Beijing-based copywriter Max Peskin sheds light on Beijing’s outsourcing of film censorship to provincial governments – and how it might be lightening the state’s heavy hand
Censorship has always been a hot topic button for China’s media, feature films being no exception. In comparison to China’s rapidly rising film industry income, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio Film and Television (SAPPRFT) has been much slower to allow risky or risqué content to appear on the silver screen, whether locally produced or foreign made. Although Chinese filmmakers have long been eager to showcase their artistic capabilities in theaters worldwide, SAPPRFT’s rigid guidelines have left local talent questioning if it can compete while complying with such restrictions on creative content. Some local filmmakers have even gone as far as to question if SAPPRFT will ever adapt a more lenient policy on censorship.
However, a recent change in China’s censorship procedure has shown that while full-on free expression may not lie in the foreseeable future, local filmmakers could soon enjoy a little more creative wiggle room thanks to a decentralization of their censorship review. While provincial government will play a bigger role in deciding which local films will be featured on the silver screen, it will do little to stop SAPPRFT from asserting its authority over film screening venues, such as with the Beijing Independent Film Festival.
As the second largest film market in the world, creativity is increasingly crucial for China’s box office, which has become a key target for powerhouse studios and aspiring filmmakers. In 2013, the total box office revenue reached $3.6 billion, a 27% increase in comparison to 2012. It has also been reported that, on average, China puts up nearly ten new movie screens a day. These types of statistics lend further support to Ernst and Young’s prediction of China’s global box office dominance by 2020. Some noteworthy Chinese film studios include China Film Group (Journey to the West, American Dreams in China), Huayi Brothers (Personal Tailor, Back to 1942), DMG Entertainment (Transcendence, Iron Man 3), and Shanghai Film Group (A Touch of Sin, Aftershock). Top Hollywood studios, such as Disney, DreamWorks and Legacy, continue to look for ways to capitalize on the Chinese film industry’s momentum, such as through collaborating in international co-productions with local studios or establishing their own branch offices in China.
The Chinese government has taken notice of the film industry’s potential: It offers film studios a range of handicaps to keep local films competitive against Hollywood blockbusters, such as tax incentives, preferential scheduling and black-out dates for foreign films.
In its most recent attempt to give local filmmakers a helping hand competing against foreign studios, SAPPRFT has decided to decentralize its content reviewing procedure, allowing the provincial offices to determine what is appropriate for theaters. Starting in April 2014, the Chinese government gave provincial film departments authority to independently review locally produced films, though foreign films and international co-productions must still be reviewed at SAPPRFT’s Beijing headquarters. Although decentralization was intended to help speed up the lengthy film reviewing process for local filmmakers, some questioned if the change could result in riskier content being approved for Chinese theaters. Nobody was quite sure: Following news of the policy change, Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin) commented that he found it difficult to determine whether this move really meant more leniency for the local filmmakers.
However, a locally produced feature film, Factory Boss, may be proof that the change in procedure has given some ground to filmmakers whose movies contain more controversial content. Zhang Wei’s film tells the story of a Shenzhen toy company owner (Yao Anlian) who tries to meet his client’s expectations while still attempting to run a respectable factory. In an attempt to keep his factory afloat and his staff employed, the factory owner accepts an unfavorable contract to produce toy dolls. Meanwhile, an undercover reporter has infiltrated the factory to expose poor working conditions and Yao’s character soon finds himself in a series of scandals that threatens his livelihood and his reputation.
Factory Boss highlights the touchy topic of poor working conditions and employee mistreatment, problems which the All-China Federation of Trade Unions supposedly takes care of. Although there is no specific rule which states that poor working conditions are not allowed onscreen, the factory’s downward spiral to sweatshop-like conditions in the film would likely fall under the category of “propagating passive or negative outlook on life, world view and value system.” China’s ugly history of poor working conditions only increases the government’s hesitation toward exhibition of the topic. Other film elements which are prohibited in the eyes of SAPPRFT include ghosts, historical distortion, and vulgar content.
Despite Factory Boss’s focus on poor working conditions, it surprisingly made it past the provincial censorship board and has been scheduled to be shown in theaters. Even though the film is expected to garner a lukewarm box office reception, the provincial film department was willing to take a chance on it due to Zhang’s strong ties to the region. In fact, the Shenzhen provincial government even aided Zhang’s efforts to promote the movie. The government’s support seems to have paid off, as Factory Boss was not only accepted into the Montreal World Film Festival, but also won Yao Anlian the award for best actor.
Zhang was not afraid to announce how important the region was for his film, telling The Los Angeles Times that, “In Shenzhen, I’m somebody; I can get stuff done. In Beijing, I’m a nobody.” Thanks to SAPPRFT granting the provincial office the authority to review Factory Boss, Zhang Wei was able to have his controversial film shown to the public. His success will likely compel other filmmakers to test out relatively controversial feature films outside the confines of Beijing, where they might otherwise be rejected by the SAPPRFT’s central censors.
Although this policy change can be counted as a small victory for local filmmakers, the war on censorship is far from over. In August, Chinese authorities shut down the 2014 Beijing Independent Film Festival. Although the festival had long been a target for Chinese officials, this year marked the first time it was completely shut down by authorities. Police officers not only blocked anyone from entering the venue, but also detained the festival’s organizers, Wang Hongwei, Fan Ron and Li Xianting. Only after the organizers signed a document waiving their right to hold the festival were they released.
Due to the currently unavoidable heavy presence of censorship in the Chinese film industry, the progress of free expression should be measured in inches, not miles. It is easy for the Beijing Independent Film Festival’s shuttering to grab headlines, but it should be understood that China’s film industry is still very much in its infancy. Opening up the flood gates may be a desirable action for filmmakers both local and worldwide, however the government and studios need time to establish crucial guidelines for content, such as a film classification system, before relaxing controls to a more substantial degree. (Assuming they are willing to, of course.)
While China’s creative talent will have the shadow of censorship draped over its shoulder for years to come, SAPPRFT’s decentralization could be considered a baby step in the right direction for local filmmakers looking to explore new areas of creative expression.