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No space for quality cinema

Beaten down by SARFT

Most people agree that Chinese cinema and television are not as good as they could be, but they disagree as to why.

Is it the vulgarity, the catering to the lowest common denominator? SARFT, the regulatory agency everyone loves to mock, has been enjoying an unaccustomed spate of good feeling after issuing orders to suspend several widely-criticized reality shows, so perhaps things are looking up.

Or maybe its that contemporary entertainment doesn't deal enough with uplifting themes. Patriotism, for example. China Film Group chairman Han Sanping recently urged the country's filmmakers to carry out their duty to sing the praises of the nation.

PR blogger Imagethief explains "Why patriotism won't save the Chinese film industry":

Imagethief was intrigued to read in an AP article a week or two ago that Han Sanping, Chairman of the government-backed China Film Group, has called for more patriotism in Chinese movies. Han minced no words, saying:

"The reality of this country's economic reforms is that the country, the race, is prospering. This must be extolled. It can only be extolled. There can't be anyone who makes fun of it. People who do either have ulterior motives or they're mentally challenged," the executive was quoted as saying.

"As a Chinese director ... as a Chinese actor, this point of view must be firmly entrenched," Han said.

He also said he wanted to see more "ethically inspiring" content produced by his group.

Imagethief is all for extolling that which needs to be extolled, although he also believes that almost anything, including the rise of China, can be made fun of. Imagethief is also easily excited when bureaucracy sticks its nose into popular culture because it is inevitably a train wreck and often precludes the need for anyone else to make fun of anything. In fact, government involvement in any aspect of popular culture, unless it is simply cutting a check, is generally bad form. This is because politicians and bureaucrats are, by and large, crappy arbiters of taste.

It's a terrific rant. Go read it.

Then read this piece by Chang Ping, editor of Southern Metropolis Weekly magazine. Chang Ping argues that when fiction is criticized for not reflecting an idealized reality, and reality itself is too sensitive to touch, quality film and television becomes an impossibility:

After Chongqing TV's First Heartthrob (第一次心动), similar programs Guangdong TV's Date With Beauty (美丽新约) and Shenzhen TV's Super Date (超级情感对对碰) were ordered to stop broadcasting. In the eyes of viewers, they all share one quality: vulgarity. Actually, this vulgarity reflects a lack of creativity, duplicated content, impoverished ideas, and poor moral quality. As people wring their hands in frustration, has anyone asked what brought things to their present circumstances?

In all the times it has wielded the knife, SARFT has been the hero just this once. When it required TV hosts to dress properly, keep subdued hair-styles, and speak standard Mandarin, or when "Super Boys" was changed into "Happy Boys," everyone felt that it was abusing its power and meddling in things that were none of its business. But this time it has won wide acclaim. According to the results of a survey by China Youth Daily's survey center, 96.4% of those respondents who were aware of what First Heartthrob was cast their vote in support of SARFT's action.

One gets the feeling that SARFT's policies are not stable: alternately strict and permissive, sometimes hitting the mark and sometimes going far afield. Or else that its policies have changed, turning to follow public opinion and only looking after those things that people complain most vociferously about. In fact, this is not the case. SARFT is a serious agency; there should be no doubt about the longevity of its policies and its ability to carry them out. The "meddlesome" image of the past has a cause-and-effect relationship with the "satisfy the people" image of today.

To make this easier to understand, let us look at a recent blog post from film star Jet Li. In the guise of discussing with his online friends how to shoot a movie, he expressed his long-held resentment at SARFT. Most of Jet Li's movies, from Bodyguard from Beijing through Danny the Dog, have not passed the censors. Fiction does not tally with the facts, but realism is too sensitive; Chinese police beating foreigners is no good, but having them beaten by foreigners is even worse. Setting the story on the mainland doesn't work, but you can't move it to Taiwan, so where are you going to shoot? Jet Li is at a loss. But there are answers. One is to work the "main theme," and the other is to do crappy costume dramas. Li's Fearless is a fusion of both - the story's weak, and it's full of sermonizing.

Jet Li gave an example: the movie Kiss of the Dragon was banned because Chinese cops fought and killed people overseas, and this harmed China's image. In the same movie, there was a scene in which he used a French national flag to beat French police. He asked producer Luc Besson whether this would get banned in France, and Besson told him to go ahead and fight, there wouldn't be a problem because the audience wouldn't confuse a movie with reality. Such a simple-sounding truth, but SARFT and the citizens nurtured by its policies cannot comprehend it.

As an example of the taboo over realism, we can look at the well-known film Mission Impossible: III. It has a scene in which shirtless Chinese people are playing mahjong. Even though this is a common sight in China, it was still thought to hurt the country's image, and SARFT gave the order to delete it. Of course, this only affected screenings on the mainland; internationally, the original version was shown. What magnificent self-deception.

This double-taboo on both fiction and reality restricts the Chinese people's imagination and limits their awareness of reality. What's left for television shows in the absence of those two elements? Hence, our serious TV news programs aren't as timely or in-depth as other people's, and our entertainment programs are much less rich and interesting than theirs. What will you have the viewers watch? When a fresh, new program suddenly appears, everyone crowds forward to see it. This is abnormal in and of itself, not to mention the fact that the program was copied from a foreign show.

If we had better current events news, they'd naturally shunt off a portion of the audience; if we had creative, healthy entertainment shows, they too would command a segment of the audience. The remaining few low-class programs wouldn't have such high ratings - they wouldn't be terribly successful, and thus wouldn't raise the ire of the public. And if those programs implemented a ratings system so that adults could satisfy their base interests at designated times, what's not to like?

So we see SARFT's heroic cancellation of vulgar programming is like someone who has beaten another person to a pulp and driven him to the streets, only to save him from the toxic garbage he picks up to quell his hunger.

Jet Li closes his blog post with a question for his readers (translation from his blog):

With the Chinese movie market growing strong, many foreign investors want to invest in China. How can we combine all of the positive attributes of the Eastern and Western film markets to become a global industry?

I am still in the learning process. I hope that all of my friends on the internet can discuss what types of action film stories would be accepted by the audience in Chinese theaters.

What is your opinion?

Imagethief closes his post with a simple list of steps the government can take to improve domestic film, ending with "Shut the fuck up." I'll step out on a limb here and say that the chances of SARFT heeding this advice are pretty much nil.

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Imagethief also calls for a ratings system, which echoes mainland opinion:

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