The promotional blurb for Jackie Chan’s latest film Shinjuku Incident promises studio audiences that they will see a side of the Hong Kong film star never seen before.
It turns out that this undiscovered corner of Chan’s character will have to remain exactly that for Chinese audiences. State censors rejected the original version of the Shinjuku Incident as too violent, and as both Chan and the film’s director Derek Yee have refused to cut the offending material, it will not be shown in domestic cinemas.
This is a blow for Chan, especially as he is hugely popular in China. He is also respected for his work in promoting the Beijing Olympics, championing environmental causes and raising funds for Sichuan earthquake disaster relief.
It’s also something of a surprise that a Jackie Chan film should fall foul of the censors in this way. In terms of his Hollywood roles, Chan has ploughed a profitable furrow within the action comedy genre, since his breakthrough role in Rumble in the Bronx in 1995. Most readers will be pretty familiar with the formula, especially the elaborate stunts and props that spice up his fight scenes. It’s all good, fast-paced fun, and the violence rarely extends beyond the Tom-and-Jerry variety.
Perhaps this is what the censors were expecting of his latest offering. But they were to be disappointed. No amusing ‘kung fu with mops’ scenes; instead a graphic story of gang warfare in Japan, including scenes of knifings and a hand being chopped off.
Even Jackie would struggle to turn this into a moment of karate japery. But this was never his intention, of course. As he says himself, the Shinjuku Incident is less an action movie and more of a “heavy drama”.
Chan will be hoping to recoup some of the film’s $25 million production expenses in other markets. But his difficulties with the censor point to the wider issue of film regulation in China.
Film review is the responsibility of the State Administration of Radio, Film, and TV (SARFT), via a committee of more than 30 people. The decision making process is not particularly transparent, as SARFT membership is not fixed and detailed standards are lacking.
But SARFT has the ultimate authority to insist on changes before a film can be shown. Hence although Dame Judi Dench reminisced “Christ, I miss the Cold War” in the international version of Casino Royale she remarked (somewhat differently) “God, I miss the old times,” for Chinese audiences.
The producers of Mission: Impossible III were also sent back to the cutting room, after scenes showing laundry hanging on a Shanghai washing line and old people playing mahjong were thought to present a poor image of the city. And the apparently innocuous Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest didn’t even make it to release in China, as the censors were concerned about movie audiences taking fright at scenes involving cannibals and ghosts.
Expectations were high that the system would undergo reform last year but Liu Binjie, director of China’s General Administration of Press and Publications, surprised most insiders with an announcement to state media that the issue was still “too sensitive” for the general public. Action was to be delayed because “China has yet to build a mature and orderly film market,” Xinhua reported.
This is all a little confusing. A rating system would presumably help the industry mature into something more orderly. But Liu seemed to see the opposite; “Under the current circumstances, a film rating system equals legalising the mass production of pornographic publications.”
Maybe we have lost something in cultural translation; or it might be that Liu thinks that, if you establish an “adults only” film criterion, film makers will feel obliged to churn out more risqué adult material. This seems rather unlikely.
Nevertheless, a transparent rating system looks to be some way off. Cynics might question whether the censorship issue is all a bit of a red herring anyway, given the wide availability of pirated DVD material across the country.
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