BEIJING — On April 12, the famous commercial filmmaker Feng Xiaogang was honored as “director of the year’’ by the China Film Directors Guild. He has long been regarded as a safe bet by the authorities for his movies, many of which toe the party line.
Not this time. Feng got up on stage to accept his award and went on to describe the “great torment” of censorship. He spoke to spontaneous applause from the audience. But in a televised version the word “censorship” was itself censored, replaced with a beep.
By cutting it out, the authorities have, of course, only drawn attention to it. The video has since gone viral: When posted on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, it was reposted over 10,000 times. A quick search on the same site using the keywords “Feng Xiaogang” and “censorship” yields more than 150,000 results.
In speaking out Feng joined other acclaimed directors in decrying the ties that bind them. Last year Lou Ye hit the boiling point with the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) and publicly posted the censorship body’s directives on Weibo for his latest movie “Mystery.” In an act of protest he had his own name removed from the film’s credits before its release in China.
Of all the arts, film arguably suffers the most from the state’s censorship process. In addition to sensitive political topics, filmmakers are chastised for violence, sex or nudity. And with no hard-and-fast rules, film censorship is arbitrary. Censors are overly cautious.
As a Western entertainment lawyer who works on Chinese co-productions explained, “The government remains determined to subordinate the growth of the film industry to outcomes such as social stability and morality.”
This inane meddling only pushes down the quality of commercial films produced in China. But away from the hands of the censors, an indie scene flourishes. The trouble, though, is that these movies are not distributed and are never seen by the masses.
The indie director Peng Tao’s 2012 film “The Cremator” explores the real-life Chinese custom of “ghost marriages” — matchmaking for the dead to ward off loneliness in the afterlife, a practice that still occurs in some parts of rural China. The movie follows an unassuming undertaker who helps facilitate ghost marriages for cash in his poor town. When he faces a terminal illness, the undertaker makes his own ghost bride from a pretty young woman’s unclaimed corpse. But real life interjects in the form of his dead bride-to-be’s living sister. Peng handles what could be a gruesome subject matter with nuance and grace.
The Beijing-based director made the decision to retain his artistic freedom by shunning SARFT (none of his three films have been shown to the censorship body), and no doubt “The Cremator” is better for it. The sympathetic depiction of a custom that the state views as backward never would have flown with the censors. Peng’s independence comes at a cost: He can’t show the film in public theaters here.
Even with the censorship, however, the Chinese box office is booming. Revenues jumped 30 percent to $2.74 billion last year, making it the world’s second-largest market after the United States. Hollywood is flocking to China to make co-productions as a way to bypass the foreign quota system, which restricts imported films to just 34 a year.
But as American filmmakers vie for a piece of China’s box office, there is little question that it is going to be the bad side of the Chinese movie industry — the parts damaged or held up to ridicule by censorship — that they end up aligning themselves with.
Feng, Lou and Peng are the exceptions. Most filmmakers here simply work within the system. Michael Andreen, a Los Angeles-based independent consultant and producer who was in Beijing this week, explained that while his Chinese colleagues are frustrated they are also willing to collaborate with censors — “even considering it part of the film making process the way U.S. filmmakers consider working with the demands of the studios.”
Tuesday marked the end of the third Beijing International Film Festival. The weeklong event showed what matters most to the industry: money. In the lobby cafe of a smart international hotel where festival types were staying, there was excitement in the air, the type that comes with growth-at-whatever-cost. In one corner a suave, gray-haired executive counted out crisp one hundred renminbi notes into neat piles on a coffee table. His Chinese companions giggled and took photographs.
Photograph: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore