What it takes to get Chinese film and TV to market
2021 has seen a fresh wave of regulations for China’s visual media. The publication of a set of conduct guidelines by the China Association of Performing Arts means actors now have a list of dos and don’ts for their private lives, the result of a series of public scandals: most recently, the uproar over actress Zheng Shuang’s surrogacy. In March, the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) put a proposed law up for public feedback, meant to supplementing the list of prohibited content from the original regulations from 2015.
Both new sets of guidelines rely on vague declarations, urging performers to “abide by social morality” and shun “inciting ethnic hatred." This is usual in the industry: The Film Industry Promotion Law of 2016 issues content guidelines for regulatory bodies like the China Film Administration that urged directors to not “promote cults and superstitions,” “defame national excellent cultural traditions,” or “violate the basic principles established by the Constitution.” Such open-ended wording gives leaves much to the discretion of the government body in charge of censorship, forcing directors and producers to constantly adjust their tactics to get their products out to the public.
Which government bodies censors visual media depends on the type of production, the scale of distribution, and other factors, but no productions can be broadcast without state approval. Before a product can be shown, directors and producers must engage in a lengthy process of submission and re-submission of scripts, synopses, and footage to the state-run regulatory body corresponding to their field: the China Film Group Corporation for imported foreign films, the NRTA for television programs, and the China Film Administration (also known as the National Film Bureau) for domestic films.
Creatives have to be wary, as sometimes not even the guidelines are the deciding factor in the censor’s decision. Take The Eight Hundred, a film celebrating the heroism of 800 Kuomintang soldiers during the siege of Shanghai by Japanese troops in 1937: According to insiders, producers Huayi Brothers had been very careful to comply with all submission and re-submission requirements in order to obtain a "Golden Dragon," the title card from the China Film Administration which is inserted into the opening credits to show the film has gained permission for release on the Chinese mainland.
But The Eight Hundred was withdrawn after screening at the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2019, citing “technical issues” (generally a byword for edits required by the regulating body). When the film finally hit cinemas, it had been cut by 13 minutes. A member of that festival audience told TWOC that the final release in 2020 left out a long scene involving the triumphal movement of a Kuomintang flag across a bridge.
The official guidelines say little about glorifying the KMT. A Beijing film executive (who requested anonymity) told TWOC back in January 2020 that they believed the film was simply suppressed as celebrating the KMT was deemed inappropriate for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic in 2019. Indeed, 2019 saw a general increase in censorship over films. “That whole year, they just didn’t want to run the slightest risk of having another voice [in the narrative],” said the executive.
For the Huayi Brothers, this decision could have been ruinous: Stocks for the company fell 8 percent the day after the film's withdrawal according to Variety, and the company reported a 565 million USD loss at the end of 2019. “I am a good friend of the director and his wife and we never talk about it,” the executive said.
Another of the Huayi Brothers' films in 2019, “The Last Wish”—a comedy about two teenage boys helping their terminally ill friend achieve his dying wish of making love to a girl—was ordered to change its Chinese title from “The Greatest Wish” to “A Very Small Wish”. “The rumor is that someone in the censor team was not happy with the idea that having sex with a girl is the ‘greatest wish’; it’s not healthy,” the executive said, laughing.
In 2011, the (now defunct) State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television ruled that films with time-travel “disrespected history” and were no longer permitted. This came after several successful time travel TV shows following 2010's Myth, which broke viewing records for the opening year of a TV show on CCTV-8, according to that channel’s figures. The show tells the story of a teenage boy who travels back in time and becomes best friends with Liu Bang, the founder of the Han dynasty.
The ban was for future attempts at the genre that tried to “distort national history or national historical figures,” in accordance with the Film Industry Promotion Law. According to Liu Haoran (pseudonym), who works in film acquisitions and sales at a Chinese VFX company, this would also fall under “superstition” and “going against the philosophy of Marxism.” But a time-traveling film like this year's Hi, Mom was allowed because “all the roles are fictional, they don’t exist in Chinese history,” Liu explains.
Even once they are broadcast, TV shows and films still aren’t safe. The Story of the Yanxi Palace and Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace were both removed from iQIYI streaming platform in September 2020, despite the former getting 700 million views per day when it first aired in 2018. A Beijing Daily op-ed argued that these palace dramas, focusing on the opulence of the court and the power plays of imperial concubines, were a bad influence on society. "Censors tend to turn a blind eye to entertainment programs of frivolous nature,” Professor Zhu Ying of the Film Academy at Hong Kong's Baptist University told the BBC in 2019. “But that's only until they become too popular and threaten social norms, morally and ideologically. Yanxi is a perfect example of such a show."
In response to these vague and ever-shifting guidelines, studios typically self-censor or even avoid certain productions altogether. According to the NRTA, the number of period dramas submitted by TV studios for filming permission dropped from 14 percent of total applications in 2018 to 9 percent in 2020. The lack of transparency surrounding why certain films are censored is treated with a mixture of resignation and bemusement by professionals and viewers alike, who seize on any potential source of information studios keen not to waste time or money.
One anonymously written list from 2019 outlines a series dos and don'ts for film producers. Some of its suggestions border on parody–“the main character cannot have sex with more than three people,” it claims, alleging that American Pie-esque adaptations of works by the author Feng Tang are often turned down for this reason. Though netizens on Douban laughed at the list as satire, one Beijing film producer, who forwarded the list to TWOC, comments that “appropriate reserve" on these themes "would certainly be beneficial” to the studio in their opinion.
It can also be a headache for production companies trying to bring foreign films into China. Liu tells TWOC that her company struggles to get the foreign films they acquire past the China Film Group Corporation. “We start by avoiding productions that definitely won’t be censor-friendly, like if they have a politically sensitive title or content that definitely can’t be tweaked…take some US titles, where having Russians as the villains can be politically sensitive. The remainder will pass, but we will edit out any swear words and scenes related to sex, violence, gore, political stance, war, marijuana, school violence, etc.”
This can detract from the overall production. Liu recounts certain films with sex scenes integral to the plot that have had to be removed. “It makes the audience very confused how the protagonists could love each other so much by the end” after a few chaste dates, she says. She believes the quality of films, especially art house films, can suffer in this process. “I feel sad, and pity the Chinese audiences who can’t see all the facts or have a full appreciation of the art.”
But there are other ways to get censor approval. Foreign companies can opt to re-shoot in accordance with censor guidelines. “There was one horror film we worked on which definitely couldn’t get past the censor,” says Liu, citing ghosts and the supernatural themes, which are prohibited as "superstition" under the Film Industry Promotion Law. “But the production company told us they would make an exclusive Chinese version with an additional scene where the female lead woke up at the end–the ghosts and horror all turned out to be a dream, which rationalizes it and makes it censor-friendly.”
Sometimes a few scenes can have a last-minute cover-up, like a nude scene in 2017's The Shape of Water, which simply edited a black dress onto the actor's exposed back:
“Sometimes regulations can be flexible if you have good relations with the censor offices,” says Liu. She cites The Possessed, a low-budget horror film from 2016 that had won the Best Artistic Exploration award at China’s FIRST International Film Festival. Despite also involving the supernatural, it was given approval for release in March 2018. “The director had good relations with the censor,” Liu claims, citing people who had knowledge of the situation. “They told him, ‘OK, you can release this film but take part in any publicity for it.’" But even then the movie didn't make it to release: The film obtained a large following of fans online and was cancelled days before it was due to hit cinemas.
As the goalposts constantly shift, those in the industry are forever changing their tactics to get movies released, even if that often involves compromises from filmmakers. “Working in this industry there are many surprises,” said the Beijing film executive. “But somehow we get around it and we survive. It’s always about surviving.”
Cover Image from VCG