10:30 am HKT Mar 9, 2015 CULTURE China’s Film Industry Asks for Help to Stop Second-Guessing Itself

Notable figures in China’s film industry are calling on Beijing to codify how it regulates and restricts movies, as they look for ways to make more creative films without running into trouble with government censors.

China keeps a tight rein on movie production and distribution. At the same time, the country lacks a formal rating system – like the one in the U.S. that labels movies PG or R based on violence, language or sexual content – that can help directors and executives tweak a movie to make it acceptable to authorities.

As a result, China’s film regulation is left to an opaque process run by the country’s film and broadcast regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. It bureaucrats vet scripts, oversee production and clear the final cut. To filmmakers, these officials appear to be guided by no more than their own gut feelings.

“Censorship is based on a small group of people’s preference and their own understanding of the policy,” said Yin Li, a veteran film director with the state-run China Film Group, as he attended this week’s annual legislative meetings in Beijing. Mr. Yin is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which advises the national legislature and is meeting this week.

Other agencies can get involved too. For example, a police drama might need clearance from the Ministry of Public Security, while a film with a hospital story line would needs clearance from the National Health and Family Planning Commission.

A nationwide law could fix that, its proponents say. While Chinese movies would still be censored, filmmakers would know what to avoid, they say, rather than second-guessing themselves. That could give them room to make movies that can compete toe-to-toe with Hollywood crowdpleasers.

“It was common to hear ‘this or that film was banned or was asked to be revised several times’ a few years ago,” said Mr. Yin. “But it happens less and less frequently now, as everyone is self-censoring.”

Wang Xingdong, vice chairman of the Communist Party-run China Film Association, toldlocal media on the sidelines of the legislative meetings that the absence of film legislation is the major reason for the lack of a major antigraft-themed film in the past decade. That means one of China’s most public campaigns has yet to get its own “Serpico,” the movie that highlighted law-enforcement abuses in New York, or its own “An Inconvenient Truth,” the environmental documentary from former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

Chinese film makers have made movies that take a hard look at corruption and other social ills.

The industry people is calling for legislation for years, but it is attracting more attention as the film market has boomed. China’s box office raked in about 4.05 billion yuan ($647 million) last month, boosted by the Lunar New Year holiday, surpassing the U.S. on a monthly basis for the first time, according to Beijing-based film research group EntGroup.

Despite the rising box office, industry figures and critics have lambasted a number of recent releases. Some of last year’s highest-grossing films are also the most-bashed by the audiences and critics.

“The audiences now are complaining about the content of domestic films, as they are reality-defying and repetitive,” said Mr. Yin. Referring to the likelihood that China will someday loosen the limit on the number of foreign films allowed on the mainland, he added, “how can we compete with Hollywood when the quota on imported films is lifted?”

The State Council released a draft of film industry promotion law in 2011 to gather public opinion.

Cai Fuchao, head of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, was quoted by local media as saying earlier this week that officials should accelerate the legislative process.

Two industry observers told China Real Time that the major resistance of enacting a law is from the censors as the absence of law gives them more gray space and freedom to wield power that otherwise will be limited.

“The reasons for the law’s absence are complicated,” said Chen Kaige, the director of the 1993 film “Farewell My Concubine,” on the sidelines of the meeting. “But a law should be in place. Isn’t  it time for the rule of law now?”

–Lilian Lin


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