Media regulation

SARFT uncovers a poisoned apple

JDM070328apple.jpg
Fan Bingbing and Tong Dawei lost in Beijing.
There's been a lot of discussion recently about remarks made by a SARFT official at a film conference in Jiangsu last week. Zhang Hongsen, deputy director of the Administration's Film Bureau, let fly at a number of art films that he said were shameful for the Chinese people.

· Jia Zhangke's Still Life: Zhang suggested that Jia cuts himself off from the people he films, and pointed to the dismal box-office for Still Life as evidence of artistic failure. Jia responded that Zhang's words did not sound like the friend he knew, and trusted that they'd been taken out of context. He affirmed that all critics have a right to their own opinions about his work.

· Lu Yue's Thirteen Princess Trees: Zhang attacked the broken ethical system of the film: "From Kubrick to Takeshi Kitano, there are many movies in the history of world cinema that reflect the cruelty of adolescence, but none of them are as confused as Thirteen Princess Trees. Contemporary students have many problems, but is their moral value system so degenerate?" Lu responded that since the film had been killed, such criticism was only natural, though 'degenerate' might be pushing it a bit.

· Ning Ying's Perpetual Motion: Zhang disliked the depiction of the bourgeoisie in this film, which came out last year: "It is decadent, vapid, and despondent. The creators made no judgments; on the contrary, it seems that they appreciated this feeling. I feel that this must be corrected. The master Luis Bunuel filmed The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie that portrayed the middle class, but he used the scalpel of cinema to dissect society and get people to think. This is where our young directors need more study."

· Li Yu's Lost in Beijing (苹果): Zhang thought that this film took advantage of ideological differences to chase international awards, insulting the Chinese people in the process. He said, "Our directors should consciously defend the honor of the motherland." Li affirmed that all critics have a right to their own opinions about her work.

Running through Zhang's criticisms was the notion that cinema is a tool for promoting Chinese culture abroad. He worried that international audiences would gain a mistaken impression of China through these films, and cited approvingly the words of a Berlin judge who said that Beijing is nothing like Lost in Beijing.

In its report on the Berlin festival, Hollywood Reporter notes that far from being impressed with the lawlessness and depravity of China as depicted Li Yu's film, audiences gradually walked out complaining that it was boring. In an earlier interview with HR, Li said that she wanted "Lost in Beijing" to be used for the Chinese title as well (instead of "Apple"), but the Film Bureau objected to the use of "Beijing".*

As usual with recent SARFT pronouncements (whether ex cathedra or at unofficial conferences), public opinion went fairly heavily against the Administration. Here's an op-ed by Chang Ping in Southern Metropolis Weekly, where he is deputy editor-in-chief:

SARFT spoofs domestic films

by Chang Ping / SMW

What is SARFT for? Most people would think that it is used to criticize domestic film and TV; otherwise, why would it issue ban after ban on TV and demand cut after cut during film reviews? Not long ago, a SARFT official issued a statement after watching a TV program that parodied Curse of the Golden Flower and The Banquet, saying, "artistic works should not be permitted to criticize domestic film." Perhaps because this had too much of a "officials may set fires but the people may not light lamps"-flavor and was too divorced from common sense, the media felt uncomfortable recording his exact words in their reports, and voluntarily changed it to "domestic films cannot be spoofed" (不准恶搞国产电影).

But it appears that SARFT was not grateful; they apparently really wanted you to understand: forbidding you from playing at something was for no other purpose than to keep it for themselves. So goes criticism, and so goes such a fun pursuit as egao. For example, saying "Restricting broadcasts of foreign cartoons during prime-time is the cry of the youth" is very egao: evidently those TV stations were stupidly unaware of the demands of the audience, but fought to broadcast foreign cartoons that were detested by the general youth. Recently, a deputy director at SARFT blasted Li Yu's Lost in Beijing and urged Jia Zhangke to learn sympathy for others. No matter how you look at it, straight-faced irony, egao criticism.

According to that deputy director, Lost in Beijing tells the story of a migrant worker couple. The wife is raped by her boss, and the husband uses this to blackmail the boss for 20,000 yuan. When he finds his wife is pregnant, he demands 120,000. The deputy director said, "As artistic expression, this story can be forgiven. But as Chinese people, we cannot permit this film to make an insulting depiction of our times." Why is it that "Chinese people" and "artistic expression" are so incompatible? His statement sounds a little bit insulting to the Chinese people. As for the story, even speaking from a strict interpretation of the law, isn't this just an out-of-court arrangement of a civil matter subsidiary to a criminal investigation, commonly called a "private settlement"? Give it to a judge, and it's possible that the judgment would be for 120,000 yuan - how does this insult the Chinese people? It's too egao! Thinking it over, it's best just to trust the analysis of someone online: "What an outrage! How could our bosses or leaders rape? Our boss only seduces, commits adultery, and drives good women to prostitution!"

As for Jia Zhangke, this deputy director's evaluation was genuinely innovative. Jia Zhangke has neither box-office nor scandal; isn't it his reliance on "compassion for lower levels" that's allowed him to make it to today? Even Zhang Weiping wasn't so bold as to deny this point during their argument, and he even admitted that Jia makes "art films" - in the minds of movie people, "art film" is a term of respect. This deputy director used his position as a "good friend" to say, "I've reminded Jia Zhangke that if he wants to climb high, he must have compassion for others." The words of this "good friend" were too weighty, virtually ripping everything out from under him, and they were directed at an entire generation: for sixth-generation directors, this is a common failing, to "not infuse movies with one's own feelings, but to depict things too objectively from the standpoint of an observer. This naturalistic description can extremely easily become an absolute realism. They've ignored drama; what they shoot looks exceptionally icy, monotonous, and insufficiently saturated with color...." What would the outcome be of following this deputy director's prescription for warmth, saturation, and drama? Isn't it clear to everyone that this would be a "main theme" film? He no longer uses "not permitted" in his sentence structure, but rather uses the techniques of artistic criticism to issue orders, the position of a good friend to perform administrative work. This too is egao. Like they say, face heaven and earth without reservation, but fear the official who's got an education.

* * *

Shanghai Youth Daily managed to find someone to support the minority position in a point-counterpoint column, but Lu Gaofeng's argument basically boils down to something like 'don't air our country's dirty laundry overseas':

If the criticisms of the foreign judges and the "blasts" of the Film Bureau official have not been overstated, then regardless of how strongly director Li Yu desires to express her individuality or to win a major international award in the world community, as a film-maker, she should not cast aside her duty to build the image of the country.

One cannot say that extreme examples like those in the film do not exist in real life, nor can one say that they aren't true-to-life, but if a director uses a "dispassionate observer" form of realism, or exaggerates in pursuit of sensory stimulation and psychological novelty, then the film may create a filthy, dirty, ugly image of Chinese people on the world stage....Starting off overall from the interests of the country and its people, every film-maker should take up their personal duty, and consider the interests of the country above their personal fame and the success or failure of the artistic experimentation of a particular movie. In this way, should the price paid by Lost in Beijing be even more painful, there is still nothing to complain about.

And short piece by Xu Bin in Monday's Mirror put the whole issue to rest by citing everyone's favorite critic of the dark soul of the Chinese people:

If you say that something like this has never happened in real life, or never could happen in real life, I'm afraid that the majority of people would disagree.

Then, is reflecting the scars of modern life an insult to the times and an affront to the Chinese people? There are film-makers overseas who do not think this way, and films that even immensely exaggerate the seamy side of life and reckless, repulsive power. Film-makers in China's Hong Kong do not think this way, either. They show gangs, corruption, and the difficult lives of the common people.

If it is forbidden to report on the scars of modern live, if you'd rather that the scars continue to fester, then I advise the relevant government departments to first get people together to go after Lu Xun - that "stroking both monks and Laozi," that "blood mantou," these things that reflect the "national inferior character" all are suspect for insulting the Chinese people.

Actually, even better eras have things that are not harmonious. Confronting those things is the only way to do right by this age.


Note 1: Oddly, a January China Daily report implies the opposite. However, since its report on Zhang's criticisms names Jia Zhangke as Apple's director, that interpretation might be suspect.
Note 2: Southern Metropolis Daily article found via the China Content wiki; thanks to lfc.

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There are currently 9 Comments for SARFT uncovers a poisoned apple.

Comments on SARFT uncovers a poisoned apple

tempest in a teapot.

the sad truth is that mainland cinema is largely irrelevant. make no mistake: many a prc auteur produced world-class work back in the day; but even jia zhangke has fallen far from his "platform," with nearly ten years gone.

where are the hou hsiao-hsiens or the cai mingliangs of the motherland, i ask?

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is about as supremely egao as you can get. But it definitely targets the upper class, not the middle class. Caramba!

throwaway comment from b - who are these "many a prc auter" from back in the day you write of (without even getting into a debate on the uselessness of terms such as 'auter', although for arguments sake I doubt whether there are even half a dozen true 'auters' in the entire history of cinema)?

Zhang Yimou? Check. And then?

I think you have made a mistake.

But yes, Chinese cinema is irrelevant, except to the western goatee-stroking turtle necks in Belin, Venice and the like. A very dull affair, but then always has been.

to mike above:

i'm glad you agree with the substance of my premise.

"many" is a relative relative concept, with the "present" being its implied point of comparison. the statement i had made previously was by no means a throwaway, however, and a list of significant prc directors and their relevant works might include:

wan laiming (various animated works), xie jin ("hibiscus town"), tian zhuanzhuang ("horse thief" and "the blue kite"), wu tianming, chen kaige ("yellow earth" and "farewell..."), zhang yuan ("east palace..."), jia zhangke ("platform" and "unknown pleasures"), and lou ye (parts of "suzhou river").

perhaps not as "many" as you would hope; but clearly more than a few for a span of but 40 years.

zhang yimou is a "cameraman."

Hi B - what you have done is make a list of film directors, not auters (your idea to use this term, not mine).

What I see is a subjective list of you favourite Chinese films and the put the director's name alongside them.

Maybe I am playing the pedant, but your initial post implied there was a whole raft of great film-makers - or auteurs - in New China's past.

Chen Kaige is the best example here of the redundancy of that initial argument - after Farewell My Concubine, what then? A great film-maker who has only one great film under his belt?

And while you may see Zhang as a cameraman, that would actually more entitle him to the label 'auteur' than any of the other film-makers you list, save Jia Zhangke.

to mike (again),

1. my response above was premised on the assumption that you had taken issue with my suggestion that there were produced formerly a greater number of world-class films than are produced currently in prc cinema. as evidenced by your most recent comment, however, you seem now principally to have taken umbrage at my earlier use of the word "auteur," and i apologize for the confusion (though i'm certain you'll forgive me since you had indicated in your first response that you weren't going to debate my use of the term).

2. to clarify my use of the term "auteur," i submit to you the current OED definition thereof:

"1. A film director whose personal influence and artistic control over his or her films are so great that he or she may be regarded as their author, and whose films may be regarded collectively as a body of work sharing common themes or techniques and expressing an individual style or vision."

simply put: a director who exercises substantial creative control over his or her works and who has a strong personal style.

plenty of those guys in my list above (only one or two of which i'd describe as personal faves).

3. in closing, i'll add that prc cinema is largely irrelevant precisely BECAUSE of china's fixation with auteurism; by the belief that great films are made by great "men," and the logical fallacy that great "men" must therefore make great films. the two most internationally recognized prc "auteurs," zhang yimou and chen kaige, are living examples both of the currency that this belief holds on the mainland, and of the bankruptcy of this belief. jia zhangke's recent film suffer the same flaw.

okay, the pedant strikes back. my final comment on the word I said I would not debate but couldn't resist.

the oed definition is correct. Your "simply put" was not. Looks like you read the definition and then re-wrote it to fit your argument. The key to the auter label is:
1. personal influence and artistic control
2. body of work sharing common themes

and definitely not:"director who exercises substantial creative control over his or her works and who has a strong personal style" - something I would argue 90% of directors have or should have.

so, chaplin, eisensten, ford and hitchcock are generally seen as auters. Chen kaige and lou ye are not.

Now whether this makes the former directors better than the latter is a whole different debate.

here ends the crappy film school lecture.

file under pendantry: the word is AUTEUR, gentlemen.

i would argue the chinese film industry of the moment is notable for what it might become, rather than for what it appears to be...

it's easy to diss a film, or even a number of films, for their shortcomings.
it is quite another to try to make a good film oneself, in this environment.

and there are a number of excellent journeymen directors who would not count as auteurs. so i do not think that 90% of good directors count as auteurs...

but i'd like to make a point: what we are struggling with now are the basics of voice, and vision, in a time when neither is easy to come by. that is apples to hitchcock and kubrick's oranges. but it is as much a reflection of their place and time in society, as other cinema greats. whether these films will evolve into something more recognizably great in the long view of history remains to be seen -- but perhaps we should not be too quick to find fault with those who try...

interesting points ada, except that I don't believe that we should be more understanding on bad films simply because of some abstract 'long view' of history. Curse, Banquet, Peacock and others are bad films because they are bad films, not because they have yet to be assessed in the history of cinema.

Many Chinese directors are being ample space (and funds) to express their voice and are still coming up short (in my opinion because of a combination of bad decision making and poor, over theoretical film school education).

And even if this was not true, many a great director has risen above restrictions of environment and censorship to express their voice and vision. Take Iran as an example. Maybe some of these directors need to stop trying to be controversial and start being creative. In the short-term.

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