Sat, Nov 18, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: The cutting edge of film censorship

The Golden Horse awards are upon us again, but there is little point going over old ground criticizing the event for its "Greater China" mentality and reduction of worthy Taiwanese movies to bit players. As long as there are celebrities to exploit and be exploited by, the deeper meaning of these outdated gongs will pass with little criticism.

It is therefore fitting to turn to the little-discussed agency that allows these and all other films and TV programs to be screened in this country. The Government Information Office's (GIO) film classification board is a rare success story within an administrative organ that should have been abolished years ago.

While the GIO has come under regular and largely justified attack from all sides of politics for its activities since the election of President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), the classification board has been notable for not suffering regular attacks from the legislature or accusations of partisanship. Though this is largely because the bulk of the material the board classifies is from overseas, it also points to the lack of interest of politicians in making hay from "social values" (or supposed lack thereof) in mass entertainment.

Armed with four classification categories, the board has over the years adapted remarkably well to the permissive content that has come from the West, Japan and Hong Kong.

As an illustration of this, back in 1994 Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List became the first film to break the pubic hair taboo on the big screen. To its credit, the board eventually passed the film without cuts; unlike more autocratic states such as Malaysia, Taiwanese viewers were able to see depictions of naked Jews of all ages being herded into labor camps and other places by Nazi guards.

Today, as with classification regimes in Britain, Australia and Canada, the Taiwanese board has a system in place that minimizes cutting -- and therefore shows greater respect to filmmaker and audience. Notable is the decreasing number of films suffering cuts to be screened at all or to receive a lower classification.

A notable exception in recent months is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, which had four of its most grisly scenes edited or removed to avoid a ban. The classifiers even banned the trailer -- which was rated "G" in the US.

But other recent offerings of horror and violence from Hollywood -- Saw III, Hostel and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes -- have been screened uncut in the versions submitted to the board, despite provocative and protracted scenes of torture.

The board remains more conservative on sexual matters, though the passing of Tsai Ming-liang's (蔡明亮) The Wayward Cloud -- with a very explicit sex scene intact -- suggests that context (and possibly overseas awards) can sway the classifiers, which is a far cry from the knee-jerk prudishness of the past.

The board's conduct offers a salutary example of how government departments can work well in balancing the needs of the marketplace and the expectations of the community and movie lovers. And while there is a strong case to be made that restrictions at the high end of the system are too strict, it is clear that the overall direction the board has taken bodes well for freedom of expression -- and entertainment -- in this country.

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