Both Skyfall and Cloud Atlas have been making waves in the Chinese media during the past few days, turning a spotlight on the notorious censors at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. They’ve also highlighted why, as my local contacts often refrain, doing business in China is never cut and dried.
James Bond juggernaut Skyfall opened to $5.1M in China on Monday, almost three times the debut of Quantum Of Solace. The film, which prominently features the Shanghai skyline and shows off Macau in what could pass for a travel brochure, is understood to nevertheless have had some scenes modified ahead of release, the BBC reported. The shooting of a Chinese security guard is said to have been excised, and a mention of torture by Chinese security services is said to have been subtitled to remove the reference. Mathew Alderson, a Beijing-based partner at law firm Harris & Moure who specializes in entertainment, tells me that although he has not seen the Chinese version of Skyfall, the reported cuts are “fairly typical examples of censorship. The Chinese are inclined to remove anything that portrays them in a negative light. It could be something as obvious and simple as having Chinese security guards appear ineffective, or because they wouldn’t want people to get the idea that you can walk into some building in Shanghai, kill the guard and walk up to the top of the building… It gets down to a bunch of censors who make decisions based on what they regard as better representing the national prestige of China and directly, or indirectly, the prestige of the Party.”
At the same time, a question hovers over Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer’s sci-fi epic Cloud Atlas which just had its Beijing premiere in what’s said to be a very slimmed-down version. I’ve heard conflicting versions about why cuts were made in this case. I’ve been told by a very well-placed source that the cuts weren’t entirely attributable to SARFT’s sensitivity and rather were an attempt by the distributor to make the film “more appealing to exhibitors” who might have been wary of its nearly three-hour running time. This same source allows that some of the tweaks may have been made “in anticipation” of the censors’ ruling but says there was not a full 40-minute “censor cut.” On the other hand, a spokesperson for Dreams of the Dragon Pictures, the film’s mainland distributor and a large investor, told news agency China.org.cn that changes were made to remove explicit scenes of sex and violence, and company boss Qiu Huashun said the cuts were due to Chinese censorship rules and the interests of the Chinese market. Yet another person close to the production opined to me that the three directors would not have been in attendance at the Beijing premiere if 40 minutes had been shaved at the whim of the local distrib.
Meanwhile, the Chinese are increasingly more vocal about censorship. The Xinhua news agency reports that the edited version of Skyfall led film industry insiders to call for reforms to the movie review system. Shi Chuan, a professor at Shanghai University’s school of film & TV arts and technology, proposed laws be put in place for movie censors to follow. “Movie regulators should respect the producers’ original ideas, rather than chopping scenes arbitrarily,” he said. Although, he did add that respect of local culture and tradition was important. Shi trod a bit more lightly than filmmaker Xie Fei, who in December accused local censors of being “a corrupt black spot for controlling the prosperity of the cultural and entertainment industry” and called for a new rating system “that allows for a self-governed and self-disciplined film industry, bound by legal restrictions and administrative supervision.”
The cases of Skyfall and Cloud Atlas have also turned a light on China’s piracy issues. Cloud Atlas co-director Lana Wachowski reportedly said yesterday of the cuts to the film, “It sucks really. But I believe you can watch the full version online.” Speaking of Skyfall, the BBC reported Monday that a “pirated DVD copy of the full movie” was already “widely available” ahead of the release.