Sunday, June 17, 2012

Newsbites: Sheffield, Censorship, Jia Zhangke’s Beijing Cinema, and Salacious Gossip

Me, sorry? Never! The new documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry has been getting the Chinese embassy in London hot under the collar.

It’s been a very long time between posts here at Screening China. Fear not, the blog is still alive – I’ve just been a little swamped by thesis and article writing, various curating duties and five weeks in China. There’s been a lot going on in Chinese film, so here’s a quick round up of news over the past month or two (apologies for the fact that some of this is quite old!)

Chinese Delegation Pulls Out of Sheffield Doc/Fest

Earlier this week the Chinese diplomatic service launched another offensive in its campaign to confirm the image of the Chinese government as repressive, censorial and generally uptight by demanding that Sheffield Doc/Fest, one of the world’s best known documentary festivals, drop Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry from its program. RealScreen reports:

“A delegation of 10 Chinese commissioning editors has pulled out of attending Sheffield Doc/Fest at the last minute, after the UK festival refused demands from the Chinese Embassy in London to drop Alison Klayman’s doc Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry from its program…. The delegation was due to include execs from CCTV, CETV, Phoenix TV and the Golden Eagle Documentary Channel.”

Having been to similar panels in Australia I think Sheffield got off lightly – sitting through presentations by party-sanctioned Chinese TV execs is far worse than enduring the wrath of Chinese diplomats.

More seriously, why do Chinese authorities think they can “demand” foreign festivals bend their content to suit the Chinese government’s will? They pulled a similar tantrum back in 2009 when the Melbourne International Film Festival screened 10 Conditions of Love, Jeff Daniels’ film about Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer. I can’t imagine the uproar that would greet a foreign power demanding the same thing within China’s borders. So much for the Chinese Government’s deeply held belief in non-interference in other nations.

Director Ying Liang Locked Out of Mainland China

In more depressing news, independent director Ying Liang (The Other Half, Taking Father Home) has been threatened with arrest if he sets foot back in the Chinese mainland. As Fandor reported on 6 May, the controversy stems from Ying’s new film When Night Falls, about Yang Jia, the man who responded to being beaten by Shanghai police in 2008 by walking into a police station and killing six cops with a knife. I was in China when the murders took place and at the time of Yang Jia’s execution, when many locals were talking about him like he was a hero – which gives some idea of the regard Chinese police are held in these days. Adding fuel to the fire, Yang Jia’s mother Wang Jingmei disappeared in rather mysterious circumstances prior to her son’s trial – it later transpired she had been forcibly detained in a psychiatric ward.

Ying Liang’s film about the case, When Night Falls, was made as part of the Jeonju Digital Project, sponsored by Korea’s Jeonju International Film Festival. Ying was on the way home from Korea via Hong Kong when he was warned of his impending arrest. Meanwhile his parents and wife back on the mainland have been subject to harassment from the police, who among other things have offered the purchase the rights for the film – presumably so they can bury it.

Chinese director Ying Liang, currently unable to return home due to the threat of arrest.

Ying issued an angry statement on 14 May about the situation, which dGenerate Films have translated and reproduced in full here. Ying ends his statement with the following demands addressed to the “Shanghai police and CCP government”:

“Give back the independent filmmakers dignity!
Give me back the freedom for creation and speech, and also personal freedom!
Stop harassing and threatening my families and friends!
Stop all the ridiculous acts hindering the screenings of When Night Falls!
Make public the facts about Yang Jia’s case!
Cancel the surveillance around Yang Jia’s tomb, stop restricting Mrs. Wang Jingmei’s freedom of speech and personal freedom!
Compensate for Mrs. Wang Jingmei’s loss and give her a reasonable explanation!”

SARFT Removes Breasts From Titanic

Another recent censorship episode which impacted on many Chinese viewers involved the 3D re-release of Titanic. Anyone who’s spent time in China knows the immense popularity of this film – for some reason it really struck a chord with Chinese viewers back in 1998. The film was re-released to much fanfare in April – so much fanfare in fact that it had the biggest Chinese opening of all time in terms of box office, raking in far more than the original release. The Guardian noted back in April:

“James Cameron’s romantic epic… took a staggering $58m (£36.6m), a far higher figure than it has achieved in North America, where it has so far taken just $44.5m in two weeks… The Chinese figure means Titanic has already taken more money in the country in the last six days than it did in 1998, when the film was originally released there.”

Alas, those hoping for a 3D peek at Kate Winslet’s rather spectacular breasts in the film’s nude scenes were disappointed – the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) had excised all the offending shots. A statement supposedly issued by SARFT was published by many English-language outlets, including the Guardian, claiming the cuts had been made partly due to fears that “viewers may reach out their hands for a touch and thus interrupt other people’s viewing.” Cute, although this site claims the statement was in fact a satirical joke that Western media mistook for a bona fide statement. Given the inane nature of most of SARFT’s utterances you can’t blame journalists for failing to spot a send up.

So close, and yet so... Chinese viewers were spared the disturbing sight of Kate Winslet's breasts when Titanic was re-released in China due to cuts made by SARFT.

Titanic still managed to pull in the punters, to the point where People’s Daily felt moved to run an editorial explaining why Chinese viewers go so crazy for the film. The article concluded:

Titanic is a story of a poor young man and a rich girl, which… accords with Chinese audiences’ taste. This kind of plot has a long history in the popular culture of China. Most successful domestic movies of China also cater directly or indirectly Chinese audiences’ psychology of a normal male hungering for the touch from a fairy.”

I agree DiCaprio is a bit effeminate in Titanic, but calling him a fairy is a bit much.

Zhang Ziyi Touched by the Bo Xilai Drama

While we’re on the subject of smut, here’s a particularly salacious rumour doing the rounds online at present. It has everything – movie stars, sex and political intrigue. Tea Leaf Nation, citing a report from overseas Chinese-language site (better known for its reporting on human rights abuses in China), reported at the end of May that famous Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi “was being investigated for her sexual transactions with Bo Xilai.” For anyone who has been under a rock for the past six month, Bo Xilai was the political chief of Chongqing, whose spectacular fall from grace earlier this year led to his arrest and a major purge of Chongqing’s political establishment. The story held the international media in thrall for weeks. Tea Leaf reports:

“Full of juicy details, the article claimed that Zhang first had sex with Bo’s close friend Xu Ming, head of Dalian Shide Group, in 2007, and was paid 6 million RMB in exchange. According to the article, Xu later introduced Zhang to Bo, who has since ‘met with’ Zhang at least 10 times between 2007 and 2011. Zhang, on the other hand, has garnered a total of 700 million RMB from her ‘meetings’ with numerous officials. The article added that she never paid any taxes for the large sum thanks to her high official friends.”

I love the detail about Zhang not paying taxes. Needless to say Zhang denied everything and has filed a lawsuit against the infamous Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily, which ran with the Boxun report on 29 May.

Ann Hui Scoops Hong Kong Film Awards

On a more serious note, long-time Hong Kong directorial talent Ann Hui swept the awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards in April, with her new drama A Simple Life. Hui took the best Director gong, and as The Wall Street Journal reported:

A Simple Life, based on a true story about a middle-aged man who looks after his family’s life-long servant after she suffers a stroke, also took home awards for best film, Best screenplay, best actor for Andy Lau and best actress for Deanie Ip.”

Still going strong after all these years - Hong Kong director Ann Hui's A Simply Life swept the Hong Kong Film Awards this year, earning the veteran filmmaker the award for Best Director.

In more good news for Hong Kong cinema, Love in the Buff, the sequel to the 2010 hit Love in a Puff, came out of the gate strongly in April. The Hollywood Reporter stated:

“Local favorite Love in the Buff got off to a fighting start with a HK$9.1 million ($1.2 million) gross in its first four days, beating worldwide blockbuster The Hunger Games, which took HK$11.3 million in eleven days.”

Jia Zhangke to Open Beijing Cinema?

Back in March several sites in China reported famed Chinese director Jia Zhangke (Platform, Still Life, 24 City) posted plans on his Weibo account to open a 100-seater art house cinema in Beijing. CCTV quoted Jia as saying, “I’d like to import more films like Iran’s A Separation if the import quota could be relaxed.”

Unfortunately, that's a big "if". The restrictions on film imports and tight censorship make it very difficult for any cinema to survive in China outside the multiplex chains showing mainstream fare. Beijing has one official “art house” cinema, BC MOMA, which shows a mixture of mainstream and more left-field content. The screening room at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art show a wider range of films by virtue of the fact that it’s not an officially registered cinema, but they still have to exercise considerable caution in what they screen.

It will be interesting to see if Jia’s plans come to anything - we wish him luck.

Chinese Indies Coverage

Finally, Chinese independent documentaries have been garnering quite a bit of press in recent months. Calum MacLeod did a piece for USA Today early this year on the increasingly difficult environment Chinese documentary makers are working in.

3 Dots Water, on online journal on Chinese contemporary arts, recently ran an interview with dGenerate Films co-founder Kevin Lee. Regular readers of Screening China will be familiar with dGenerate’s work as a distributor of Chinese independent cinema in the United States, as well as their great website, which is a useful source of Chinese film news.

U.S. scholar Ying Qian recently published an article in China Heritage Quarterly on ethics in Chinese documentary, which is available online. I haven’t had a chance to read this piece yet, but Ying Qian is something of an expert in the field, who I’m very happy to report will soon be in Australia on a post-doctorial fellowship.

My friend Christen Cornell up in Sydney runs a blog ArtSpace China through the University of Sydney. The site has a wide range of article on Chinese visual arts, music and film, including two recent interviews with Chinese documentary makers. In March she spoke to Wang Jiuliang, director of the acclaimed new film Beijing Besieged by Waste, which I was lucky enough to see a few weeks ago (more on that in a future post). Christen followed up the Wang Jiuliang piece with an interview with Ke Dingding and Guo Jing, a Shanghai-based filmmaking couple who have made an intriguing sounding series of films, including Circus School and When My Child is Born. Keep an eye on ArtSpace China for future coverage.

Finally, the latest issue of Cinemascope ran a special profiling the “50 Best Filmmakers Under 50.” I was really happy to see that Zhao Liang (Petition, Crime and Punishment), Wang Bing (West of the Tracks, The Ditch) and Pema Tseden (The Search, Old Dog) made the list. I’ve written about both Zhao and Wang’s work extensively here at Screening China, and I enjoyed Pema Tseden’s The Search when I saw it in Beijing in 2010. All three are undoubtedly exceptional talents, so it’s great to see them getting this recognition.

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