Hollywood, China, & Freedom to Blow Up Tiananmen

While China may have finally scaled the highest pinnacle of international literary acclaim, no such triumph is on the cards atop tonight’s glittering pile of Oscars. Didi Kirsten Tatlow at IHT Rendezvous wonders why, when Hollywood seems to be tripping over itself to build bridges with China, China has yet to establish a presence on the Academy Awards stage:

As Oscar fever grows around the world with the 85th Academy Awards set to begin in Los Angeles just hours from now, excitement is building in China, even though it has no films in competition. There is also a sense of frustration here about why China’s movies aren’t nominated for the world’s biggest awards?

[…] The most popular answer to the question, held by ordinary Chinese and film experts alike, is: “Too few good films. That’s the real reason in recent years Chinese films have moved further and further away from the Oscars dream,” wrote The International Herald Leader newspaper, in a story carried on the country’s popular Tencent entertainment site.

An article by The Economic Daily, carried on People’s Daily Web site, gave another interpretation: “The Oscars have never been a communal forum, the films taken seriously have only the responsibility to portray the North American world view and the lives they’re willing to see.”

The Oscars’ presence in China is almost as thin as China’s at the Oscars, according to The Los Angeles Times’ Barbara Demick. Only one of this year’s Best Picture nominee has so far reached Chinese theaters: Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, which as a co-production with China enjoyed exemption from tight import quotas in exchange for compliance with the whims of the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television.

As for Oscar viewing parties? Unimaginable. The ceremony, which begins at 9:30 a.m. Monday in China, will be broadcast only in much-redacted form hours later by state-owned CCTV. (Last year, it didn’t air until 10:40 p.m. Monday.) […]

[…] “Nobody even has the live stream in China,” complained Raymond Zhou, film critic for the English-language China Daily. “The government won’t allow it. They are afraid somebody will say something against China.”

Chinese television used to broadcast the ceremony live, but stopped after Richard Gere, as a presenter in 1993, called on then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to remove troops from Tibet.

“The Chinese translators didn’t know what to do, so they just tried to ignore the sentences. After that, they were afraid of the Oscars,” said Wu Renchu, a Shanghai film critic. “It is regrettable. There are many Chinese movie fans, students and white-collar workers who really would like to watch the ceremonies.”

[Update: CCTV6’s M1905.com (via Bill Bishop) is streaming the awards ceremony.]

Gere’s outspokenness earned him a twenty-year ban from the awards, ending tonight with a musical performance to mark Chicago‘s six-Oscar haul in 2003. “Apparently, I’ve been rehabilitated,” he told HuffPost UK. “It seems if you stay around long enough, they forget they’ve banned you.” Despite this punishment, Gere became a symbol of Hollywood’s defiance of Chinese authoritarianism, before hunger for Chinese funding and market access made this a disposable luxury. From Damien Ma at Foreign Policy:

In Hollywood in the 1990s, China was an oppressive place. Red Corner opens with Gere gazing up at security cameras in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, ground zero of the infamous bloodshed of early June, 1989, seared into many Americans’ memories. Brad Pitt, too, had been blacklisted from China, ostensibly for starring in the 1997 feature Seven Years in Tibet, in which his character becomes friends with the young Dalai Lama.

[… But t]he era in which China could still be a menacing villain and stir political passions from the Spielbergs and the Geres appears to be ending. Even Brangelina are reportedly studying Mandarin. And the political drama surrounding disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, ripe for Hollywoodification, will never see the light of day. Too bad, because the Bo Ultimatum is the Chinese Godfather waiting to be made. As Hollywood gathers for its biggest awards night Sunday, the industry seems to be biting its tongue. After all, the future, as Jeff Daniels quips in Looper, is in China.

From The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos:

[… T]hese days, Hollywood directors find themselves in the curious position of being more compliant than some of their Chinese counterparts. When censors ordered the Chinese director Lou Ye to make additional cuts to his movie “Mystery” just over a month before the film’s release date, Lou took the unusual steps of publicly tweeting the censors’ demands and then removing his name from the credits. Online, he explained his decision to break the taboo of discussing censorship in the hope that the system would “become more transparent and eventually be cancelled.” He was not willing to comply in silence. “We are all responsible for this unreasonable movie-censorship program,” he wrote.

[…] By comparison, Hollywood has been less vocal on the subject of censorship. When James Cameron released “Titanic” in 3-D last year—having agreed to censor Kate Winslet’s breasts—the Times asked him about the compromises of working in China. He said, “As an artist, I’m always against censorship… [But] this is an important market for me. And so I’m going to do what’s necessary to continue having this be an important market for my films. And I’m going to play by the rules that are internal to this market. Because you have to. You know, I can stomp my feet and hold my breath but I’m not going to change people’s minds that way.”

Transparency might be a more constructive approach than either foot-stomping or meek compliance. While there may be no end in sight for Chinese film censorship, Osnos suggests that the industry could formally and publicly catalogue cuts made at SARFT’s behest. Lou’s defiance, meanwhile, together with changes recently imposed on imports such as Cloud Atlas and Skyfall, has prompted calls for a more codified and less capriciously restrictive system. From Kristie Lu Stout at CNN:

[…] Lu Chuan is calling for change in the censorship system, hoping that Chinese filmmakers can be governed less by guesswork and more by a transparent rating system.

Lu says there must be change for the sake of his craft and also because his audience demands it.

“In an American movie, you can blow up the White House. We cannot blow up (Tiananmen) Square. It’s different. But the audience wants to see a lot of exciting visual things. So I think the leadership will think about that.”

He’s asking for the freedom to film China’s own “Independence Day,” the freedom to blow up anything without fear of political blowback.

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