The year 1996 was a black one for Chinese filmmakers.
The political chill encouraged a waiting game; writers left their screenplay outlines
in drawers; directors found no inspiration in the precepts for spiritual civilisation
preached by Jiang Zemin. Only 107 films were produced and approved in 1996, a
fall of 27% on the previous year. It is a significant drop in a system that accords
paramount importance to production quotas: the mission, according to the official
jargon, assigned annually to every studio. Yet according to Ding Guangen,
head of the Propaganda Department, the general situation of the Chinese cinema
industry is good. A few blockbusters such as The Opium War and The
Red River Valley (Honghe gu) or The Years After Lei Feng
have lent a cloak of success to the catastrophic performances of a film industry
which is stifled by draconian censorship. The dance of the scissors is out of
When a film educates and enlightens people it should
be welcome, said Jiang Zemin to an assembly of cinema professionals in July
(1). Will that declaration allow the ideological pressure that weighs upon them
to be eased? One must hope so, for today Chinese moviemakers are in the grip of
Indeed the ideological crackdown of 1996 has had very serious
consequences for the film industry. At 107 films, the studios did not manage to
meet their production quotas. The 1996 production level is like a flashback to
the beginning of the 1980s, when total output was no more than 103 films in 1981,
and 115 in 1982.
At that time the film industry was slowly recovering from
the artistic nihilism of the Cultural Revolution, which had emptied the studios
of their artistic and technical staff. During the 1980s the film industry slowly
built itself up again: 63 films emerged from the studios in 1979, and 83 in 1980,
until a regular production of 130 to 150 films was achieved by the middle of the
The big studios of Peking, Shanghai and Changchun were
by far the worst hit in 1996. The number of films produced suffered a significant
fall of some 40% for Peking and Shanghai, and nearly 60% for the Changchun studio,
whose output last year did not exceed that of a small provincial studio in normal
times. The annual production quotas, set at around 20 films per year for the big
studios, are far from being met.
The circulation of cinema magazines suffered from the same
headlong slump. The figures thus become the cruel indicators of a crisis that
cannot be concealed, and an only too obvious lack of interest in the output of
this vintage. The weekly Popular Film is a typical example: offering itself
as a faithful reflection of film-goers tastes, each year it organises a survey
of its readers to elect the best film of the year, the best actress, etc., which
is how the Hundred Flowers Awards are adjudicated. At the end of the 1970s the
magazine used to go overboard on the front covers, displaying actresses with politically
correct plaits and pink, suitably peasant, cheeks; at that time circulation reached
an enviable 9.6 million copies, according to the China Daily. It took dozens
of printing works to take on the Herculean task of getting out the magazine each
week. Today little starlets encrusted with makeup show off their alluring outfits
across the centre spread, but even they are powerless to check the monumental
fall in interest. The circulation figure has dropped to the derisory figure, for
China, of 100,000 copies.
Some people account for the change by pointing to the growing
attraction of different leisure pursuits, such as karaoke: it allows people to
display their social standing, unlike the cinema, which has long been seen as
a night out for the poor. The exponential growth of the video market, the home
cinema, must also have had some effect (production of VCRs has gone up by 200%
The Hollywood invasion
Another indicator of the depth of the slump affecting the
national film industry is that foreign films are taking the lions share
of audiences at the box office. Imported films accounted for between 70 and 80%
of the 1996 receipts in Peking and Canton. In Peking alone, the receipts amounted
to some 100 million yuan (US$12 million according to the Beijing Film Distribution
and Exhibition Corporation. Of 55 imported films, the 14 that had been agreed
on the shared receipts system took the bulk of the profits. Hollywood and its
action movies were in the advance guard with 11 blockbusters, among them Babe,
Waterworld, Jumanji, The Bridges of Madison County
with Clint Eastwood, or Outbreak with Dustin Hoffman. There have been
a few flops all the same, such as the James Bond outing Goldeneye,
and Apollo 13, which painfully glorified the NASA epic at a time when
the Chinese aerospace industry was experiencing some setbacksand both films
failed the censors final exam.
It is the same picture in Shanghai, where the top ten at
the box office were dominated by Hollywood, the exception being a Hong Kong film,
First Strike, which boasted Jackie Chan, the idol of Asian action
films, on the posters. In Peking these 14 foreign films had only been granted
release in smaller cinemas. They pulled in a quarter of the annual audience for
only 8% of the screenings planned for the year. City dwellers infatuation
with foreign films is the measure of their disaffection with local productionsall
the more since foreign films are much more expensive, with tickets priced between
20 and 30 yuantwo or three times more than for a normal Chinese film. Sometimes
tickets can even be priced between three and five yuan for films that the Propaganda
Bureau judges politically educational, such as The Years After Lei Feng,
released in March 1997.
In the field of imports, the Americans are harvesting the
fruits of a policy of being there on the ground. Despite the unpleasant exchanges
with Walt Disney over Scorseses film Kundun, about the flight
into exile of the Dalai Lama in 1959, the delegations of Hollywood producers are
opening breaches in the so-desirable Chinese market. Executives of the main studios
have been flocking in and out of Peking since a version of the Sundance Festival
was put on there in 1995.
Some people accept a double-edged policy, such as Warner
Home Video who have been established in China since last summer. Warner, in association
with Shenzhen SAST Entertainment, has gone ahead with the release of some Warner
films on video, accepting the risk of large-scale piracy. Six titles have been
put out onto the market, among them Rain Man, Bodyguard
and The Fugitive, and 19 more films are in the pipeline. In Shanghai,
Canton and Shenzhen, pirated copies of Hollywoods latest hits, including
the latest from SAST, are available on the market for between 25 and 30 yuan.
Ideological tightening up
This crisis arises in a time of ideological tightening
up. The year 1996 has seen the propaganda vice closing on all artistic fields,
cinema in particular, since the seventh art has always been considered a propaganda
instrument at the service of the Communist Party. In January 1996, Jiang Zemin
insisted on the importance of political content, of spiritual civilisation, hammering
home the necessity of showing more patriotism and morality. The Changsha Conference
in March occured in this atmosphere, freezing for the rest of the year any vague
desire for creativity beyond a clearly defined line. Ding Guangen, head
of the Propaganda Department and member of the Political Bureau, the great controller
of thought in China, thus declared before the conference of some 200 film industry
bosses that our cinema must offer the audience noble ideals and beliefs,
the excellence of Communist Party methods of work... and patriotism... We must
uphold the lofty morality of the people at the same time as we offer them amusement
In spite of some measures to encourage production, such
as the promise to channel 5% of national box office receipts into a fund, the
foundations of a difficult year had been laid. From then on, the various links
in the chain of censorship favoured a squeamish waiting game over the risk of
taking responsibility for giving the go-ahead to films any more daring than the
eternal rehashes of Lei Fengs story. The result: only 40 films had won their
release certificate by October, while around 90 were piled up on the censors
shelf. By the end of the year, some 107 films had been approved.
The hundred commandments of Chinese cinema
On January 16th 1997, the Ministry of Radio, Film and Television
issued directive no. 22, a list of censorship rules which implicitly have already
been in force for decades. But to guarantee the quality of films, to protect producers
and consumers and to promote the development of socialist spiritual civilisation,
the Film Bureau spells out in article 9, in black and white, a series of prohibitions
that are already familiar to the filmmakers: a ban on attacking the unity of the
country, or public security, on giving away state secrets, on depicting abnormal
sexual relations, on falling seriously below moral standards, on promoting feudal
superstitions, on murders, on creating a romantic image of criminals, etc. Any
director who forgot these basic principles of life in China would be ill advised.
Article 10 lists 16 types of shots, details or dialogues
that must be subjected to modification or cuts in a secondary editing operation:
love scenes, naked bodies, extramarital relations, cohabitation before marriage
(practices which are widespread in the reality of urban life, since revolutionary
Puritanism fizzled out), and any other kind of abnormal relations between men
and women that are shown in a positive light. Also banned are rape scenes, homosexual
relationships, prostitution, vulgarity, and low-grade sound effects. Prohibition
extends to over-explicit plans for crime, such as could encourage people to copy
these criminal actions, and to bringing to the screen the henchmen of feudal superstitions,
fortune-tellers, prayers to spirits or objects, images of religious devotion,
and to filming any project which means destroying the environment and massacring
wild animals. The last article (and any other content that it is appropriate to
cut or alter) closes the list of bans by taking good care to leave the door open
for any new kind of restrictive interpretations.
The filmmakers are seized with gloom. The reason
why Chinese filmmakers do not want to make any more films is very simple. To shoot
a film is like having a baby. And censorship is like the doctor who tells you,
when you are nine months pregnant, that your baby isnt normal. They tell
you first there is a problem with the leg; then they cut off the leg. But it isnt
over. Next they tell you that the hand isnt right. They get that cut off.
But the problem hasnt gone away, because its the babys head
thats wrong. They get it cut off for you. So that on the day of the birth
you dont recognise your child and you wonder whose it is (...) The problem
with Chinese cinema is not financial but ideological, says a lighting cameraman,
whose last film got banned by the censors, and who has now had recourse to advertising.
All we can make films about is Lei Feng. My next
film will be about the amorous adventures of Lei Feng, He Jianjun promises
ironically. He is a young director who was forbidden to work by the Film Bureau
in 1994 for having had his film Red Beads (Xuanlian) taken
clandestinely out of China. The life of Lei Feng, or war films, celebrate the
victories of the communist armies. Jiang Zemin tossed this watchword at the different
studios in 1996 to encourage them to produce more war films, to pay homage to
heroism and revolutionary patriotism.
Rumours of a purge in the film industry also forced the
authorities at the end of March to contradict an article in the American magazine
Daily Variety, claiming that the deputy-minister of Radio, Film and Television,
Tian Congming, had been replaced and that the head of China Film Import and Export
Company, Wu Mengchen, had resigned. The minister concerned rebutted the claim,
pointing out that Tian Congming was still at his post, although now assisted in
his work by Zhao Shi from the Propaganda Department, to avoid an excessive workload
for Tian Congming, whose health is not very good.
The same ideological trumpets sounded in December 1996,
at the time of the Congress of Artists and Writers, the first since the pro-democracy
demonstrations were put down in 1989. The death of the associations president,
Cao Yu, diverted attention from the initial aims, which were once more to reinforce
the role of communist ideology in literature and the arts.
Once bitten . . .
Hong Kongs producers also prefer to play safe. In
1996 only about 15 co-productions were filmed, a figure significantly down on
the 50 or so made in 1995. Since the Changsha Conference, it has been rather difficult
to get a green light from the Chinese authorities because cultural activities,
including cinema, have to follow the government line more strictly. Everyone
in Hong Kong said Oops and their plans stayed on the shelf,
explains Woodi Tsung, director of the Hong Kong Motion Picture Industry Association.
For example, getting the film The Soong Sisters
approved took more than a year. When the producers initiated the plan, the political
atmosphere was different. The authorities had given the go-ahead before the Changsha
Conference. But the censorship stage came afterwards, which made the viewing session
much more delicate. All the more since we were dealing with historical figures.
The censorship committee was composed of 40 to 50 people, all of whom we had to
convince. Everybodys opinion counts, he went on.
The Hong Kong team working on The Soong Sisters
also ran into the authorities refusal to let them take the film out of China
to work on the special effects. The obsolete studios on the mainland do not offer
the equipment for post-production by computer.
The year 1997 should be more productive, with 20 to 30
co-productions under way at present. Because of the handover, the atmosphere has
become less strict. Hong Kong is now in some respects part of Chinese industry,
Woodi Tsung declared.
Producers ought to also be reassured by the drawing up
of an insurance policy to limit the risks incurred by investments in the cinema.
Indeed, the Shanghai branch of the Pacific Insurance Company of China (PICC) has
just introduced insurance against losses for television and film productions.
Two films have already taken out PICC insurance: both co-productions between Xiaoxiang
Studios in Inner Mongolia and Hong Kong partners.
Three Hong Kong companies punished in 1996
All the same, the chopper came down without mercy on the
few bold spirits who were attempting to get round the now draconian rules for
post-production. The Hong Kong production house Ocean Films had a fine of 400,000
yuan (2) imposed on it, and was declared undesirable on the Chinese cinema circuits
for having taken liberties with the rules laid down by the Ministry of Radio,
Film and Television. In fact, the minister accused the producers of The
Emperors Shadow of having made two copies of the film and releasing
the copy uncensored by the Film Bureau, not only abroad but in some Chinese cinemas,
where the Chinese audience was able to enjoy, for the space of a few sequences,
Chinese cinema in its unvarnished form.
Ocean Films was the third Hong Kong company to have felt
the Film Bureaus stick in 1996. The Shaw Brothers, the heavyweights of the
Hong Kong film industry, had likewise planned to finish the post-production of
their film The King of the Masks in Tokyo, where the actors can benefit
from more sophisticated equipment and more professional technicians. But the Film
Bureau refused to allow the film out of Chinese territory, for fear that in Japan
the filmmakers might make a second copy of the film for release on foreign circuits.
Yet the Shaw Brothers are long-standing partners of China Film and had always
favoured a pioneering approach, hoping to encourage their colleagues in Hong Kong
to follow their example in the matter of collaboration with China. So much wasted
Last year the authorities practised the same door-slamming
policy at the time of the Hong Kong Festival, forcing the organisers to withdraw
four Chinese films from the programme that were independent or produced by Hong
Kong: The King of Masks, The Warrior Lanling, The
Story of Wang Laobai and On the Beat.
The blockade policy
The whims of censorship are sometimes impenetrable. Keep
Cool, Zhang Yimous last film, though already stamped and approved
by the censors, and soon to be in the cinemas, was pulled out of the official
Chinese selection two weeks before the Cannes Film Festival, for reasons that
are still unexplained. Officially produced by the Guangxi studio, the film stayed
in China. Zhang Yimou is a regular target for censorship: China had refused to
present his previous film, Shanghai Triads, in the category of Best
Foreign Film at the 1996 Academy Awards and his lighting cameraman, Lue Yue, who
was nominated for the award of Best Cinematography, did not get a visa for the
The Chinese government also refused to allow Jiang Wen,
the director of In the Heat of the Sun, to go to Taiwan to receive
the Golden Horse Award. It was the first time in its 33 years of existence that
the festival, organised in the city of Kaohsiung, was opening its selection with
films from the mainland. But China has considered Taiwan as a renegade province
since the end of the civil war with the Kuomintang in 1949: it barred the entry
of eight Chinese films that had been chosen. In The Heat of the Sun,
a story of carefree young city-dwellers during the Cultural Revolution, did pass
through the net because it was partly financed by Taiwanese and Hong Kong producers.
Jiang Wen, the grouchy star of Chinese cinema, was serving his apprenticeship
in the machinery of censorship, in his first experience as director.
Zhang Yuan encountered the same setbacks, having his papers
confiscated just before the Cannes Film Festival this year. His film, East
Palace, West Palace, is a rather sulphurous story about the power/sex balance
of forces that is created between a cop and a homosexual writer. The Film Bureau
could not prevent the film from being shown in Cannes because it was largely financed
by the French government and by a French company, Quelquun dAutre
Productions. The film was produced and shot outside the official channels, which
are defined by censorship at the screenplay stage and at the conclusion of post-production:
it did not suffer the same fate as Keep Cool, of which the officials
have still got their hands on one print.
This is why access to the international festivals has become
severely restricted this year, the Film Bureau having added new weapons to an
already formidable arsenal of regulations. From this year the decision to submit
a film to an international festival is within the exclusive province of the Film
Bureau, whoever may hold the foreign rights. These same rules also prescribe that
only the films producer can ask for this authorisation, thus denying any
rights to the investor and even to the distributor. If that had been the case
during the 1980s, Zhang Yimous films Red Sorghum and Judou,
which were financed by Japanese and Hong Kong capital, would also never have been
the toast of the festivals. Farewell, My Concubine would never have
been submitted in time to the Cannes Film Festival in 1994 (the film had not yet
passed government censorship when the producer took the initiative of putting
it into official competition.
The only safe path for directors now is to either make
films glorifying the party, or films for children. In 1995 the authorities even
launched a new festival, known as the huabiao of Chinese cinema, to honour
productions in which patriotism, heroism and self-denial are the mainspring of
the action and the characters. The huabiao is an ornamental column erected
at the entrances of ancient palaces and old buildings. It is considered a symbol
of national culture, to judge from the tone of these official awards: they are
presented as the modern successors to the governments earlier awards, bestowed
every year since 1979.
Films being screened this year include the victorious struggle
of the soldiers of the communist army against the Kuomintang (The Turning
Point), the painful struggle against British imperialism in Tibet (The
Red River Valley), the fierce struggle against British imperialism, again
in Canton (The Opium War), and a mans struggle against himself,
the man who drove the truck that crushed the hero Lei Feng (The Years After
Lei Feng). Three films of this ilk won all the official accolades. The Red
River Valley was judged by Sun Jiazheng, the Minister of Radio, Film and
Television, to be the best Chinese film of my term in office. It relates
the 1904 invasion of Tibet by the British Expeditionary Force led by Younghusband,
to head off an imaginary Russian advance. This battle, in which some 3,000 badly-armed
Tibetan soldiers faced up to the might of the British Empire, ended in a massacre
of the Tibetans; now it has been turned into a nationalist ode to the sacrifice
of the Tibetan troops defending the Chinese homeland against British imperialism.
In the film, the British take on the classic characteristics of the wicked, as
established in Chinese filmic tradition: they are arrogant, cruel and snobbish.
Real history is further twisted to serve the ends of moral and patriotic propaganda:
in the film Younghusband is killed, whereas in reality the young British officer
was welcomed home as a hero. The film is almost perfect, according to a China
Daily critic. The director, Feng Xiaoning, is now preparing for his next film,
which he presents as a Chinese version of Spartacus, based on the
life of the Mongol hero Gada Meilin, who raised a peasant rebellion against the
Manchu warlord Zhang Zuolin.
As for Xie Jins The Opium War, the film
is presented as a historical spectacular about a historic moment. The film deals
with the conflict between the British colonial empire and the corrupt Qing dynasty,
which ended with the Chinese being forced to hand over Hong Kong to the British.
This was a US$12 million epic, released just before the handover, to explain to
the whole world how Hong Kong became British. It is yet another version of Lin
Zexu, but on a grander scale: 50,000 extras, 20,000 costumes, and 47 warships
custom-built for the film, just like a real 19th-century city constructed in the
Zhejiang countryside. The British parts are played by professional actors of the
Royal Shakespeare Company, not by Chinese actors got up in auburn wigs.
The investors in the film, a bank and an investment company,
certainly took a financial risk: the average Chinese film has a budget of around
US$300,000. They are counting on release in nearly 350 Chinese cinemas, and have
established contacts with nearly 61 countries across the world. According to Xinhua,
Samsung Entertainment has already paid a million dollars to acquire the rights
in South Korea.