Film Censorship in China

Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke speaks about film censorship in China at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Speaking in his native Chinese language here Zhang-ke says his thought-provoking film, A Touch of Sin, made its debut in Cannes in May and that the version we are seeing at the Melbourne International Film Festival will be released in his homeland in October.

He goes on to say that the Chinese censorship board took over 2 months to hand down a decision on his movie, but they only objected to the language used in a couple of scenes. He subsequently changed the dialogue, as he didn’t feel these minor changes impacted on his artistic vision. He also shares a cheeky aside that when he ran into one of the censorship officials, they said they’d personally loved the film.

Zhang-ke says his films are inspired by news stories he read on Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site that is similar to Twitter. He was motivated to tell stories of workers’ suffering in remote villages. His film weaves together four tales of people who are exploited, subjected to violence at work without recourse for justice, and who bear the cost of China’s prosperity.

The director’s thoughtful responses to the moderator’s early questions were fascinating. I also loved watching the questions and his answers being translated back and forth and the negotiation in between, as the translator would check that her words satisfied Zhang-ke’s meaning. Zhang-ke’s discusion of his film was concerned with sociological themes of alienation, social responsibility and the ambiguous role of violence as a means to escape suffering.

The latter section of the Q&A devolved in a way that I found sociologically amusing but which rightfully frustrated the crowd. Two speakers took the mike and gave five minute orations in Chinese languages that did not translate well and confused everyone onstage. Possibly the miscommunication was partly due to the audience members’ excited rambling, or it might have been partly due to the fact that Mandarin dialects can be vastly different. This may be compounded by language differences; speaking English as well as another Chinese language probably impacts on how Chinese dialects are understood (poorly in this particular case).

Two English speakers took the mike next and rambled even more in an attempt to sound intellectual but nobody understood their point. The lack of comprehension about the English language questions among the English speaking audience was farcical and probably mirrored what we’d just witnessed in Chinese. One speaker was asked to repeat his question several times and he kept using jargon words such as the phrase “systemic structures of violence” but he could not simplify his meaning or summarise his question in one sentence. I’ve been to many academic conferences and I’ve seen this happen many times so I was highly bemused. Still, I wish the moderators had worked harder to reign in the ramblers so we could have heard more from Zhang-ke.

It was an absolute travesty that the lead actress Zhao Tao, who was sublime in the film, did not get a chance to speak. She did graciously translate a few things when the translator couldn’t translate, which was also interesting to watch. 

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