Artists working under authoritarian governments often face a heart-wrenching choice between three not-so-appealing options: Cooperate with the censors, defy them, or flee to a country with a more permissive political climate. For Chinese filmmakers, the third may no longer be an option: The Communist Party’s censorship extends beyond the country’s borders.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that a segment from the anthology film Berlin, I Love You directed by the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, while he was under house arrest in Beijing, was cut from the film’s final version released this month due to concerns about offending the Chinese government. The film, part of the Cities of Love series in which multiple directors are commissioned to create shorts set in a particular city, features Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Mickey Rourke, and Diego Luna in other segments. Ai’s short, which was directed remotely from China in 2015 and featured his 5-year-old son, who lived in Germany, was, he claims, not overtly political. (Ai has since relocated to Germany himself.) The next installment of Cities of Love is planned for Shanghai, which may have made investors particularly skittish.
Ai has had success as a filmmaker outside China: His documentary Human Flow, which I interviewed him about in 2017, was distributed globally. But he’s somewhat radioactive for producers and distributors who want to stay in the good graces of the Chinese authorities.
This report came a few days after news that the new film by Chinese director Zhang Yimou had been withdrawn from competition in the Berlin Film Festival for “technical reasons,” which in China is frequently a euphemism for censorship. Zhang, the best known of the “Fifth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers who emerged in the 1980s, struggled with censorship early in his career but has long been considered an officially approved establishment figure in China. Internationally, he’s best known for martial arts epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, as well as directing the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics (in a stadium designed by Ai Weiwei). The new film, One Second, takes place during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, a politically sensitive period, but it’s odd that censors waited so long to step in. Under new regulations, Chinese films need to obtain a “travel permit” to be shown internationally, in addition to passing through normal domestic censorship. One Second was one of two Chinese films withdrawn from Berlin this year for censorship reasons.
In another era, it’s not hard to imagine a director of Zhang’s stature relocating to Hollywood or Europe where he could make movies without censorship. Now, he might have a hard time finding Western studios or distributors interested in working with a director deemed problematic by Beijing. Long gone are the days of Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun, two major studio features that came out in the same year and dared to celebrate the Dalai Lama and condemn China’s occupation of the region. (Disney famously had to hire Henry Kissinger to help contain the diplomatic fallout from the latter film.)
With the Chinese government carefully guarding access to an audience of 1.4 billion people, studios are desperate to avoid anything that might “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” This has sometimes involved going to absurd lengths, such as digitally re-editing the 2012 Red Dawn remake to make the villains North Korean instead of Chinese and casting white actress Tilda Swinton to play a Tibetan sorcerer in Doctor Strange. Actor Richard Gere has, believably, suggested that his association with the Free Tibet movement is the reason his career in Hollywood has taken a downturn since the 1990s.
In an eerie incident late last year, Fan Bingbing, one of China’s most popular actresses, completely disappeared from public view for more than three months before news emerged that she had been charged with tax offenses, and she issued a public apology. Studios were happy to cast Fan in films like X-Men: Days of Future Past and the Chinese-released version of Iron Man 3, but it’s hard to imagine she’ll have much of a future in the Marvel universe if her presence becomes a liability rather than an advantage for Chinese distribution.
When filmmakers like Fritz Lang, an exile from Nazi Germany, or Milos Forman, from Communist Czechoslovakia, were making films in Hollywood, studios had little concern about offending the sensibilities of their home countries. This is still the case with Iranian directors like Asghar Farhadi and the late Abbas Kiarostami, who have directed films in Europe in recent years with content that would be unacceptable to the Islamic republic’s censors. China, however, is so important to the global film market that not only do Western studios play ball with its censors, stars like Matt Damon and Christian Bale are happy to act in officially sanctioned Chinese films with overtly nationalist themes.
It was once hoped—and may still be the case, in some circumstances—that cultural globalization would undermine the ability of authoritarian governments to control the art their citizens can see. Instead, the authoritarians are increasingly controlling what we all can see.