Too much skin.
SARFT's off to a running start this year with its first film ban.
Shortly before the end of 2007, the Administration issued a notice banning pornographic films—those that contain "rape, prostitution, and explicit sex"—from competing in festivals. Lost in Beijing (苹果), whose international version contains rape, prostitution, and explicit sex scenes (at least by mainland standards), competed at the 57th Berlin Film Festival last February. The film finally made it to screens after repeated tangles with the censors that led to a name change (it's known as Apple in Chinese) and the deletion of about 20 minutes worth of footage.
On 3 January, SARFT posted a notice announcing that it had suspended Lost in Beijing's screening license and would carry out punishment against the film's producers. The producers are accused of distributing deleted scenes on the Internet, entering an unapproved version of the film in the Berlin Festival, and engaging in improper promotion of the film.
Fang Li, the film's producer and co-writer, was mentioned by name in the notice and received a two-year suspension from the industry because of his position as representative of the production company, Laurel Films. Southern Metropolis Daily spoke to Fang, who is currently in the US:
Fang Li told a reporter that he received a phone call from the production office at the Film Bureau informing him of his punishment. Then he went online to carefully look over the notices on the entire situation. He believes that the punishment handed down by the Film Bureau is unreasonable. He said, "First, the so-called 'complete version' of Lost in Beijing that is in circulation is an unfinished edit that someone stole off the workstation. I shouldn't be held responsible for this sort of bootleg. Second, it's been over half a year since we went to the Berlin Film Festival. I've written two self-criticisms for the Film Bureau explaining the situation. Third, the film passed was repeatedly edited and passed the official censors. Now they want to suspend its license and recall all copies. This has me mystified as to what sort of version would ultimately be problem-free." He told the reporter, "I've never been antagonistic toward those official agencies. I've been feeling my way along. Where are the lines?" The reporter asked whether, in order to avoid trouble, he would shy away from realistic subject matter if he returned to the film industry after his two-year ban was up. Fang replied with conviction: "No. This is China's most moving, most important point in time, and all of this won't be around again. I like these realistic topics. How could I not film them?"
Fang was previously involved with Lou Ye's Summer Palace, which resulted in five-year suspensions for Lou and another producer, Nai An.
When Today Morning Express asked director Li Yu whether pulling the movie from theaters would affect her at all; she responded: "No. The first theatrical run of Lost in Beijing is finished and I am satisfied with the box office."
The Berlin festival was held in February, 2007; the ban at this late a date gives the impression that SARFT is using Lost in Beijing as a warning to the industry, or else that it purposefully delayed acting until the film's investors made back their money.
That the film was even able to reach screens at all was surprising to some observers. Lao Huang, a film critic with Movie World magazine, put up a blog post in November that praised the uncut version of the film but declined to discuss it in detail for fear of bringing it the attention of the authorities:
Sorry—yesterday afternoon a few colleagues and I stole off to watch the full version of Lost in Beijing. Truth be told, I felt a response when I watched it (no, it mostly wasn't a lower-body response)—like I wanted to pick up a pen right then and write about it, because it was the sort of movie that you couldn't help but applaud, the sort you only get a couple of every year. But when I went to leave, someone reminded us that we should not impulsively write anything about what we felt after watching the full version—we did not want this movie to run into any problems before it reached theaters. Thinking over the long and troubled road the movie had already traveled, I felt that they guy had a point, so I changed my mind. I figured that it would be an absolute shame in Chinese cinema in 2007 if the move were not able to meet the public in the theaters, if at a critical juncture it was dragged down by the careless chattering of a few of us loudmouths. At any rate, there have been quite a few shameful episodes this year: Summer Palace, Thirteen Princess Trees, Exodus, Lust, Caution, Trouble Makers, Blind Mountain....those that weren't seized on the spot had already been tied up and gelded. In the end, when you take a look at China's silver screen, there are very few whole men still around (and now they're not letting the women escape, either). OK, then—I'll hold it in for a while and not write anything. But once I got outside and felt the breath of the cold wind, I changed my mind again—can a little article written by an insignificant scholar really kill a whole film? I don't believe it. If I went to a restaurant to have a meal and the cook was dragged out onto the street and beaten to death by a gang of thugs, it's certainly not because I, a customer, complimented the cook in front of those thugs. They'd already hatched the plan to kill him, and I just carelessly let loose a silent fart; perhaps misfortune fell upon the innocent.
But I knew in my heart that it would be the height of naiveté to refuse to believe in an outcome if it eventually occurred. So I prepared myself, suppressed my ecstatic, wild rhapsodies, and wrote nothing at all until...until today when I chanced upon the following, which was supposedly uttered by "a leader of XX department": "The plot of the film is an insulting depiction of the present age!" I don't believe this individual made this judgment because of some problem with his IQ, just as I have never believed that the abject state of Chinese cinema today is completely unrelated to the grand institution that this individual represents. I can hold it in no longer; I almost want to strike the table and stand up.
(Ultimately, in the end, I changed my mind several times, thought things over and over, and decided to delete those 2659 characters. I don't want to add to Lost in Beijing's troubles; this overwhelming film does not in any way insult our era—to the contrary, with admirable bravery and unparalleled technique, it stands as an impressive witness to an age that often leads me to feel lost. One day, when we are long dead, I believe it will still endure.)
The furor over sex obscures the fact that SARFT's initial public response to Lost in Beijing, in the form of a broadside that Film Bureau vice-director Zhang Hongsen issued against several independent films, was that it presented a far too depressing and inaccurate portrayal of Beijing life. True, sex scenes that would draw a "restricted" rating in other countries were among the more than 50 cuts that the censors demanded, but many others involved social morality, characters' motivations, and the city's image.
Zhang attacked the film as not representing the "real Beijing"; in the edited version, scenes of the dirty city were cut, as were shots of Beijing's political landmarks. Li Yu commented to Southern Metropolis Weekly that the "real Beijing" doesn't have any real meaning:
We did not intentionally choose exterior shots to show a multi-story building and then a low-rise, in order to manufacture contrast. We just shot wherever we went, without any particular selection. One of our ideas was that wherever you shoot in Beijing isn't really Beijing, because today's Beijing is far too complicated a concept. Tian'anmen used to represent Beijing, but can you say that Tian'anmen represents the entirety of Beijing today?
The film presents a bleak picture of people motivated by sex and money. When Liu Pingguo (played by Fan Bingbing), a masseuse in an upscale club, is raped by her boss (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), her husband An Kun (Tong Dawei), a window-washer, decides that this is a chance to make some money. He only succeeds at blackmail when it turns out that Pingguo is pregnant and the boss wants a child: the two families strike a deal that depends on the paternity of the child.
Lost in Beijing movie poster: "Indulgent flesh, lost soul."
Like the version of Lust, Caution that was tailored for the mainland, Lost in Beijing was edited to be healthier and more positive. Prostitution was eliminated (the boss's trysts as well as the fate of a masseuse who is fired early in the film) and an affair that the boss's wife carries on with An Kun out of spite was excised completely. Characters were tweaked to make them more sympathetic while others were given their just deserts. And a scene of Pingguo accepting cash from the boss was deleted to allow her to leave with her "self respect" intact.
In his retrospective of the major films of 2007 (since deleted from his blog), Lao Huang comments that the uncut version is a powerful depiction of certain realities in society today:
Of course, it's not perfect. For example, the treatment of female lead Liu Pingguo does not have the mature consideration that it requires; the character seems to lack the shock of personal awakening. This is in fact the key reason why the movie is unable to create a sufficient feeling of tragedy. Perhaps. But at the very least there are few movies that dare to be this real, this direct, in their reflection of the acute problems in contemporary urban China. This alone is sufficient to shake my thinking. Few films as dynamically illustrate the moral breakdown and ethical confusion of contemporary society. Few films as deeply and dramatically depict the emotional lacerations brought about by the gulf between rich and poor (comparatively, Curiosity Kills the Cat is just a self-deceiving fairy tale). Tony Leung's character is not a subjective demonization of China's rich; the wealthy do observe the rules of the game (not because they are any nobler than the poor, but because doing so is more beneficial to them). By contrast, the ones that have their values out of balance and who take dangerous risks are the poor, who are already in a disadvantaged position. Is this not reality? But who was it that actually created this reality?
Some commentators suggested that a ratings system would allow films like Lost in Beijing to make it to screens relatively intact. But experts consulted for a special feature in this week's Southern Weekly concluded that ratings are still a long way off.
The paper asked nine public figures (and one stand-in for SW readers) to give their thoughts on ten questions about where society is headed in 2008—ranging from the Olympics and China's football team to family planning, the stock market, and war with Taiwan (you'll be relieved to know that no one expects a war this year). Question #9 was "Will a film ratings system be implemented?" The results? Yes: 3 No: 10. Here are the responses:
Fan Yijin (newspaperman): The government's mentality has not yet opened up enough. And our countrymen may not pay any attention to "rated what?"
Li Yang (director): The old revolutionaries face new problems; they're in the stream feeling for the next rock.
Li Changping (researcher into rural problems): It's all Lust, Caution's fault.
Han Han (novelist): They need to prop up Hong Kong's movie industry.
Rose Luqiu (TV journalist): Today's government is unexpectedly rational and flexible, and it has its enlightened side, so I'll choose to be optimistic.
A Lai (novelist): To date, this is the simplest of matters.
Yu Shicun (popular historian): There's already a system: Categories II and below you watch in the theaters, Category III you see in Hong Kong, and Category IV you buy on the street.
Hu Qiming (CEO, China Vision Group): "Ratings categories are impossible, but they truly are important"
It is plain to see that the management of film content in China is not scientific. However, the "ratings system" that has been used successfully for years overseas is still a verboten topic in the domestic film world, to the point that people will become angry when it is brought up. When national film conferences are held, people responsible for legal affairs will go around to conference representatives instructing them not to bring up proposals for a ratings system. At the Two Congress sessions in 2007, Gong Li spoke of setting up a ratings system, but unfortunately it was not set down in print, so there was no way to get a formal reaction to the proposal from the CPPCC. Judging from this, it appears impossible for a film ratings system to be set up in China in 2008. However, that does not mean we cannot take this opportunity to clarify a few misunderstandings that our countrymen have about the "film ratings system."
"Ratings" and "shooting pornography" have nothing to do with each other. The intent of setting up a ratings system is to protect the health of minors by restricting them from watching content that they do not yet understand. Take Curse of the Golden Flower, which was popular not long ago, as an example: that film was rated R in the US, and a note was appended that it was restricted because of "violence" (according to the authoritative movie website IMDB, the MPAA wrote "rated R for violence"). "R" means that persons under 18 [actually, 17] may not watch the film; otherwise, the theater is held liable. In Hong Kong, that film was rated Category III—a so-called "Cat III film"—basically the same as an American R rating: persons under 18 years of age may not watch it. However, on the mainland the attitude toward this film was completely different from that in the US and Hong Kong. Many places even organized groups of middle- and primary-school students to watch it.
Violent content is of course not suitable for children, but because the country does not yet have a corresponding legal standard, the oversight of violent content is quite permissive. For example, Protégé, directed by Derek Yee Tung-Sing, passed the mainland censors and was shown on mainland screens with practically no cuts at all. But that film was treated harshly in Singapore, where it had to be recut several times before it finally passed. Comparing the two situations, the advantage of a ratings system is obvious, at least on this point....
Hu's piece continues for a few more paragraphs, but it mostly repeats the arguments he made in early 2007 when he spoke to YWeekend.
Finally, a critic who writes under the name "Red Alert Soviet Army Doesn't Know Love" takes the interesting position that even the version of Lost in Beijing that passed the censors (or especially that version) is an adult film at heart:
Take a look at Hsu Chi's Cat-III films. Compared to them, of course Lost in Beijing can't be called a Cat-III film.
But the woodenness of the characters in Lost in Beijing clearly has the quality of a Cat-III film. The people in those films do not talk about emotions; all they can do is make love. Cat-III films leave plot behind and shoot scenes of people in bed as often as possible. Even Dream of the Red Mansion was filmed as a Cat-III film in Hong Kong. In Lost in Beijing, Tong Dawei's wife is raped by her boss, and he goes to his boss's wife to get compensation. But instead, the wife voluntarily makes love to Tong Dawei, turning the film into a distortion between "surrogate pregnancy" and "swingers club." This plot design, which discards the essence of the characters in society, has the cinematic texture of a Cat-III "lust for lust's sake"—it really seems like a Cat-III film. Speaking from a real life perspective, would the aging boss's wife really offer her flesh to a man who came to her door trying to blackmail her? How could a blackmailing peasant be certain that this wasn't some trap set by the boss's wife, "flesh for flesh" in compensation? This common sense that is a necessary part of everyday life is invisible under the Cat-III motivations of Lost in Beijing. What results is the absurd, ridiculous, Cat-III tone where everyone gets to go to bed.
So although Lost in Beijing doesn't have any Cat-III scenes, it has a Cat-III mentality.
UPDATE (2008.01.27): Variety's Kaiju Shakedown blog has an interview with Fang Li in which he discusses the complicated circumstances surrounding the ban and illuminates SARFT's relationship to the party's high-level propaganda agencies.
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