Mysteries of the silver screen
Imagine an Ang Lee movie, Brokeback Dragon Hill, starring Jackie Chan and Jet Li as gay Japanese martial arts masters. If it were ever made, it probably wouldn't make it onto cinema screens in China. But, in a nation with such a well-developed pirating industry, it could still be a household hit. Such is the power of the DVD and the internet.
Most mainland cinemas are allowed to show only one new foreign movie per month, which limits consumers' choices. Then, even if a foreign film is an Oscar-winning hit - such as Lee's Brokeback Mountain - international honours mean nothing if it's deemed unsuitable for Chinese cinema audiences.
Memoirs of a Geisha is another recent high-profile film that didn't make it onto China's silver screens, even though it starred the nation's two most famous actresses. The reasoning, though, seems clear: Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li demeaned the nation by playing Japanese 'wives of nightfall' - as Zhang's character describes geisha. In light of China's wartime suffering at the hands of the Japanese, it was an insult to national pride.
'Zhang Ziyi could play a Korean prostitute and it would be okay, but not a Japanese hooker,' said a veteran Chinese journalist I talked to about the film. 'Memoirs of a Geisha wasn't banned in China,' he said. 'It just didn't get approval for a cinema release. I saw it on DVD but didn't think much of it.'
A number of issues arise here. First, whether a film is banned, criticised or just not 'approved', it can still have a widespread audience via the DVD market and internet downloads. Second, box office limitations and wide-scale DVD pirating make it hard for foreign movies to make money in China. But consumers aren't complaining: they can buy even the most obscure DVD for 10 yuan in a store that allows them to return bad-quality discs.
The third issue is market potential: with an urban population of 400 million in a nation of 1.3 billion, and a growing economy, the Chinese market offers huge commercial opportunities - if it ever cracks down on pirated DVDs and allows more foreign films to be shown.
The fourth issue is double standards: the reasoning as to why one movie makes the silver screen and another doesn't is often inconsistent. And even when films make it past the censors, some are cut extensively while others escape fully intact. For example, the version of Gladiator that made it onto Chinese cinema screens was much shorter than the original. Many key, violent scenes were cut.
It seems that foreign movies with high levels of violent content have a harder time with the censors than their homegrown competitors. In comparison, kung-fu-style killers seem to have carte blanche. Actor Stephen Chow Sing-chi, among others, has mastered the art of showing violence in a fun way that doesn't irk the censors. A bad guy in Kung Fu Hustle hits the ground after falling 20 floors and can still get up to go home for dinner.
Before the current generation of Communist Party leadership, a certain amount of guanxi (influence) was believed to help soften the censors and even get relatively mediocre films into the box office. This might explain some inconsistencies in previous decisions. For example, The Gambling King made it past the censors with a graphic scene of gangsters stabbing a heavily pregnant woman and ripping the unborn child from her womb.
Is that less offensive than Russell Crowe chopping off a bad guy's arm? Maybe.
Eanna O'Brogain is a Beijing-based journalist