Sex and violence in mainland Chinese cinemas

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.
Note 2: "长凤新": Great Wall Movie Enterprises Ltd (长城), Feng Huang Motion Pictures Co. (凤凰), and Sun Luen Film Co. (新联) combined to form Sil-Metropole Organization Ltd in 1982.

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There are currently 3 Comments for Sex and violence in mainland Chinese cinemas.

Comments on Sex and violence in mainland Chinese cinemas

interesting stuff.

but Wei's account above leaves a lot unsaid about precisely how Men Behind the Sun was brought to mainland screens.

what direct impact, if any, did Sil-Metropole's role in film production have on film distribution? did it run the theaters?

what kind of theaters existed in the 80s; which kind were showing Men Behind the Sun; and how much did a ticket cost?

Cat III films did well in HK theaters for a time, as did X-rated films in the US circa the 70s. "adult" films in both places and at both times screened well largely because of their ratings, as a means of branding the film with sex and/or violence.

years later, US theaters saw declining interest in adult films. later still, an adult rating became an impediment to a film's distribution in US theaters. the X rating system was replaced by NC-17 ratings circa 1990, but, whereas the "adult" branding had once helped boost interest X films in the 70s, an adult rating was the kiss of death to a film's prospects for theater-distribution in the 90s, as has likewise happened in HK, albeit to a lesser degree (compare Election in HK with any number of NC-17 releases from the US).

boom and bust.

in both the US and HK, the decline in theater-distribution for these films was preceded by their declining theater attendance; and declining attendance was caused by increasing home-ownership of VCR- and VCD-players.

as it turns out, people prefer to watch soft-porn at home.

but it strikes me that this boom and bust story only holds in places where first, (1)the costs of home viewing (including the video itself as well as the player and, significantly, the viewing space, i.e., the "home") exceed theater attendance, and then later, (2) the costs are reversed.

the situation in China today is "weird" because, though most urban dwellers likely own video players and/or computers, the relatively low number of theaters per capita in the urban areas where theaters exist could theoretically lead to a financially viable box-office turn-out for adult films if viewed by the large number of urban dwellers (e.g., students and migrant workers) who lack the means to enjoy adult films in private.

with theater ticket prices still hovering in the RMB20-30 range in many places, however, i suspect that this is more a theoretical possibility that it is a likelihood.

all of which means that China should go ahead and introduce a Cat III system. its worries about mass spiritual pollution are unfounded because magical market forces will ensure that mainland theaters will, with minor exceptions, spurn the screening of adult films in favor of more profitable flicks just as their US and HK counterparts did and continue to do.

Minor typo in the seventh paragraph - you've got "1908s" where I'm sure "1980s" was intended.
(sorry to post this as a comment - I couldn't see how to contact you via email).

[Fixed. Thanks. --JM]

According to information found elsewhere online, Men Behind the Sun was edited for mainland distribution. How much was cut I don't know (and I'm in no hurry to find out), but seeing as the whole point of the film was to graphically illustrate the barbaric cruelty of the Japanese soldiers and Unit 731 experimenters, I doubt it was turned into an all-ages movie that the whole family could enjoy together.

I think China's worries about mass spiritual pollution are unfounded more because the magical government forces, which will retain control over the ratings system (unlike the industry-run MPAA system in Hollywood), will see to it that general cultural mores are followed. Sex was present in Hong Kong films before the current system was introduced, so it's not as if the Cat III rating brought soft-core porn to the territory. Films on the mainland, even taking into account the boundary-pushing mentioned above, are not nearly as permissive, so China's film censors are really being disingenuous when they reference Hollywood and Hong Kong to buttress their rejection of a rating system.

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