Kaiju Shakedown: No Man's Land
“I understand that we need to conform to the current rules,” Chinese director Ning Hao said recently when asked about the Mainland Chinese censorship process. “After all, kids may watch it as well, and we need to take all the audiences into consideration.”
In another interview, the director responsible for some of the most gonzo black comedies ever made about the failures of human nature responded to Oliver Stone’s recent comments that Chinese filmmakers need to make movies about sensitive subjects by saying: “He is being belligerent . . . Some questions or areas are sensitive. Chinese films need to get back the right of free speech little by little.”
It is very hard for anyone possessing even the slightest shred of cynicism in their soul to read these carefully calibrated comments without wincing. They sound like the worst kind of coached speech, specifically designed to appeal to the Communist party’s aging bosses who demand conformity from their filmmakers. Then again, maybe that says more about the reader than about Ning. We’ll never actually know what happened behind the scenes in his four-year battle with party censorship.
Ning is China’s break-out comedy director who abandoned making art films like Incense (03) and Mongolian Ping Pong (05), that mostly appealed to an international film festival audience, to make comedies that appealed specifically to a Chinese audience. His first comedy, Crazy Stone (06), about a bunch of rapacious bastards fighting over a piece of jade, was shot for just $493,000. Featuring con men, jewel thieves, crossbow murders, and general class warfare, this ultra-local comedy made $3.78 million at the box office.
Next came his best movie to date, Crazy Racer (09), a 15-car-pileup of a farce about a washed-up bike racer who becomes a messenger after getting caught in a doping scandal. On offer were flaming turtles, some insanely inventive CGI, missing drugs, a badass Thai transsexual martial artist, and an apocalyptic final chase. Box office take? $15.9 million. The world was Ning’s oyster and for his next production he requested his biggest budget yet: $3.29 million. He got it from China Film Group, the country’s largest film company. Called No Man’s Land, this was going to be Ning’s breakthrough.
An action comedy about a grandstanding, money-hungry lawyer who drives to the remote desert region of Xinjiang to defend a poacher, and then gets embroiled in an escalating series of violent misunderstandings as he races home to make his own self-aggrandizing book launch party, No Man’s Land is like The Road Warrior with more jokes. Shooting started in 2009 way out in Xinjiang, with a planned April 2010 release. However, after the movie was completed, Zhao Baohua, a screenwriter and member of SARFT, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, wrote on his blog that No Man’s Land was “depraved,” “gratuitous,” “out of touch with reality,” and that Ning had “forgotten his social responsibility as an artist.” He then added that any movie that SARFT bans is a movie that’s basically fit for the wastebasket.
Well, that put the brakes on things.
For a movie to be released in China it has to be approved by SARFT, a very old, very complex Maoist-era bureaucracy that is in charge of film, television, and radio standards. The issue of censorship in China is a complicated one, and one that often gets misrepresented in the West. Ever since the Nineties when Western distributors realized that slapping “Banned in China” on their films was a good way to drum up ticket sales, being banned has been an asset with overseas sales to the point where when director Li Shaohong won “Best Feature Film” at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2005 she proclaimed it a victory for free expression since her movie was banned in China. The press all patted themselves on the back for being advocates for free expression and everyone felt very smug. A few days later Li apologized. She hadn’t actually submitted her film to SARFT for approval yet, so there was no way they could have banned it. It just sounded like a good thing to say at the time.
Other movies, like Blind Shaft in 2003, were banned in China not because it somehow dealt with sensitive subject matter but because it was shot without permission in working coal mines and the director never got location permits. It would be the same situation in the U.S. If you shot an indie film in a factory and you never got a signed location agreement, then fat chance selling your movie to a distributor. But the American distributor put “Banned in China” on their press materials for Blind Shaft because that sells tickets.
Then there are directors who jump the line. Zhang Yimou, Lou Ye, and Jiang Wen have all been blacklisted and kept from making movies for five years because they submitted movies to Cannes before getting a final cut approved by SARFT. Movies have been blocked for content before (most notably when a blacklist circulated in 1994) and movies have been pulled for content (most notably Lost in Beijing) but a lot of banned directors recover. Jiang Wen went on from his ban to make one of China’s highest-grossing movies of all time (Let the Bullets Fly), while Zhang Yimou directed the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony and became the figurehead of the Chinese film business. Lou Ye has become a highly acclaimed international art-house director.
No Man's Land
Censorship is almost too clumsy a word to use for what SARFT does. They don’t ban movies so much as send subtle messages about what is and isn’t allowed. Personal relationships are important, and timing is key. The worst period of time was late 2007 and 2008 when China was scrubbing itself to present a squeaky clean image to the world for the Beijing Olympics. It was a one-year period when most producers, distributors, and directors simply stopped submitting films to SARFT because the signal had gone out: it was a sensitive time for the country and anything submitted would be delayed and subjected to extra scrutiny.
Being “banned” by SARFT is actually difficult. Most directors engage in a dance with the administration that can sometimes last a long time. First they submit a film and then they’re asked to make changes. And asked to make changes. And asked to make changes. For three years—as Ning was. He kept recutting and recutting and recutting No Man’s Land trying to get his movie approved. Ultimately, Ning recut it three times and resubmitted it each time.
“I easily lose interest when I have to do the same thing over and over again,” Ning says. “They told me that there was something wrong with the film, that some parts of the plot were inappropriate. I didn’t see why they were inappropriate, but okay, I took it back. I was very busy shooting other films and didn’t have time to waste on [No Man’s Land] and it took ages to edit and re-cut.”
No Man's Land
During the time No Man’s Land was lost in limbo, a smaller company, Beijing Galloping Horse, gave Ning a chance to make a movie about a gold heist set in the 1930s when China was occupied by Japan. Movies set during the Japanese occupation of China are considered okay by SARFT since the Japanese are always portrayed as the bad guys and the Chinese are always brave heroes fighting for freedom. Ning titled it Guns n’Roses (12) after his favorite band. It was a fun movie but it didn’t have the bite of Crazy Stone or Crazy Racer. Nevertheless, it was a big hit for Ning, reassuring his No Man’s Land investors that he could still win SARFT approval, and becoming the third-biggest local hit of the first half of 2012.
When he was interviewed about the fate of No Man’s Land during the release of Guns n’Roses Ning seemed resigned to its fate. “No Man’s Land is an old chapter,” he said. “I have moved on. For me, the most important thing is what I’ve learned making the film. No Man’s Land discusses the relationship between man’s animal instincts and social responsibility. I now have a better understanding of the subject. That’s good enough for me.”
But after three rounds of modification over three years, Ning unexpectedly got a note from SARFT in October 2013 telling him that No Man’s Land was approved for a December 3 release. “I will frame the note and save it as a keepsake—it is very meaningful,” he said in an interview. Then he went on to say: “But now I’ve had enough of this film and won’t shoot another in this ilk . . . Life is short, I don’t have time to waste always on the same project.”
No Man's Land
The film made $20 million in its first week, moved up to take in another $15 million its second, and stands as the biggest hit of Ning’s career. He’s also begun to realize that having a career in filmmaking in China requires diplomacy. What other explanation can one find for his giving the conciliatory quotes at the top of this article? Or, in another interview, when asked about being forced to change the movie’s ending by SARFT: “The original ending was too cold, and I didn’t want the audience to feel like I slammed the door at their faces and screamed at them to get out.”
Now, Ning describes his SARFT process as a good thing, one that helped his film. He’s even stepped up to be one of the loudest voices criticizing Oliver Stone over Stone’s recent comments regarding the Chinese film industry.
But to say that Ning’s recent actions are not his own choice is to rob him of agency and reduce him to some one-dimensional point a Western journalist wants to make. Stone’s comments about China are very stupid and the kind of thing only someone arrogant and out of touch with the world would say. Frankly, it’s surprising that Ning didn’t smack him in the mouth.
And while I haven’t seen the original cut of No Man’s Land, the current cut is still an exceptionally good movie, something the Coen Brothers would make if they were firing on all cylinders and had a taste for well-executed action. And the controversial new ending? It’s actually kind of sad and depressing and definitely in line with the rest of the movie, not overly optimistic or jarring at all.
How much freedom does Ning have? How much is No Man’s Land his vision, and how much is it hobbled by SARFT? Unfortunately, that’s a private matter between a director and his film censor. The rest of us can only speculate.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
… Hideo Nakata, the director behind The Ring, just remade the Korean warring-psychics movie Haunters as Monsterz. The original film is a fantastically weird superhero movie that should appeal to anyone who liked M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. Nakata’s remake is… pretty bad according to most sources. The meanest is Derek Elley who calls it “feeble.” Here’s a long interview with Nakata on the film.
… Hit Korean comedy, Miss Granny (about an old lady who swaps bodies with a young woman), is currently number two at the Korean box office, right after Frozen. The mammoth blockbuster has even been picked up for a Chinese remake, which is currently shooting, directed by Leste Peng (the man behind Singaporean horror hit The Heirloom).
… The Bong Joon Ho–produced disaster-at-sea movie, Sea Fog, ran into difficulties following the sinking of the ferry in Korea that killed over 200 high school students. But good news for the producers is that it’s been slated for a Korean release in August, farther away from the ferry disaster, and it’s been sold to Japan, France, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
… One of Japan’s strangest, but greatest, cultural treasures is the Takarazuka theater where women play all the roles in musicals, some original, some adaptations. There have been Takarazuka performances of Gone With the Wind, concentration camp memoirs, and everything in between. Japan’s great manga artist, Osamu Tezuka, is a huge fan of the company and they had a big influence on his style. Now, they’re celebrating their 100th anniversary!
… It’s controversy time! The Globe Theater is touring North Korea with their adaptation of Hamlet. Amnesty International is not amused.
… Finally, the Thai Film Archive has a YouTube channel. Wisekwai is pointing readers in the direction of its non-English-friendly videos, which include fragments of Thailand’s very first feature film, Double Luck, and Thailand’s first animated film, The Miraculous Incident.