Part of the fun of watching horror films about paranormal events is to see humble mortals outwit their ethereal adversaries. With ghost movies in China, that suspense is doubled, as filmmakers continue to appease the country’s notoriously rigorous censors.
China’s film regulation apparatchiks have, in recent years, allowed directors some leeway to stray from party dogma: the “gratuitous consumption of commodities” and excessively saccharine romances are now deemed tolerable. But officials remain firm in other aspects of ideological doctrine.
Under the recently enacted Film Industry Promotion Law, films that “promote cults and superstition” are banned because they go against the supposedly modern, materialist world view of the People’s Republic. Yet young, thrill-seeking audiences in China can’t get enough of such films.
With the summer holidays coming up, home-grown Chinese horror films will soon be everywhere: three films have already appeared this month, with three more set for release this week though July.
The Haunted Graduation Photo, which opened on June 9, is the fifth film this year to feature die xian (“saucer spirit”) in its original title. The audience rating on online film portal Douban is 2.2 out of 10 – with many below-the-line comments questioning why anyone would want to watch this, or any die xian movie.
That it is not a good movie is besides the point. What’s interesting is that it reached screens in the first place.
Another example is the recently released The Door, which I caught in a near-empty cinema in Shenzhen. Directed by 30-year-old Gao Bo, who won plaudits at domestic and Asian festivals with his family-drama debut Only Walk (2012), the film is set almost entirely in a dark, dilapidated factory where a movie crew gather and wait.
The characters recall a fire during their previous shoot in the building, three years before, when they ran for their lives rather than save an actress who had been tied up and suspended in mid-air. Soon enough, sinister things begin to happen, and the characters die one by one.
By China’s standards, the violence and bloodshed is astounding – in a nod to Hollywood slashers such as My Bloody Valentine (1981) or I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), the characters are seemingly killed off as payback for a past misdeed.
And then there’s the sex. There are a few brief glimpses of copulation, and the female characters appear throughout in various states of undress. The mind boggles. How did Gao slip all this and more past the censors?
Gao certainly left his options open when he made the film. It’s hardly a surprise or a spoiler to say there are no ghosts in The Door. Playing it safe, Gao frames the whole story within another narrative, beginning and ending in a psychiatrist’s office: it turns out the killing spree only exists inside the head of the slightly disfigured actress from three years earlier. It is finally explained that she was saved from immolation by selfless crew members.
This feel-good finale is contrived, but it’s the only way Gao – and other filmmakers – can usher horror films into China’s public realm. Film theorist Robin Wood once spoke of the genre as symbolising “the return of the repressed”: these paranormal activities give shape to the viewers’ innate fear and fury.
It’s easy to understand why the Chinese authorities, with their emphasis on retaining social stability, want to ward off vengeful cinematic spectres. Rather than snuffing out superstition, however, their ban only breeds cynicism, with young viewers treating horror films as a font of mirth.
It’s not good for the industry or for the advancement of civic engagement.