Imagine what literary classics such as George Orwell’s 1984, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago or Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate would have been like had the authors consulted with state censors and bureaucrats before launching their creative efforts.
This is now increasingly happening within the movie industry. Hollywood and other, smaller, bastions of the silver screen are bowing to pressure from China in order to access the world’s second-largest movie market after the US.
As the New York Times reported on Monday, moviemakers seeking access to China’s market have two choices: either avoid subjects that could hurt Beijing’s sensibilities and submit a final product for Beijing’s “approval,” or they co-produce with a Chinese company and do some shooting in China to increase their Chinese appeal.
In both instances, censorship becomes an inevitable component of the final product. So much so, that silence from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) can be construed as an answer. It has become unacceptable for US fighter aircraft to engage in a dogfight with MiGs on film, which Paramount Pictures experienced with its new 3D version of the classic Top Gun. The remake of Red Dawn is another example.
In another example, the Times has reported that filming in China for Iron Man 3 has been taking place under the “watchful eye” of Chinese bureaucrats (so much for executive producers) who were “invited” to the set and asked to provide “advice” on creative content.
This should serve as a serious warning to Taiwanese filmmakers who increasingly cooperate with China on movie productions.
This has long been in the making. When the Taipei Times sat down with Taiwanese producer Will Tiao (刁毓能) in August 2010 to discuss his movie Formosa Betrayed, he already mentioned the risks of growing Chinese influence in Hollywood. Sadly, producers and movie studios do not seem to be as resilient as Tiao expected, and that’s bad news for all of us.
Director Steven Soderbergh of Traffic fame can use all the euphemisms he wants (he likens the participation of Chinese censors to “people’s interpretations” of one’s story), but the more we sacrifice our ideals, or simply good elements of storytelling, on the altar of the Chinese market, the poorer the entertainment industry will become.
As millionaire moviemakers and publishers yield to the great wall of censorship, those few Chinese artists who dare to speak the truth and who stand on the side of justice will feel all the more abandoned, all because of our inexcusable appetite for capital.
The industry already suffers from a near-terminal dearth of freshness and ideas. By prostituting themselves to the SARFT, the Communist Youth League and the Women’s Federation — not to mention wealthy Chinese who make the “right” productions possible — moviemakers risk forsaking all claims to artistic integrity and being purveyors of truth and justice.
Granted, like literature, not every movie must serve a purpose, and productions can be pure entertainment. However, think of the classics, those movies that stay with us. Very few are pure entertainment. In most cases, true classics become so because they speak to something that lies deep inside us all. That is what gives Hollywood its magic, not computer-generated special effects.