Far From Beijing Censors, Directors Ply Their Trade

Xian Film Studio struggles to keep distinctive quality of Chinese work

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FILM director Huang Jianxin is part of the mini-revolution in Chinese cinema. In the early 1980s, he and other young filmmakers, fresh out of the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, came to this remote provincial capital to work far from the movie centers and rigid censors in Beijing, Shanghai, and Changchun.

Here, under the aegis of Xian Film Studio chief Wu Tianming, Mr. Huang, Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, and others pioneered a new breed of film that put Chinese cinema on the world map.

The group is known as the ``fifth generation'' because they graduated from the academy in 1982 as the school's fifth trained class. Today, their films ``Farewell My Concubine,'' ``Raise the Red Lantern,'' ``Judou,'' and ``Chatterbox'' have won critical acclaim at international festivals.

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But the prots of Mr. Wu (who frequently ran afoul of Communist Party propagandists and left for the United States after the military crackdown in 1989) still struggle to work freely amid continuing strict censorship and growing financial pressures.

``China's film industry is in an unprecedented dilemma,'' says Huang, director of the landmark film, ``The Black Cannon Incident,'' and a Xian native who still works here.

``On the one hand, censorship in China is not based on law and regulations. For example, there are no regulations on nudity as in western ratings. Censorship depends on the mood of the leaders,'' Huang says.

Every year, Chinese studios produce 150 films, at least 10 of which the government says must be based on themes that laud socialism, nationalism, and the Communist Party. About one-third of the remaining feature films are now jointly produced with Hong Kong and Taiwanese partners, a presence likely to increase, Chinese film experts predict.

But the influx of foreign capital remains controversial in both government and film circles. Because of the mounting costs in every major Chinese studio, many of the top directors are establishing their own production companies and dealing directly with foreign investors rather than through established studios.

Film observers say foreign capital is restructuring the Chinese film industry, leading to more diversified content and less government control, a development worrisome to the government.

Foreign financing has drawn closer official scrutiny of films, Chinese observers say. The recent banning of Chen Kaige's film, ``Farewell My Concubine,'' which deals with homosexuality and communist-era turmoil, and its reissuance after editing changes, is the most prominent example of routine harassment.

Critics estimate at least one-fifth of the films made in China are banned initially - although they often can be shown after changes are made. Chinese directors often use two scripts, one that has been submitted for official approval and a second for production, in hopes of easing the finished product past the censors.

Fearing Western influence, the government film bureau announced recently that it would limit the number of foreign joint-venture films to 30 a year. A bureau spokesman also said films that are not approved by the government cannot be submitted for screening at international film festivals or in China.

In a recent speech, Ding Guangen, the party propaganda chief, said that ``in the selection of cinematic themes and content, some middle-aged and young directors have spared no efforts to air grievances against the Communist Party and negate the socialist system ... thus pandering to Western bourgeois tastes.''

A screenwriter who has been trying for a year to get a script approved says ``these new films tell about China's past; both officials and people know they are questioning the current system. These films tell people that we can't go on living this way, that we have to search for something new.''

But Chinese critics also worry that investment and film imports from Hong Kong and Taiwan will lead to more commercialization and threaten the creative energy in mainland productions. Already, box-office business is sliding due to rampant film pirating, erratic distribution, the poor quality of government approved films, and the invasion of commercial films, karaoke, and television programs from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

``The danger is that, because the film industry on the mainland is not strong, if it develops like Hong Kong and Taiwan, it might be undermined by the commercialization,'' says Ni Zhen, a critic at the Beijing Film Academy and author of the screenplay for ``Raise the Red Lantern.''

The Xian studio, once the largest in China, is reeling from the foreign onslaught and reduced government subsidies. The studio is deeply in debt, and employees are only receiving 70 percent of their salaries.

Huang, the director, says the creative team assembled by Wu, the former studio chief, was disbanded because ``their films were internationally acclaimed but they were not in the mainstream and they were not commercial successes.''

As a one-time haven for some of China's most innovative filmmakers, the Xian film studio struggles to survive through foreign financing. ``The film industry in China as a whole is in a depression,'' Huang says.

Chinese filmmaking also is in flux as the best-known directors are challenged by a new generation that prefers a documentary approach, more current themes, and a more iconoclastic style. Zhang Yuan's films, ``Mama,'' about a retarded child, and ``Beijing Bastards,'' about the rock star Cui Jian, are part of this emerging new genre.

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