Posted by Joel Martinsen on Saturday, December 2, 2006 at 1:30 PM
Ng See-Yuen speaking at the Hundred Flowers Festival
In 1989, China's film regulators issued a memo that declared a wide range of subject matter "unfit for children" and instituted a provisional rating system that would have prohibited those movies from selling tickets to children or airing on television. The measures were scuttled and quickly forgotten. Later on, in the late nineties as kid-unfriendly foreign blockbusters like Saving Private Ryan advanced on the mainland, talk of assigning movie ratings came up frequently. Regulators took an ambiguous position, sometimes declaring that China needed no ratings system, and other times announcing that one was being prepared for release.
Are the present national conditions compatible with a rating system? China's movie industry is developing quite nicely without one, isn't it? Not so, says Ng See-Yuen.
Ng See-Yuen (吴思远), the legendary producer behind Seasonal Films, the discoverer of an entire generation of Hong Kong movie talent, and the man who let Jacky Chan be funny rather than just another Bruce Lee clone, is a tireless supporter of bringing a rating system to the mainland. At the Hundred Flowers Film Festival in October, he spoke to Southern Weekly about ratings, regulations, and entertainment in the mainland Chinese film industry.
There's a need below, but not above
Look at Zhang Side and Niu Yuru that got voted for this Hundred Flowers award. I'm not saying that their votes weren't accurate — they were definitely accurate — but as a representative, must to vote for those films that are correct no matter what? This will put us back on that old road.
The movies we watch today are like textbooks — they are merely things to teach people with. Many people in the mainland have two minds — it's really frightening. At the convention, in the main hall in the presence of the public, they have one way of thinking, and in private, they have another. This leads to lots of things that are false.
Don't let kids watch the sort of thing they shouldn't watch — what's wrong with that? You really need to take a good look at Hong Kong, whether there are any outdated concepts in how young people are protected. What some young people know today is more than some fifty or sixty-year-old adults. Those fifty or sixty-year-old adults don't look at the world outside. Their thinking is calcified. How can they protect those children whose minds are not yet mature?
What sort of weird films aren't available in the mainland's bootleg marketplace? Even porn films — actually, porn has always had a big market in the mainland. You need to see what kind of world it is today. Don't have your hands tied to shoot bland movies.
Every year I ask when ratings will come out, and they always say that it's no good again this year. The higher-ups haven't agreed, haven't given the nod, haven't made a decision as to whether there should be ratings. At a single word from a single leader, you shouldn't do this now, and everyone stops. They don't know what this industry needs. They will even tell you, this is not what they are concerned with right now - aren't we shooting hundreds of films even without ratings?
This is not something that Wu Ke [former vice-director of the Film Bureau] or Tong Gang [current director of the Film Bureau] can decide. They had seemed like they wanted to talk about it, but now if you ask, they aren't even willing to say anything about it. I don't know how there can be this much apprehension about giving a rating, either. At least you should implement a test, have a trial.
I'm anxious now. The left hand gives you a bit of hope, but the right hand brings you disappointment. This causes those of us in film to waste our time. This is the worst thing possible.
Many things come down to us from above rather than up from below. The audience has needs, society has needs, creators have needs, and the higher-ups should respect these needs and give space for them to develop healthily. The upper-level leadership on the mainland has the idea that there are too many film festivals — Golden Rooster and Hundred Flower are about to change into biennial awards, but this is not in accordance with the rules of cinema — a film festival is the conclusion to the previous year of film. If you make audiences wait two years, then new movies have become old movies. When the upper levels have an idea, the lower levels say, "Ok, ok, ok" — once every two years means once every two years, and no one will care whether it's right or not.
Everything needs this "high-level" — if one day the "high-level" says, "Eh, why don't we have ratings yet?" then the lower levels will be thrown into chaos and immediately launch symposiums, discussion forums, and planning groups, and ratings will come out right away. Like an army exercise, all it takes is one word from the leadership. This is how China is for us today. Everything is put to the higher-ups, and the higher-ups direct us not to do anything: "We shouldn't do too much; overdoing it would be bad." Everything is done carelessly — it's ok as long as things can get by.
Still unapproved: it won't pass
I've actually not spoken very much about ratings at conferences. I don't only talk about the ratings problem. Although ratings are important, I feel that more important is the overall concept of what you're shooting a movie for.
This is a large precondition. With this precondition in mind, we can make us of lots of technical measures, like ratings, for example. I've always stressed that movies are mass entertainment. This was one major point of my presentation this time. If you don't share this concept, then I'm afraid that Chinese movies may not develop very well.
Regardless of what kind of movie you shoot, a major prerequisite is entertaining the audience — but how to entertain them? Under this precondition, movies can be divided into different types — there are action movies, romances, horror films...and maybe even a few sex films.
The Korean film Untold Scandal competed at the 2004 Shanghai International Film Festival. The film had performances from major stars. Many adults brought their children with them to watch the film, not expecting that it would have so many love scenes — things were really awkward.
There's no way that an adult will like the same sort of movies as a child only a few years old. But movies today are required to be suitable for anyone to see. You need to come up with some protection measures, and ratings are just that.
A good movie is one that entertains, whether it is a horror film or a a comedy. Like a table, whose basic function is to hold things but to which I can add art. If people are frightened watching a horror film then it has succeeded; to this base, add good cinematography, lighting, music, a theme that comes out under scrutiny, emotions — this kicks the drama up a notch, but the precondition is that the ghost has to be scary. If you say that the film can't be too scary, what's the point in scaring a child?
To make the movie sector flourish, there needs to be a rating system. This point must be very clear. The function of Hollywood films, for example, is to entertaining the audience and chase the box-office. Different kinds of films can be shot under this main condition - you can talk patriotism, humanity, and even the mafia.
A rating system is a centralized obstruction. Without a rating system, many movies are unable to be filmed. Horror films, ghost films, and sex films are all unfilmable. The movies that get made treat the audience as children — actually, this disappoints on both sides — adults are indifferent, and children are confused. Today's horror films don't resemble horror films; they've become thrillers. Ghost stories can't be shot at all. China has a rich history of ghost stories, but they're no good in movies. The mainland version of A Chinese Ghost Story was called Xiao Qian because the word "ghost" couldn't appear in the title.
China is shooting movies today with its hands and feet tied. They're not tied as tightly as before, but they're still tied.
To avoid criticism and questions toward reality, some directors have thrown themselves completely into making costume dramas. Settling scores and killing enemies presents no problems when set in ancient times, but put them in modern times and they won't be approved. Costume dramas are like a safe harbor. Since there's other no way out, the only solution is to shoot movies that neither interest nor move.
Recently, I had a script myself whose contents I thought were very good. I wanted to work with a Shanghai partner, but in the end their script consultation team didn't pass it. Then the production company didn't approve. The arts office of the cultural administration: no good. Then the city propaganda department: no good, either. Finally we took it to the film bureau, and it was no good there, either. If this continues, will movies still be movies?
The greatest advantage to openness is that there is much more space for making movies. When making choices, you don't have to consider whether they'll be approved, whether the plot points will be allowed; rather, you can boldly go and do things, and what rating you ultimately receive will depend on what you make. The reform and opening up of the movie sector is far, far behind when compared to other industries. Just opening up isn't enough - they need to be encouraged to take greater risks.
Having Category III, try to shoot Category II
I want to return to the question of how to approach movies. If you only see them as tools of education, then you're headed for a dead-end. Whether to put more entertainment in the picture or more sermonizing is in the hands of the director.
Children are prevented from watching some movies in the US; these are mainly aimed at adults, things like ghost movies and horror films are very profitable and quite well-liked by the people. They can be mined quite deeply and the market is very large. But we can't make them. We can only snatch glimpses of other countries' ghost movies and horror films.
People who oppose ratings take too simple a view of Category III films. Their reason is that all directors will try to make money by shooting pornography. It's like all Cat III films are pornography - this is too superficial. At first, Cat III films caused a sensation in Hong Kong, but after this sensation continued for a year and a half, no one cared much anymore. Everyone felt that there was nothing to it; Hong Kong has tons of ghost movies, but nothing has happened in Hong Kong.
Assigning ratings is most certainly not a terrible scourge — after ratings were assigned to Hong Kong movies, violent, depraved, and gang-related movies were all assigned to category III. Many directors did not want to shoot Cat III movies, since once a III rating was given the audience shrank considerably. Everyone wanted to shoot Cat II films, the middle level. Hong Kong has assigned ratings for 18 years, and in the total annual box-office, Cat III films do not even reach 10%, because no one watches them.
And even for porn we have requirements that they take place against the background of a good story. Pursuing gratuitous display will quickly lose the audience. You could give a bottom line to Cat III films, like no close-ups. Provide norms for Cat III films, a specific standard rather than just bumbling along from year to year.
Crazy Stone demonstrated my view - can mainland directors shoot this kind of movie? Yes. For them, the issue is one of whether the picture is worth it to shoot. Facts have demonstrated that low-budget movies can win the love of the audiences; that is, to a certain degree they've satisfied the requirement I mentioned to entertain the audience. It had quite a few lines mocking modern people and contemporary society. Those are things that we don't see in typical films.
In China, the government plays a leading role in film. If it truly has a mind to bring up Chinese film, then it must use strong remedies like were used in Korea: enact reforms, and there will naturally be a response. Looking at today's pattern, an economically-driven tide will end up drowning small, creative waves, and what's left will be two or three large ones. When we make movies we hope that there will be many mid-range films; you can't wait all day for those one or two that will fill the seats.
The authorities cannot treat all movies the same; the outcome will be that directors with money and skills will continue to improve while movies by new directors will get progressively weaker and no one will watch. It will divide into two extremes — this is not normal.
We do not lack people. What we lack is a system.
Wang Xiaofeng, naturally, has a slightly different take:
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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.