Oliver Stone And The Great Wall Of Chinese Film Censorship

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U.S director Oliver Stone (R) laughs as Chinese actress Fan Bingbing speaks during the opening ceremony of the 4th Beijing International Film Festival in Beijing, April 16, 2014.

Oliver Stone, a successful film director in the United States, where artists enjoy freedom of speech, last week sought to shame Chinese filmmakers for their supposed resistance to making politically challenging films in their own country, which is known for its harsh punishment of dissidents.

Speaking at the Beijing Film Festival on Wednesday, Stone, who has directed numerous high-profile, politically oriented movies, including "JFK," "Nixon" and "Platoon," accused the Chinese film industry of producing shallow tie-ins with American blockbusters rather than making movies that confront some of the more troublesome aspects of China's history.

“You’ve got to make a movie about Mao," Stone said. "You’ve got to make a movie about the Cultural Revolution. When you do that, you open up, you stir the waters and allow true creativity to emerge in this country. And then, that will form the basis of real coproductions. Open up your past, the way the United States has opened up its past.”

While Stone is well-known as an outspoken cultural critic, his comments at the film festival have gained a lot of attention, in part because it's unusual for someone in the U.S. film industry, which relies heavily on the Chinese box office, to openly challenge China’s tight restrictions on what makes it into its theaters. As Julie Makin of the Los Angeles Times pointed out, “sensitive points ... like China’s censorship of domestic and foreign movies and its import restrictions on films ... are frequently sidestepped at industry events.”

Stone's critique skipped over the fact that some Chinese filmmakers have indeed taken on highly sensitive subjects, such as the 2006 release "Summer Palace" by director Lou Ye, which followed a university romance set against the backdrop of the convulsive 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. But that movie was effectively banned in China, as are most releases that confront too directly subjects deemed off-limits by the ruling Communist Party.

"Stone was talking about the system here, and not Chinese filmmakers," said Gady Epstein, a Beijing-based correspondent for the Economist. "There are definitely interesting movies being made in China, and they are the ones the censors are not approving for cinematic release."

In a blog post published Friday, Epstein praised Stone for risking his own commercial interests in China by voicing uncomfortable truths about censorship's impact on art in the world's most populous country.

Stone said in Beijing that he was “on fair ground” to criticize the Chinese media for not doing its part to engage with its history because he has criticized the United States is his own films. But an American citizen criticizing the United States and a Chinese citizen criticizing his own government are two very different things; the latter faces the threat of dire consequences. Whereas Stone might face negative publicity for criticizing his government, Chinese political dissidents risk imprisonment for criticizing theirs.

At the very least, artists who produce challenging work are putting their careers on the line: Lou Ye was barred from directing anything else after "Summer Palace" premiered eight years ago.  

Nearly all the film distribution in China is handled by the China Film Group Corp., a state-run quasi-monopoly, which is far more open to distributing U.S.-made action movies like “Iron Man” and “Transformers” than politically challenging domestic films.

The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, which oversees China’s state-run media, has strict censorship guidelines, the Globe and Mail noted, ranging from expected bans on negative depictions of the government to more idiosyncratic rules, like a ban on ghosts on film (a holdover from Mao’s campaign against superstition).

Stone said he tried at times to make films in China but was stymied each time. His first project there took a critical look at Mao and his policies, and later he attempted to adapt Anchee Min’s “Red Azalea,” a memoir concerned in part with the author's lesbian awakening during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Stone claims he was told that China would unequivocally never allow a film about the Cultural Revolution to be distributed there. After that, Stone attempted to shoot a documentary that would have examined the varying types of Chinese faces seen among the spectators of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but that, too, was shut down, he said, because censors claimed they would not allow Chinese faces that they weren’t “proud of” on screen.

While China may not be open to films that criticize its government, more box office-friendly American productions have increasingly been given access to film scenes in China. “Transformers 4” was shot partially in China and Hong Kong, while Marvel Studios' blockbuster “Iron Man 3” filmed a number of scenes exclusively for the Chinese market in China. The Chinese-only scenes may have received a mixed response, but Marvel’s focus on the Chinese market undeniably paid off. “Iron Man 3” made a respectable $409 million in America, but it took in an astonishing $806 million abroad, with $121 million coming from China.

Those numbers are proof of the huge recent growth of the Chinese box office. Consider that in 2007, China’s biggest film, Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” made a total of only $37.1 million for the entire year. By comparison, seven years later, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” earned $36.2 million in China in its first week alone. Unfortunately for those in Stone’s corner, it doesn’t appear that China will stop chasing American blockbusters in favor of embracing art house or politically driven cinema anytime soon.

Incoming head of China Film Group Li Peikang is expected to continue the practice of translating Hollywood films for Chinese audiences and distributing them to Chinese theaters. Even when Shanghai Media Group Pictures announced a deal with the Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) to produce Disney-branded films for the Chinese market, Director of Corporate Strategy Zhou Yuan told the Hollywood Reporter that the films would be English-language “action, adventure and fantasy genre films.”

Still, there may be some hope for fans of Chinese art films. Lou's latest film, “Blind Massage,” a sex-fueled drama set in a Chinese massage school, premiered to positive reviews in China and at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier in the year. Previously banned from making films in China, Lou has received open praise from the state-run Xinhua News Agency. It’s a step forward, but not one that's big enough for Stone.

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