Tue, Dec 25, 2007 - Page 9 News List

'Lust, Caution' has its way with bourgeois China

By Howard W. French  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SHANGHAI

For weeks now, the ranks of Chinese visitors to Hong Kong have swelled with a brand-new category of tourists: moviegoers.

In a response to the censoring of a film about love and betrayal in Shanghai during World War II by Taiwanese director Ang Lee (李安), Chinese movie fans have flocked by the thousands to Hong Kong to see the full, uncut version of the film Lust, Caution.

The phenomenon of so many people voting, as it were, with their feet has highlighted the public's rapidly changing attitudes toward the long unquestioned practice of government censorship of the arts, and prompted debate about the way films are regulated in China.

Travelers have made their way to Hong Kong to see movies before, of course, but always in much smaller numbers. Critics and commentators in China attribute the interest in Lee's movie to a variety of factors, from word of mouth about risque sexual content stripped from the censored version, to a sensitive political subtext rarely seen in Chinese cinema, to the fame of the Academy Award-winning director.

Perhaps most important, though, is the rise of a class of affluent urbanites in China's rich eastern cities who have grown increasingly accustomed to ever more choice in their lives.

"I went to Hong Kong with my girlfriend to see Lust, Caution because it was heavily censored here," said Liang Baijian, 25, a businessman and stock market investor from the Guangxi autonomous region. "We could have bought a pirated copy of the movie here, but we were not happy with the control and wanted to support the legal edition of the film."

At least one Chinese movie fan has tried to sue the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, which regulates the industry, for deleting some of the film's content. Ang Lee has said the censored material was regarded as politically unacceptable in Beijing because it reinforced the notion of sympathy between a young Chinese woman and a collaborator with the Japanese occupiers. The lawsuit has been rejected by Beijing courts.

Many in the Chinese film industry support the idea of introducing a ratings system like the one used in the US, which advocates say would lessen the need for outright censorship. The state film administration, however, has resisted thus far.

Other travelers to Hong Kong, meanwhile, said they accepted the rationale of a censorship system in a country of stark disparities in regional income and education, but thought the practice was no longer justified in cities.

"For myself, I strongly object to censorship, but for the country as a whole, I think I can still understand its necessity," said Yan Jiawei, a graphics designer from Shanghai who saw Lust, Caution on a recent business trip to Hong Kong. "It has something to do with people's educational level. In big cities like Shanghai, people will treat the deleted scenes as art, while those in less developed areas will only think of them as immoral."

People within the movie industry here said the fact that a censored Lust, Caution was available at all in China demonstrated how far the parameters of the acceptable have broadened since the beginning of the reform era more than two decades ago. Not long ago, local film was dominated by plots heavy-handedly reinforcing conventional lines between good and bad. Unquestioned love of country was a favorite theme.

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