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The Oscars show, nominated films shortchanged in China

Oscars
2013

Chinese movie fans often turn to pirated DVDs or download Academy Award-nominated films free on the Internet because the films arrive late to the theaters if at all and are chopped down by censors. The Oscars aren't broadcast until later, after the censors have made sure nothing bad is said about China during the show.

February 22, 2013|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • A woman stands in front of the advertisements for Chinese and foreign films at a movie theater in Shanghai.
A woman stands in front of the advertisements for Chinese and foreign films… (Eugene Hoshiko, Associated…)

BEIJING — Cecilia Wu, 18, is a self-described film freak. Despite the heavy workload of her senior year of high school here in the Chinese capital, she sees a movie every two or three days and has caught most of the films with Academy Award nominations.

But Sunday night's ceremony is not so much a festive occasion for Wu as much as a reminder of how much she is missing. Only one of the best film nominees, Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," has been shown in Chinese movie theaters so far; "Les Misérables" is scheduled to open next week. Most of the foreign films that squeak past the censors at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television — the dreaded gatekeeper of China's cinemas — are hacked up so badly as to be unrecognizable.

"It's so frustrating,'' said Wu, who goes to the multiplex theater near her apartment (on a $6.50 student ticket) about every other week, but admittedly more often buys pirated DVDs ($1.60) or downloads pirated copies for free on the Internet. "I like to go to the movie theater, but there's not much to see."

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As for Oscar viewing parties? Unimaginable. The ceremony, which begins at 9:30 a.m. Monday in China, will be broadcast only in much-redacted form hours later by state-owned CCTV. (Last year, it didn't air until 10:40 p.m. Monday.) Wu usually doesn't bother with the official broadcast ("They cut out all the fun bits," she says). She'll download the complete ceremony later.

"Nobody even has the live stream in China,'' complained Raymond Zhou, film critic for the English-language China Daily. "The government won't allow it. They are afraid somebody will say something against China."

Chinese television used to broadcast the ceremony live, but stopped after Richard Gere, as a presenter in 1993, called on then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to remove troops from Tibet.

"The Chinese translators didn't know what to do, so they just tried to ignore the sentences. After that, they were afraid of the Oscars,'' said Wu Renchu, a Shanghai film critic. "It is regrettable. There are many Chinese movie fans, students and white-collar workers who really would like to watch the ceremonies.''

Perhaps the general grumpiness about the Oscars is because they are a game that China has not yet mastered. The only Mandarin-language feature to have ever won is "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and that was submitted by Taiwan. (The Ang Lee film took home foreign-language film honors, and three other statuettes, in 2001).

In 2007, the award for documentary short went to "The Blood of Yingzhou District," about an AIDS epidemic in China caused by a government-sponsored blood-selling scheme.

There is also China's ambivalence toward Hollywood. Strict screen quotas limit the total number of foreign films shown in China to only a few dozen each year. To prevent domestic films from being squeezed out, Chinese authorities deliberately handicap Hollywood's strongest offerings: One of the most glaring examples was in August when two top superhero flicks, "The Dark Knight Rises'' and "The Amazing Spider-Man,'' opened on the same day in competition with each other.

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By the time most Hollywood films open here in theaters, they've been out for so long that the pirated DVD has been available for months at the many shops that openly ply their trade around the country. "The Artist" showed in theaters here in December — 10 months after it won the Oscar for best film.

"We've got all the Oscar-nominated films except for 'Django Unchained.' But I can get that for you tomorrow,'' said a clerk at a DVD shop in the Sanlitun neighborhood of Beijing.

Another reason cinephiles turn to pirated versions is that censors can take a big bite out of the movies that play in theaters. Although "Cloud Atlas" received $10 million in financing from China — the largest Chinese investment in a foreign film — Chinese censors clipped 40 minutes out of it, nearly one-quarter of the film.

"It sucks," director Lana Wachowski was quoted as saying in the Chinese press. "But I believe you can watch the full version online.''

This year's Oscar crop is particularly challenging. Film critics believe that the Chinese authorities will not admit "Argo" or "Zero Dark Thirty,'' even if one of them scores big on Sunday night.

"Too political. Too controversial,'' said China Daily's Zhou. He expressed surprise that China is allowing "Les Miserables" with its depiction of an uprising — which to some eyes might call to mind the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square.

"I imagine because it is singing, they feel it is acceptable,'' said Zhou.

barbara.demick@latimes.com

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