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Ratings May Be Ticket to Broader Content in China

Censors might change all-ages rule for films, which has meant limited themes and bored fans.

August 13, 2003|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

SHANGHAI — Zhang Like, a nursing student at Shanghai's Medical University No. 2, loves going to the movies, sometimes three times a week. But most Chinese films are too staid for her. And it's especially frustrating that some of the "most interesting parts" of Hollywood blockbusters get chopped out, while other Western films don't make it here at all.

"You know you're missing something that people in other countries get to see," the 20-year-old Zhang said. "It makes you feel kind of disconnected from the rest of the world."

But for millions of moviegoers in China, where strict censorship requires that publicly screened films be acceptable for people of all ages, a change is in the air. The government is considering its first ratings system. Soon, according to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, movies here may carry the sort of ratings -- PG-13 and R, for instance -- long given movies in U.S. theaters.

Wu Ke, the agency's deputy director, recently announced that the government would start using ratings if a nationwide survey showed the public wanted them. A flurry of articles in state-controlled newspapers suggests they are on the way. And a nonscientific poll on, one of the nation's most visited Internet sites, found almost 90% of respondents supported ratings.

Sex, violence and politically controversial themes are in relatively short supply in Chinese theaters, and exactly how much more the new system would allow is unclear. Nor would the change necessarily mean that films from the West -- limited by the government to 20 a year in theaters -- would get racier. Most years, Hollywood movies own more than half the nation's box office. "Titanic" remains the biggest hit in China, in part because no less a figure than then-President Jiang Zemin gave it a glowing endorsement.

Many directors and producers in China say ratings could grant them more creative freedom. And moviegoers, many of whom complain that current standards are patronizing, seem eager for films -- from Hollywood, China or elsewhere -- that explore "adult" topics. That seems especially true among younger fans.

"People like us, with a modern education, I think we can handle it," said Wen Yinchun, 20, who is studying hotel and tourism management at Jiaotong University in Shanghai. He spoke while buying tickets with his girlfriend to see "The Matrix: Reloaded," just released here.

In some ways, Chinese film buffs already can decide for themselves.

In most cities, street merchants do a brisk business selling pirated video CDs of Hollywood movies. Many filmgoers say they have seen two versions of some films: the one in cinemas, with sex and violence edited out or toned down, and the full version available on disc. Pirated movies are available for $1 or less; seeing a first-run Hollywood movie can cost $7 at a theater. But watching a movie at home just isn't the same as seeing it on the big screen, moviegoers say.

In 1989, authorities announced a trial rating program but abandoned the idea after that year's Tiananmen Square protests and government crackdown.

It is a thorny issue for the government because movies are a commercial product that authorities would love to sell more of to bigger audiences, both domestically and abroad, as a matter of pride and profit. Yet film is also a propaganda vehicle, and loosening censorship could clear the way for filmmakers to explore themes that state leaders might prefer be left unexamined.

Ironically, some Chinese films that have won international awards have never been shown -- legally, anyway -- in cinemas here. Some of the most celebrated works by directors such as Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang have been available only underground.

Many directors say they are hampered by the requirement that no film shown in theaters contain material deemed objectionable for younger viewers. Many are enthusiastic about the proposed ratings.

"Of course there will be more creative leeway if we have a ratings system," said Feng Xiaogang, a Beijing director.

Without censorship, Feng said, "directors can let their inspiration go free. It's like you've untied our arms and our legs."

Xu Yuan, founder of a vanguard film studio here and an editor at China Screen magazine, said too many films face sweeping script changes or scene deletions ordered by central authorities.

"Some directors simply could not bear to go through that or wait for the green light for their films, so they secretly participated in international film festivals and got awards," he said. "But as a punishment for violating the rules, their films might not ever be legally screened in China."

Like many others in the industry here, Xu said he would reserve final judgment until he saw how any new rules affected censors' willingness to broaden the content of films.

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