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One country, two versions

Poster for Ensnared

In March 2004, a film starring Zhang Yan, Louis Koo and Eason Chan hit theaters. Koo and Chan play publishers whose magazine flops, so they reposition it as a sex guide to Hong Kong. This attracts the attention of the bar-going public, the underworld and, unfortunately, the cops. Zhang Yan is a mainland policewoman who is tracking illegally imported pornography and a forced prostitution ring. She discovers that the magazine is a front for the organization, and decided to go undercover.

This film, which mainland audiences saw as Ensnared 《天罗地网》, was actually a repackaging of the Hong Kong Category-III film Naked Ambition 《豪情》, released in 2003. The original version aspires to be a raunchy Citizen Kane, detailing the creation of the two friends' massive pornography empire while taking potshots at the adult entertainment world. The entire plot line surrounding Zhang Yan's policewoman does not exist; it takes the place of risqué language, interactions with prostitutes, and an infamous interview scene in which Koo's character is surrounded by dozens of topless AV models. Not exactly mainland material.

It's been one year since the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between Hong Kong and the mainland went into effect. CEPA, a package of regulatory changes that provided favorable conditions for Hong Kong industries to do business on the mainland, was seen by some as the savior of the Hong Kong film industry, which had been in a downward spiral for years. Others saw the potential for creativity and experimentation to be strangled by the demands of mainland censors.

Poster for Naked Ambition

Under the rules prior to 1 January 2004, Hong Kong films were only allowed into the mainland under the country's foreign film quota system, which authorized just 20 foreign films each year. The new rules allowed Hong Kong films the same distribution rights as those produced domestically. New provisions have taken effect in 2005 governing the production and distribution of television serials as well as furthering the incentives for investment in movie-related infrastructure.

Regulations on movies classify them according to content and place of origin. A typical mainland film these days need only submit a script summary before shooting, but films dealing with "special" topics (international affairs, ethnic groups, religion, the military, the police, and the judiciary) must have their full script approved in advance, as must international co-productions. Ostensibly the review process is to insure that Hong Kong and international films, while having an acknowledged stylistic difference when compared with mainland films, will still be suitable to the demands of mainland audiences ("the subject matter must be what mainland audiences enjoy" is the language used in the document). Judging from the booming market in pirated DVDs, the tastes of mainland audiences bear little resemblance to the judgment of the censors.

These "special" topics can be interpreted rather broadly. Despite the presence on mainland television of dozens of television featuring monks who do all manner of amazing martial arts, Stephen Chow ran afoul of the censors over religious issues during the examination of his 2001 movie, Shaolin Soccer. The Shaolin temple complained that putting their name alongside "soccer" insulted Buddhism and violated the solemn thousand year heritage of the temple (irreverent comments followed that the Shaolin temple was more worried about violation of their trademark). The Hong Kong producer, Universe Films, refused to change the name to Kung Fu Soccer and was blocked for one year from shooting on the mainland. Chow wised up, though — while shooting his latest movie, Kung Fu Hustle, he kept in contact with the censors, reportedly even giving the office a call to ask whether he could mention a "Buddha Palm" fighting technique.

How much a co-production can get away with is unclear; the rules themselves are written in generalities, with the authorities taking a "we'll know it when we see it" kind of attitude toward possible infractions. In addition to the special topics, movies concerning ghosts and the supernatural are on shaky ground (though this too is unclear; there is a push to develop horror films on the mainland this year). Much of the Hong Kong movie industry seems to believe that killing a police officer is forbidden, but a spokesperson for the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television's Movie Bureau says that this is merely a misunderstanding — during the approval process they look at the particular circumstances and rationale for the killing, as well as the context within the film. He goes on to explain:

Movies are cultural products, and against China's particular national background, under a socialist ideology, we must conscientiously carry out the inspections according to our value system. As for the realm of artistic expression, we are not like what they imagine. Killing a police officer, for example — it is unacceptable to to say that according to your value system he must be killed.

In practice, crime must not pay in films screened on the mainland. 2003's Infernal Affairs III, a co-production, came out strongly anti-crime, but for the first episode in 2002 (not a co-production), the producers shot two endings. Hong Kong audiences were given no clear indication as to the fate of Andy Lau's character, while viewers in the mainland saw justice done and the mole taken away in handcuffs. This can be partially ascribed to China's lack of a film rating system; since no film is restricted to just adults, the approval of every film must keep in mind the mental health and development of children. One is reminded of the nearly identical case of multiple endings to 1949's Kind Hearts and Coronets. When the British producers were seeking MPAA approval they too had to change an ambiguous ending. In the original version, as in the Hong Kong version of Infernal Affairs, it remains unclear whether the protagonist, who has killed eight members of his family, will walk free or be found out. The Johnston Office insisted on an ending showing the authorities confiscating a diary in which the murder had confessed to everything.

Unfortunately for the filmmakers, using multiple versions to get around the mainland censors is technically against CEPA regulations for co-productions. The requirements that mainland actors play roles related to China and that negative portrayals of mainland characters be essential to the plot apply to the mainland and Hong Kong versions equally, with only minor language-related modifications permitted. Last year's One Night in Mongkok contains a villain who, in the Hong Kong version, comes from Hunan. The implication that mainlanders who come to Hong Kong are up to no good does not sit well with the censors, so the mainland version has a villain from Vietnam instead. According to the Movie Bureau, had they caught this fact they would have blocked the film's distribution.

The single-version requirement robbed mainland audiences of opportunity to see Jackie Cheung in dreadlocks when Jianghu became the only movie out of 33 Hong Kong co-productions not to make it past the censors in 2004. The script, about Hong Kong crime families, was given the green light, but the final product was rejected because "the entire atmosphere was too dark, and the film's contents strayed too far from the approved script," according to the production company. The China Film Co-Production Company, the entity that reviews films for acceptance, says that the initial approval came with a suggestion to change the ending slightly so that the two young gangsters would mend their ways rather than follow in their elders' footsteps. Filming a co-production, the producers could not maintain their original ending while adapting it for a mainland audience, so they ignored the suggestion. Their refusal to revise ended up costing them millions; producer Eric Tsang claims that he lost "at least 30 million" Hong Kong dollars (about US $2.7 million) when the cooperative relationship was canceled.

The information cited here concerning multiple versions, police killings, and Jianghu comes from an interview that The Beijing News was granted recently with the SARFT Film Bureau, from which they were able to print answers to six questions. They preface the interview with the statement, "In regards to a few sensitive issues, we were from the start very careful about approaching them, even to the point of cutting large amounts from the outline we submitted." Some of the questions were softballs: "Why have there been so few co-productions after CEPA?" and "Is CEPA the cause of the HK film industry's doldrums?" One exchange, though, dealing with how co-productions influence content, is worth quoting in full:

Reporter: During this year, what would you say has been the ideal example of what a co-production should be like? Kung Fu Hustle, the best film of 2004 by both box office and public opinion, seems in our opinion to have absorbed only mainland investment. Its style and subject matter are very visibly that of Hong Kong.

Film Bureau: It may be a bit of a problem to use Stephen Chow as an example for this issue. His is an "alternative" Hong Kong culture; he does not represent the universality of Hong Kong culture. The vast majority of Hong Kong film is part of that larger Hong Kong culture and is not Stephen Chow. The standard, common form of a Hong Kong movie is not Stephen Chow's, so during co-productions you must consider the aesthetic needs of mainland audiences. To develop optimally you must keep what is necessary and discard what is not. There will certainly be differences between shooting a movie for a market of 6 million and one of 1.3 billion. If you target the market of 1.3 billion in the mainland, there will be a process of adaptation and understanding.

It is the comparison of these two populations that has many pessimistic about the future of a uniquely "Hong Kong" film industry. Regardless of whether the mainland has different aesthetic needs than Hong Kong, and regardless of whether the entire 1.3 billion strong marketplace shares identical aesthetic needs, gaining access to that huge market by tailoring co-productions to the needs of the censors is a tempting prospect. With Hong Kong's film market still in the doldrums, how many will risk Jianghu-scale losses by including risky material when they are guaranteed a much larger market if they leave it out? Chen Qingjia, the screenwriter of Naked Ambition, puts it this way: "For many years Hong Kong films had followed the path of creativity, granting the creators a wide space of freedom. Now everyone is swarming to make co-productions, guided by the censors. To satisfy the two areas' different degrees of examination, the stories will be warped, and we can only compromise."

In many ways the current approval and censorship process seems aimed more at production than consumption. With few exceptions, the unapproved versions are widely available in pirated copies, evidence that the authorities do not much care whether people watch these movies; rather, the rules are set up to offer lucrative opportunities to those filmmakers who tailor their films to the board's code. The music industry is similar, where genuine mainland-issue albums cost twice as much as the pirated imports sitting right next to them on the shelf — pirated versions that take the original, uncut edition and fill up the remainder of two discs with a selection of older songs.

Nor are there many restrictions on talking or writing about the censorship process. The media was abuzz when the recut Naked Ambition was released, despite it not being a major blockbuster. The censorship of The Great Leap, an album released in mid-January by the American cop turned Chinese hip-hop superstar David Tao, was in the news for two weeks. In keeping with the censor's aversion to the supernatural, not only was the lead song Ghost cut out for "title and lyric related problems", but a short instrumental piece also titled Ghost was axed as well. The video for Ghost, with Tao playing an office worker besieged by a pack of zombies, raised eyebrows in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, where only a cut version was allowed to be broadcast.

When it was disclosed that the song was to be dropped from the mainland release, newspapers and online media were all over it, describing the video and its reception, as well as printing considerable portions of the lyrics. In an online interview with Tom.com, Tao was asked directly to describe the song and tell readers whether he would be offering it for download. Tao responded, "Actually this is a sensitive topic, I must admit...If [you] can buy a copy of the Taiwan version or some other area's version you can hear the song. I do not encourage illegal downloads." The song is readily available online, however.

Luo Dayou, the "Godfather of Chinese Rock Music" and a rather politically-outspoken Taiwanese singer, had two tracks removed from the mainland release of his BeautIsland due to Taiwanese identity issues (songs mocking the current and former presidents were retained, however). Strangely, practically every review of the album uses the Taiwan version's track listing and discusses the songs as if there were no separate mainland release.

And in effect there isn't. But where musicians can get away with swapping songs, leaving the rest of their artistic vision intact, their counterparts in the film world face a difficult choice for the time being. Perhaps the ratings system, rumored to be in the works for years, will arrive in time to preserve at least some of what makes Hong Kong movies unique.

Links and Sources

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