Censor's role not one for mere mortals

Updated: 2014-12-22 14:55

By Raymond Zhou(China Daily USA)

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Expurgating unsavory content from movies comes with good intentions but often ends up with unintended real-life black humor

Gone With the Bullets is a highly anticipated Chinese film. Unlike most films where the biggest suspense comes at the last reel, this Jiang Wen undertaking has a suspenseful beginning. To be accurate, the cliffhanger took place 11 days before the movie opened on Dec 18.

A media screening to be held on Dec 7 was canceled on short notice, shocking legions of reporters who had come from across the country to take a first look. They were told the movie had not passed censorship as had been expected, so could not be shown even to an invited audience.

Censor's role not one for mere mortals

That night, a photo of a page allegedly containing the opinions of the censors surfaced online. The reasons given are very specific: "Some plots and dialogues are crude, making fun of classics and celebrities, or containing sexual innuendoes. They must be rectified. Specifically, the close-up shots of kicking legs and twisting buttocks must be deleted from the opening dance sequence. The moving shot through a phalanx of legs must be deleted." The list goes on.

That moving shot, as far as I know, is a tribute to Busby Berkeley, an American filmmaker who excelled at shooting dance numbers in the golden age of 1930s Hollywood. It is probably considered bawdy without venturing into the realm of risque. Most of the "inappropriate" elements ordered excised are even less conspicuous. They mostly involve puns that would elicit knowing chuckles from adults but totally elude children.

To be fair, within the Chinese context this film is not an outlier in terms of adult content. It is titillating at most. For a better perspective, a coming-of-age romantic film that is boffo with box-office turnout this month has a plotline about abortion, as did several hit movies of the same genre in the recent past. And graphic violence is commonplace in action and war movies.

To show how much China has progressed in screen explicitness, a love story 30 years ago could show only the pair holding hands or sharing a bike, and nowadays even the most puritanical viewer has raised no objection over the couple "rolling with the bedsheet", a Chinese euphemism for having sex. But, in this case, it should be taken both literally and figuratively. It seems that, as long as the couple's bodies are not fully revealed, the act of sex is allowed on Chinese screens, at least partially.

The way Chinese movies are vetted for public screening bears a great deal of resemblance to the Hays Code, enforced in the United States from 1930 until 1968. It was a set of guidelines designed to promote moral behavior. The Hays "don'ts" and "be carefuls" tend to overlap to an eye-popping extent with what we have in today's China. Of course there are areas of divergence: There is less rigidity on the Chinese screen for intimacy if it involves a legally married couple or a couple in love, and more constraints for portraying dark characters who do not go through redemption.

The 2001 comedy Shaolin Soccer was banned presumably for fear of offending the sensibilities of the pious. "How can you portray us as fun-loving soccer players instead of meditating and chanting Buddhists?" That seems to be the preemptive question that derailed this hilarious comedy. That sets me thinking about a US equivalent: What would Will H. Hays have said to a movie titled "Mormon Football" or "Amish Baseball"?

By the way, a movie denied a permit for screening does not mean it will never see the light of day. It just means the investors cannot make a penny out of it as the movie will usually be pirated and watched by more people than it would otherwise attract to the cinema.

Therein lies the paradox of censorship, because it calls attention to the kind of content the censors do not want the public to see. It often serves as the most effective publicity for both the movies and the questionable content.

I can understand the rationale behind the policy. It is intended to protect those who are vulnerable to certain elements in films. The complication is, these elements tend to evolve with the years, such as we see with the portrayal of love scenes, and have a different impact on different audience groups. As a general rule, one's tolerance for the dark side of humanity - I mean the movie depiction of it - grows with age.

The world is fraught with imperfections. If we show the world only as it should be, all we can have is fairytales, and maybe not the Brothers Grimm versions of them since they tend to be dark and scary. A child psychologist will tell us that we had better hide some truths from people of certain ages. For example, it would be cruel to tell a three-year-old that there is no Santa Claus. But to convince a 20-year-old that there is a Santa Claus would be ludicrous.

A ratings system is not a panacea. It won't be able to solve all problems related to the appropriateness of movie content. If a 30-year-old filmgoer is allergic to the visual presentation of, say, someone writing on the chalkboard, a film company or a ratings committee probably won't be able to raise a red flag for him. But for most of the public, a ratings system designed with the nation's underaged in mind will remove the bulk of the worries that plague parents and guardians.

In a sense, censors are playing the role of the guardian. But it overreaches when it wants to play God. Nobody is fit for that position - not we mortals. To shield children from unsuitable influences is to recognize that some elements are appropriate by age. But some people seem to have the mistaken notion that whatever is not good for children will not be good for all age groups.

When enforced rigorously, it essentially places everyone on the same line as those incapable of winnowing the chaff away, so to speak. The condescension is palpable in their eagerness to protect.

The irony is, Chinese children are exposed to so much screen unsavory material that it would take children in other civilized countries by surprise. In the 2013 fantasy film Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, a river monster is shown swallowing a baby alive, a vivid process that would probably put the movie in the R category (barred to those under the age of 17). Not only was there no alert for parents at cinemas, but the TV station that bought its broadcast rights announced proudly that it would be aired without any modification whatsoever. There is no way any other country or responsible broadcaster would do that.

The difficulty of introducing a ratings system lies in the mentality throughout Chinese society that censorship is supposed to weed out slime. Actually, it is not in a position to pass judgment on the quality of a work or elements of it. It functions as a label that notifies consumers of its content so that the latter can make better purchasing decisions. Until a consensus is achieved about this function, we will have to put up with the Hays-like dilemma.

The writer is editor-at-large of China Daily. Contact him at raymondzhou@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily USA 12/22/2014 page8)