Censors ensure China's film fans are missing the big picture

It’s not easy for cinema goers in China. Film censorship is hardly a new phenomenon under the communist regime, but following the heavy editing of two new films — Skyfall and Cloud Atlas — audiences have called for a reform to China’s censorship standards.

The latest James Bond film opened on 21 January after a two-month delay. 007 directors were keen to appease China’s strict censors, with arial shots of Shanghai filling the screens, but the film was still left with several significant and slightly awkward cuts.

Scenes involving prostitution and the shooting of a Chinese security guard have been removed, and subtitles were changed to hide references to torture by Chinese security forces. It’s not the first time the James Bond creators have felt the wrath of China’s film board — a reference to the Cold War was removed from Casino Royale in 2006. But German-produced film Cloud Atlas fared far worse at the hands of China’s censors when it was released on 31 January. Thirty eight minutes of the films total running time was slashed — comprising mostly of homosexual and heterosexual love scenes, but also including scenes the censors felt confused the plot.

— Skyfall is one of the many films to fall foul to film censorship in China

It takes a lot to win over China’s heavy handed censors. In a deal with Hollywood in February 2012, Chinese film censors agreed to approve 34 foreign films a year — rather than the previous 20. It symbolised a promising development for directors, who are increasingly motivated to break into China’s lucrative film market following a slump in box office sales in recent years.

But film makers are often willing to sacrifice free speech in favour of breaking into China’s market. Last year, Red Dawn directors replaced a Chinese army attack on the UK with North Korean soldiers just before its release, a move typical of Hollywood directors — who are often keen to include positive references to China to win over authorities. DreamWorks Animation had a similar idea, joining forces with Chinese producers to develop Kung Fu Panda 3 in time for its 2016 release.

All imported films have to go through China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), and few remain unscathed. Movies dealing with obscenity, religion, gambling, the supernatural and drinking, to name a few — are addressed with scrutiny by SARFT, meaning that many blockbusters are altered or refused entirely.

China has no motion picture rating system, meaning that all films must be suitable for family viewing. It doesn’t always explain some of the decisions for cinematic  alteration though.

In 2010, James Cameron’s Avatar was pulled from some cinemas in its 2D form, amidst speculation that the film’s displacement and land eviction references would cause political unrest, or make people think about forced removal.

Following the 3D relaunch of another Cameron classic — Titanic — in April 2012, censors were quick to edit the film. The famous scene where Leonardo Di Caprio sketches a nude Kate Winslet is edited to show Winslet from the neck up alone. SARFT said in a statement that the measure was taken to avoid cinema goers attempting to reach out and caress Winslet’s three dimensional breasts.

China overtook Japan to become the world’s second largest film market last year, with a box office valued at $2 billion (£1.3 billion) in 2011 — and is expected to surpass the US’s by 2020. Hollywood has become entrapped in the hope of success in China, and the expansion hasn’t come without controversy. The Securities & Exchange Commission opened an investigation last year into allegations that US film studios newly established in China were secured through illegal payments to Chinese officials.

Much of the Chinese public are anti-propaganda and express their frustration at missing the whole truth — movie piracy is common and means objectors can usually find an illegal, uncensored copy of a desired film. Free speech and film go hand in hand and Hollywood has always been a staunch defender of the First Amendment. So It’s worrying that economic interests are increasingly foregoing freedom of expression.