Censorship and Chinese Cinema



(Stills from Farewell My Concubine, Palme d’Or Winner at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival)

Most recent Western coverage of film censorship in China is about how Hollywood blockbuster films are being censored in China and how Hollywood is losing one of its biggest box office destinations. However, Hollywood is not the only one losing out from the censorship in China: the local Chinese film industry also suffers. That is not to say that Chinese films are not doing well. In terms of box office numbers, China has many widely successful films every year that make hundreds of millions of dollars in China alone. The world’s highest grossing film directed by a female director is actually the 2021 Chinese film “Hi, Mom”, directed by Jia Ling which grossed $850M. Thus, it could be said that in reality the Chinese film industry is doing very well. 

But of course, numbers aren’t everything. It could be said that the intense censorship in China has negatively impacted the industry’s creativity, and the scariest thing that could happen in the arts is a loss of creativity. As with every other film industry, all films have to go through censorship checks and regulations in order to get a release licence. But the standards in China are extremely high, and even a few seconds long scene that goes against the government’s ideologies means there’s a high chance of the film being heavily edited, or not pass the censorship check at all. Heavy censorship is not a recent thing in the Chinese film industry, but it could be said that it has become more intense in the recent decades. 

The 1990s saw the emergence of several Chinese film directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige into international prominence – with many of their films winning major awards at some of the world’s biggest film festivals like Berlin, Cannes, Venice. Beyond mainland China, Taiwanese and Hong Kong filmmakers like Edward Yang, Ang Lee, Wong Kar-wai, and Tsui Hark became household names on the international stage in the same time period as well. Raise the Red Lantern, a 1991 film widely regarded as Zhang Yimou’s magnum opus, won the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival. A few years later, Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. However, both of these films were initially banned in China; the former for reasons not very clear and the latter for its depiction of homosexuality, suicide, and violence during the Cultural Revolution. Some Chinese journalists criticised the directors for pandering to Western taste. Regardless of the criticisms against them, the two films are some of the most critically acclaimed Asian films of the 90s, and were indeed quite experimental and poignant with their themes. 

While Chinese films released in recent years have their own positive points, many of them lack the experimental vision and originality that earlier Chinese films had. Heavy censorship means the final version of the films are excessively edited, which muddles the original plot and drags down the appeal of certain movies. Harsh censorship standards have existed in the Chinese film industry for as long as there has been a film industry, so censorship is not the only thing to be blamed for the lack of originality. Producers and investors know what kind of movies can pass the censors easily and can make money. Thus, instead of experimenting with new things, many of them have become complacent and are quite happy to re-do the same type of films in different formats. Why bother experimenting and risk getting censored when you already know what works best? 

Some forms of film censorship exist in every country, but heavy censorship greatly limits the industry’s ability to grow artistically. In the 1990s and the early 2000s, Chinese films were at the forefront of Asian cinema, but have since declined. If Chinese cinema is to go back to its heyday, the censorship standards need to be lowered and more room should be given for experimentation without the risk of not being able to find an investor or getting banned in the local industry. 

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