ since that’s not right, but it is developing. They still want to tightly control content, but they know they can’t do so in the crude manner they did before,” independent film festival organizer Li Dan says.
“If the movies are all overly positive, nobody will watch them and their control is useless, because people will just illegally download or stream others from abroad to watch whatever they want. They now have to win over these audiences, and so must very cleverly create a bit more space for expression that’s still within the scope of their control.”
Typically, films that touch on sensitive issues like foreign affairs, the military, police or public security organs, ethnic minorities or religion pass through additional “special channels” of censorship, sources tell Variety. For instance, Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster “Arrival” needed special approval from the Chinese military before it hit mainland theaters because it featured a Chinese general.
But one way or another, topics once beyond the pale now regularly appear in theaters nationwide. Among them are scathing rebukes of the one-child policy (Wang Xiaoshuai’s “So Long, My Son”; Liu Jie’s “Baby”), depictions of the country’s petitioning system (Feng Xiaogang’s “I am Not Madame Bovary”) and brutal stories of child abuse (2017’s “Angels Wear White”).
Religion has always been a touchy subject, but films like Pema Tseden’s “Jinpa,” currently in theaters, have been able to depict Tibetan life and Buddhist rituals with surprising candor. “At least the censors didn’t use the excuse of the film ‘reflecting a backwards state of poverty’ as a reason to stop the film and others like it,” says Zhang Xianmin, one of China’s leading indie producers, who explains that censorship “tightens and loosens in periodic waves over the years.”
The trend hasn’t been limited to smaller arthouse titles. Last year’s mega-blockbuster “Dying to Survive” featured protest scenes, while “A Cool Fish,” another top 2018 title, dealt with real estate corruption. China’s highest-grossing film of all time, 2017’s “Wolf Warrior II,” opens with scenes of forced demolitions — a topic off-limits just a few years ago that has now been treated in numerous works, including Cathy Yan’s “Dead Pigs” and Lou Ye’s recent “The Shadow Play.”
But when it comes to historical subjects, especially from the Chinese revolutionary period, and LGBT issues, there has been a notable rise in restrictions, Zhang says.
China has essentially banned LGBT material — grouped into what it calls “abnormal sexual behavior” — from TV and online content, but its stance on homosexuality in film has never been formally stated. In March, 20th Century Fox’s Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” was granted a surprise limited theatrical release, though around three minutes of scenes with male kissing, cross-dressing and gyrating crotches had been cut, as well as uses of the word “gay.”
When asked why the Oscar-winner had been imported despite its homosexual content, a source closely tied to the decision tells Variety: “If this film were about that subject, if it were a gay film, then it wouldn’t have been imported. It was brought in because it’s a music film” — a subject authorities hoped to promote.
When a film rubs censors the wrong way, China does not shy away from the blowback of halting it in its tracks. Animated thriller “Have a Nice Day” premiered in the main competition for Berlin’s Golden Bear in 2017, only to be abruptly pulled out of the Annecy animation festival five months later at officials’ request. Two more were pulled from Berlin this past February: “Better Days,” Hong Kong director Derek Tsang’s edgy story about disgruntled youth, and Zhang Yimou’s new Cultural Revolution-era picture “One Second.”
“Technical reasons” were cited as the reason for the latter, but the message was clear: The long arm of Chinese censorship can descend on anyone, no matter how prominent, at any moment. Zhang’s film had already obtained its “dragon seal” of censorship approval, but many speculate that it was later viewed again by another censor who took issue with its content.
Such an individual would likely have been brought on board last March when, in the wake of the abolition of term limits for Chinese president Xi Jinping, film was moved directly under the control of the Propaganda Bureau, a department much higher up in the Communist Party pecking order.
Many say the move elevated cinema above other mediums like radio or TV. “Autocrats love film,” jokes China scholar Graeme Smith.
But it could also be that the shift was intended to throw the bureau a bone as its influence wanes in comparison to the Cyberspace Administration, whose power has grown as Chinese citizens move more online. Film “might have been kind of a consolation prize, a bauble to play with to stop them from whining,” Smith says.
It is not yet clear what the move’s long-term impact will be. While some outspoken critics such as former journalist Li Datong describe China’s system of ideological control over content as “basically like [that of] Nazi Germany,” many others remain unconcerned — or even optimistic.
Given that the new film overseers “have more authority and leverage in the current political system,” the shift will increase efficiency and make it possible to push more ambitious policies that might ultimately support content creation, one movie theater industry professional says. She adds that, as the final arbiter, the Propaganda Bureau “knows best where the line is, and now can pull the trigger themselves” on key censorship decisions without so much inter-departmental back-and-forth.
Another source says that awkward situations would at times arise back when the film bureau had less clout, such as the need to wait “a very, very long time” for the opinions of other government sections before moving forward with its work, or having its approvals later reversed by other displeased bureaus.
“Now there won’t be those kinds of problems because everything goes directly through the propaganda department, which no one dares to contradict,” he says. “They still need opinions from other departments, but no one will be too slow about it.”
Lately, it’s an unusually long lineup of sensitive anniversaries that is giving the film industry headaches, more so than any administrative changing of the guards. This year marks 100 years since the May 4, 1919, anti-imperialist student protests; 60 since the uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet; 20 since the launch of a brutal campaign against the Falun Gong religious sect; and 10 since ethnic riots in Xinjiang. Each date will be accompanied by heightened government surveillance and censorship. The most sensitive periods of them all will be around June 4, the 30th anniversary of the 1989 government crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square, and the first week in October, when the country will be on a weeklong holiday to fete the 70th year of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
One source tells Variety that he was told it’d be best if his company’s summer blockbuster wasn’t marketed as a disaster movie, since authorities couldn’t bear to have the term “disaster” associated with such a politically important year for the party. His team went back and shot more material so that the film could be repositioned as a more acceptable “rescue film.”
Another says he is purposely waiting until after October’s 70th anniversary celebrations to submit to censors a completely apolitical Canadian children’s film he’d acquired, by which time he hopes the heightened period of political sensitivity will have passed. Canada has come under fire for its arrest of Huawei CEO Meng Wanzhou following U.S. charges of fraud, and its filmmakers appeared to have been caught in the crossfire when a Canadian director’s invite to the Beijing Intl. Film Festival was rescinded in March in the wake of the incident.
Many in the industry ultimately shrug when asked whether the censorship environment is improving or growing worse. A producer sums it up: “Nothing makes much of a difference. It’s still and always has been the Communist Party in control.”