Posted by Joel Martinsen on Friday, February 20, 2009 at 7:00 PM
In theaters: Awful, bloody, sick, and...true
In the beginning of February, media in China was buzzing about the possibility of a film rating system being put into place sometime this year. Although the story turned out to be incorrect, it still sparked yet another round of debate over the feasibility of implementing a rating system for mainland cinema without turning the industry into a cesspool of sex and violence.
In a blog post last week, film critic Wei Junzi discussed how Hong Kong's film rating system came about, and revealed that the region's first Category III film (restricted to ages 18 and up), M.T. Mou's gory exploitation flick Men Behind the Sun (黑太阳, 1988), was actually screened in theaters on the mainland:
Hong Kong's First Cat-III Film Premiered on the Mainland!by Wei Junzi
Is a "mainland film ratings system" about to go into effect? There's been a lot of dust raised over this recently, and even Film Bureau chief Tong Gang's interview from a few years back in which he said "a film ratings system will absolutely not permit Category III films" resurfaced in the paper. How did this all get started? I actually was present, at a conference of film directors from the mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, held in Hong Kong before the New Year. At the conference, noted director and Beijing Film Academy professor Zheng Dongtian revealed, "The Film Promotion Act has been completed and has been submitted to the State Council. If it passes, films can be divided into two categories."
Why only two categories? It's naturally not because two categories are any more scientific than three; rather, it's that on the mainland, "Category III" has become a euphemism for "sex and violence," and over the last two decades it has embedded itself in people's minds, just like mentioning Zhao Benshan immediately calls to mind errenzhuan, and because of this it's not something that you want to just casually mention. However, you may be unaware of the fact that Hong Kong's first Cat-III movie had a grand premier in theaters on the mainland. Slightly older audiences may remember — Men Behind the Sun, a co-production that depicted the tragic biological experiments conducted by the Japanese invaders on Chinese people. According to Hong Kong media reports in 1988, the film censors vomited from disgust when they viewed the film and in one swift action, Category III films were born in Hong Kong.
Why was it only in 1988 that Hong Kong started having Category III films? Going back to the beginning, in March 1987, the English-language Asian Wall Street Journal disclosed that there was no legal foundation for Hong Kong film censorship, a revelation that caused instant controversy throughout the city. Creating a new film screening system, regardless of what it would eventually become, had to be put on the agenda immediately. Therefore the Hong Kong Executive and Legislative Councils quickly established a task force to deliberate a new Film Censorship Bill that would incorporate a motion picture rating system. On November 10, 1988, the Film Censorship Ordinance went into effect, and from that day forward, Hong Kong had a three-level film rating system: Category I (All ages admitted), Category II (All ages admitted, but the film had to carry the statement, "Not suitable for children"), and Category III (Persons aged 18 and above). On December 1, the first Hong Kong film to be classified Category III, Men Behind the Sun, hit screens.
Subsequently, Hong Kong's film screening became substantially more permissive. Even though this led to the proliferation of films wallowing in sex and violence, at the same time, Hong Kong filmmakers obtained a good deal of creative freedom, and produced a stream of excellent works that broke through thematic taboos. In 1995, Hong Kong's film censors changed the "three-level system" into a "four-level system." The main changes were to indicate the degree of nudity, sex, violence, crude language, and frightening content present, and divided the former Category II into Category IIA (Not suitable for children) and Category IIB (Not suitable for children or youth). Categories I and III did not change. From then on, movies that showed in Hong Kong cinemas followed a four-level system that was retained following the handover and is in place to this day.
But back to Men Behind the Sun: how did the first Category III film in Hong Kong, with its bloody scenes of extreme violence, get to be shown on the mainland two decades ago? This is actually related to the general environment for cinema at the time. Co-productions between Hong Kong and the mainland had developed through the 1980s, and apart from a few film companies that were adept at working the regulations, such as Chu Mu and Han Pou-chu's Golden Principal, which produced Mirage (海市蜃楼, 1987) and A Terracotta Warrior (古今大战秦俑情, 1989), the majority of filmmakers who wanted to work on the mainland had to go through Sil-Metropole, formed from the "Great New Phoenix" leftist studios.* Although Sil-Metropole was a Hong Kong registered company administered by the mainland government, it was at the forefront of market-oriented pursuit of entertainment.
DVD cover for Castle in the Wilderness
In 1988, the Sil-Metropole-produced Village of Widows was the first movie to run a "Not suitable for children" sign, for its sexual content. Men Behind the Sun was similarly labeled "not suitable for children" shortly thereafter, but that was due to its extreme violence. It's worth remembering that although crowds of curious adult viewers scrambled to see the films, public theaters for a while afterward had new rules: "No children allowed. Viewers must carry ID" (this was mainly for pseudo-erotica like Marriage Education and Unforgettable Life (特别手术室, 1988); violence was naturally excepted). In a way, this can be seen as a rudimentary two-level system (suitable for all viewers, and unsuitable for children). The "two-level system" in Zheng Dongtian's so-called "motion picture promotion act," if it really goes into effect, is nothing more than comparing Wu Yujuan at the close of Obsession (疯狂的代价, 1988) with Yang Xin at the start of Big Shot's Funeral (大腕, 2003) — the rap sheet of "openness" has a whole list of priors, so this is just another go-round.
Note 1: CCTV followed Men Behind the Sun with a 10-part television mini-series, Castle in the Wilderness (荒原城堡731, 1989), that dealt with the same Unit 731 material in a similarly gruesome fashion.
Links and Sources
Jobs in China
Henry on The Eurasian Face
Caroline W on Big in China
Michael on Julia Lovell on translating Lu Xun's complete fiction: "His is an angry, searing vision of China"
Brandon K. on Clueless academic takes on popular fantasy novels
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The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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+ Korean history doesn't fly on Chinese TV screens (2007.09): SARFT puts the kibbosh on Korean historical dramas.
+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.