CASE STUDIES: Dealing with Chinese Censorship to Create Great Movies

The US film industry has seen the writing on the wall and knows that it's economic survival involves China.  But shooting in China and co-producing with Chinese companies means censorship is going to affect the story that makes it to the screen.  This willingness to give in to censorship even on non-controversial matters will stifle the creative decisions and directions of the filmmakers making the movies, maybe even to the detriment of the movie's quality.  A cynic might say that in the end, who cares about that as long as you're getting that box office yuan.  But it stands to reason that the kind of movie you make will determine how much of that money you make.  Put up a great movie and people will flock to it. Put up crap and people won't (at best you'll get a cult favorite that makes its money back over a long time, if ever). Most people are inclined to think that a great movie can't be made under the censor's watchful eye but that's not true. And Hollywood has a ton of experience making great AND lucrative movies despite censorship.  Consider the Golden Age of Hollywood under the censorship of the Hays Code from the early 30s to the late 50s.
Many film historians have remarked upon the many great works of cinema that emerged from this period of highly regimented film-making. One reason this was possible is that, with so many films being made, not every one had to be a big hit. A studio could gamble on a medium-budget feature with a good script and relatively unknown actors: Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles and often regarded as the greatest film of all time, fits that description. In other cases, strong-willed directors like Howard HawksAlfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra battled the studios in order to achieve their artistic visions. The apogee of the studio system may have been the year 1939, which saw the release of such classics as The Wizard of OzGone with the WindRebeccaStagecoachMr. Smith Goes to WashingtonDestry Rides AgainYoung Mr. LincolnWuthering HeightsOnly Angels Have WingsNinotchkaBabes in ArmsGunga Din, and The Roaring Twenties. Among the other films from the golden age period that are now considered to be classics: CasablancaThe Adventures of Robin HoodIt's a Wonderful LifeIt Happened One NightKing KongCitizen KaneSwing TimeSome Like It HotA Night at the OperaAll About EveMildred PierceThe Maltese FalconThe SearchersBreakfast At Tiffany'sNorth by NorthwestDinner at EightRebel Without a CauseRear WindowDouble IndemnityMutiny on the BountyCity Lights,Red RiverSuspicionThe Manchurian CandidateBringing Up BabySingin' in the RainTo Have and Have NotGoodbye, Mr. ChipsRoman HolidayGiant,Jezebel, A Streetcar Named Desire, and On the Waterfront[Wikipedia]
Whereas US censorship is aimed mainly at distinguishing subject matter not suitable for children, Chinese censorship goes beyond that to include subject matter that could threaten authoritarian rule. The guiding force behind the Chinese censor is an attempt to promote Confucian morality, political stability and social harmony.

According to SAFRTArticle XXV (and Article XIIIprohibits films contain the following 10 elements: 
(A) against the basic principles of the Constitution of; (B) harm national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity; (C) the disclosure of state secrets, endanger national security or harm national honor and interests; (Iv) incitement to ethnic hatred or ethnic discrimination, undermining national unity, or infringe national customs and habits; (E) promote cults or superstition; (F) to disrupt social order and undermine social stability; (G) propagate obscenity, gambling, violence or instigate crimes; (H) insult or slander others, infringe upon the legitimate rights and interests of others; (I) harm public morality or national cultural tradition; (J) have laws, administrative regulations and other content prohibited by state regulations. 
Furthermore, according to SAFRT Article XIV films of the following circumstances, should be cut or modified: 
  • Distorting Chinese civilization and history, seriously departing from historical truth; distorting the history of other countries, disrespecting other civilizations and customs; disparaging the image of revolutionary leaders, heroes and important historical figures; tampering with Chinese or foreign classics and distorting the image of the important figures portrayed therein;
  • Disparaging the image of the people’s army, armed police, public security organ or judiciary;
  • Showing obscene and vulgar content, exposing scenes of promiscuity, rape, prostitution, sexual acts, perversion, homosexuality, masturbation and private body parts including the male or female genitalia; containing dirty and vulgar dialogues, songs, background music and sound effects;
  • Showing contents of murder, violence, terror, ghosts and the supernatural; distorting value judgment between truth and lies, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, righteous and unrighteous; showing deliberate expressions of remorselessness in committing crimes; showing specific details of criminal behaviours; exposing special investigation methods; showing content which evokes excitement from murder, bloodiness, violence, drug abuse and gambling; showing scenes of mistreating prisoners, torturing criminals or suspects; containing excessively horror scenes, dialogues, background music and sound effects;
  • Propagating passive or negative outlook on life, world view and value system; deliberately exaggerating the ignorance of ethnic groups or the dark side of society;
  • Advertising religious extremism, stirring up ambivalence and conflicts between different religions or sects, and between believers and non-believers, causing disharmony in the community;
  • Advocating harm to the ecological environment, animal cruelty, killing or consuming nationally protected animals;
  • Showing excessive drinking, smoking and other bad habits;
  • Opposing the spirit of law.
Robert Cain, in a 2011 column for Indiewire, related from personal experience about producing under censorship rules;"...even this detailed list doesn’t cover it all. Censors have wide-ranging powers, and the rules seem to keep shifting. And censorship doesn’t just end at the script stage. I learned the hard way that when you’re shooting a film in China, there are eyes and ears everywhere."

So what to do in the face of such rules and watchful eyes?
If classical Hollywood cinema is a guide, a strategy for circumventing censorship will depend on the stylistic choices filmmakers make which allowed them to hint at the censored topics without having to focus on them.
The style of classical Hollywood cinema, as elaborated by David Bordwell, was heavily influenced by the ideas of the Renaissance and its resurgence of mankind as the focal point.
Thus, classical narration progresses always through psychological motivation, i.e. by the will of a human character and its struggle with obstacles towards a defined goal. The aspects of space and time are subordinated to the narrative element which is usually composed of two lines of action: A romance intertwined with a more generic one such as business or, in the case of Alfred Hitchcock films, solving a crime. [Wikipedia]
When the resurgence of mankind, psychological motivations and use of multiple subplots are your style, it's easy to see how you can bring up controversial topics and get away with it, since in the end the story is not to be diverted from its main point of depicting the narrative and psychological progression of the main characters whose story will end with a lesson learnt, a "bad guy" getting his comeuppance or civility restored.

Now, it's obvious that a film that has as it's main subject anything in the censorship guidelines will not be imported or co-produced in China.  But for stories where a censored item forms a subplot or even a small but crucial scene, a filmmaker can navigate around the censorship by relying on his or her aesthetic or philosophy to figure out a creative way of depicting it without dwelling on it.  It's either that or removing the subplot or scene entirely.  Of course, that aesthetic or philosophy has to allow for nuance.  Certain filmmaker's styles, forms and agitprop will just not survive a censor's review. Then again those types of filmmakers aren't really trying to break into the Chinese market and might not even get to receive financing and distribution from Hollywood studios, in the first place.
Another way to pass the censor is through the use of time and space as a narrative element and subject matter. For example, films set before the Communists took over seem to get away with more.
I often joke with friends who run their screenplays by me that, according to the government, nothing bad or subversive ever happens in the modern-day communist utopia that is China. If you want to explore any salacious topics, either set them somewhere else, or in some cases, you can set them in the past. 
See, before the Communist party took power in 1949, violence, crime, and—gasp!—even drinking occurred in China. Apparently, the pre-communist rulers were not sufficiently enlightened to prevent such unsavory behavior. For films set in the past, SARFT allows a bit more creative leeway (though not a lot). The reason so many period martial arts movies get made is that they are censor-friendly; a pre-1949 kung-fu punch is viewed very differently than a post-1949 one. [Robert Cain]
Style is such a powerful aesthetic tool because of the many meanings that can be created using selective sounds, imagery and montage.  Notice how style affected the use of time and space during the Hays Code era:
Time in classical Hollywood is continuous, since non-linearity calls attention to the illusory workings of the medium. The only permissible manipulation of time in this format is the flashback. It is mostly used to introduce a memory sequence of a character, e.g. Casablanca. 
Likewise, the treatment of space in classic Hollywood strives to overcome or conceal the two-dimensionality of film ("invisible style") and is strongly centered upon the human body. The majority of shots in a classical film focus on gestures or facial expressions (medium-long and medium shots). André Bazin once compared classical film to a photographed play in that the events seem to exist objectively and that cameras only give us the best view of the whole play. [Wikipedia]
The clearest use to circumvent the censor with time and space in a stylistic manner is that it allowed classical Hollywood to suggest a sex or a violent scene had happened without having to show the sex or violence. The composition of the image also allowed for the audience to recognize heroes and villains and identify with their psychological motivations by the way they were depicted in space.
This treatment of space consists of four main aspects: centering, balancing, frontality and depth. Persons or objects of significance are mostly in the center part of the picture frame and never out of focus. Balancing refers to the visual composition, i.e. characters are evenly distributed throughout the frame. The action is subtly addressed towards the spectator (frontality) and set, lighting (mostly three-point lighting) and costumes are designed to separate foreground from the background (depth). [Wikipedia]
Granted, the US in the 30s and 40s is different than China today.  The classical Hollywood studio system in place back then allowed for studios to produce and distribute films in a way that is no longer possible.  Although they produced big budget pictures, they did not produce the types of big budgets we see today with The Avengers of Transformers.  This allowed them to spread their money across more films (and led to the ascendancy of the B-movie and film noir).  Nonetheless, the point is that while no censorship is then ideal, when confronted with it, a filmmaker can still create something good, artistic and lucrative, despite it.

The new reality in filmmaking is that China is a major player now. Although there are issues as to how guidelines are modified to inhibit the discussion of certain matters, there is reason to hope that over time the censorship process will make way for more freedoms. Recent news such as the MPAA's deal with China to prevent piracy and decentralization of the censorship process lead one to hope that progress is continually being made.  And as producer, Robert Cain, concludes: 
It’s important to mention here that, while the system may seem draconian, the reality is that censorship in China is guided by flesh-and-blood human beings who often want to help. Our Shanghai party member was not so rigid that he couldn’t see we had made an honest and admittedly dumb mistake. And the SARFT committee members actually do want to see films get made; they allowed more than 500 to shoot in China in 2010 alone. 
It is more a positive then a negative that China is a major player now.  And the good news goes beyond just making tons of money.  Their hand will diversify the casts and the settings of movies showing American and other audiences Asian people and Asian cities as central to a film and not just as afterthoughts.  In a less direct way, if filmmakers rise up to the challenge of using their creativity to overcome censorship, it can even inaugurate another golden age in cinema to rival the classical Hollywood system.

So in the end, the question for filmmakers is: how will you be true to your vision despite the censors?

China Law Blog offers excellent insight into the actual business and legal considerations that go into co-producing films in China in a clear and concise way.  For starters:


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