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Chinese horror films: It was all just a dream

Curse of the Deserted

Satisfying horror movies are difficult to come by in China. Film censors on the mainland frown on the supernatural, nor do they look kindly on serial murders.

In a recent essay inspired by the complicated narrative slight-of-hand that allowed the recent horror film Curse of the Deserted to dodge these sensitive issues altogether, film critic Yang Jian (杨戬) explains how film regulations have handicapped Chinese horror films, not just in the context of world cinema, but when compared to domestic literature and online gaming as well.

Curse of the Deserted (荒村公寓) is an adaptation of a best-selling novel by thriller writer Cai Jun, who has had previous experience with having his work neutered on the big screen. For the mainland release of Naraka 19, the 2007 adaptation of Cai’s The 19th Level of Hell (地狱第19层), the title was changed to The 19th Space (第十九层空间) and an alternate ending was tacked on to resurrect the dead characters and erase the mystery.

The horror of the unknown is unavailable to Chinese-language horror films, writes Yang. Movies are forced to come up with devices to explain away the supernatural. In some films, everything was just a dream or drug-induced hallucination. In others, scientific technobabble is awkwardly inserted into the conclusion. Still others wrap the entire plot in a framing story. Regardless of the technique used, these explanations sap the unknown of its power to frighten and prevents Chinese horror cinema from reaching its full potential.

Curse of the Deserted and the Future of Chinese Horror Cinema

by Yang Jian / Sohu

If a horror film desires to succeed at the box office, it naturally requires “artistic truth” rather than undermining its own credibility. Curse of the Deserted, adapted from Cai Jun’s novel of the same name and helmed by Hong Kong director Chi-Leung Law who directs Shawn Yue, Kitty Zhang, and Yue Xiaojun in a predominantly mainland cast, wraps layers within layers like that old chestnut: “Once there was a mountain, and on the mountain was a temple. In the temple was an old monk, who told a young monk a story.”* After several rounds of this, the horror evaporates completely, and it’s obvious that the Film Bureau’s demand for “no ghosts” has cemented the structure of the film. China has countless classic stories and legends, as well as new novels, all of which could be tapped as material for horror films, but the “Regulations on Film Management” and the “Management Provisions on Project Initiation of Film Scripts (Treatments) and on the Examination of Films” have unfortunately restricted the genre’s narrative space.

1. Do not willfully interfere with art, said Deng Xiaoping

At the Fourth National Congress of Literature and Art Workers held in October, 1979, second-generation CPC paramount leader Deng Xiaoping said, “In art, this complex mental labor, there is a great need for writers and artists to develop their creative spirit. What to write and how to write can only be resolved gradually and through exploration by artists practicing art, and in this regard, do not willfully interfere.” From then on, the broader community of arts workers circulated and quoted the line “do not willfully interfere,” holding it up as a shield against certain actions that continued to willfully interfere with them.

On October 8, 1980, two days before his death, famous filmmaker Zhao Dan published a piece in the People’s Daily titled “When Control is Too Specific, There is No Hope for the Arts.”* In that article, he wrote, “There is no need whatsoever for the party to guide how to plant a field, how to construct a stool, how to mend trousers, or how to stir-fry, and no need whatsoever to direct how to author an article or perform a role.” “Should associations of arts and literature and all arts bodies mandate the use of a particular ideology as the sole correct set of guidelines? Should the aim be one work in particular? I say we ought to think things over and discuss them carefully. It is best, I think, not to have any. In the history of art, from ancient times to the present day, when one school is feted and a hundred others rejected, there is no possibility for art to flourish.” Zhao also mentioned the problem of “laymen guiding experts,” and asked, “Why the death-grip on the control of artists by non-artistic officials? Some of those non-artistic officials may have a function in another position, but the pool is so packed that the master swimmers have no room to do anything, and can only jam in upright like a candle.” Using his experiences in pre-production for Lu Xun, Zhao noted that since a screen test in 1960, he had repeatedly grown out his moustache and shaved it off over the course of twenty years, and the film still was never completed. Zhao pointed out, “Artistic creation is highly individual. Art cannot be created by a show of hands! One can critique, criticize, encourage, or praise. From a historical standpoint, art is unlimited, and it cannot be limited.”

Of course, I am not saying that Curse of the Deserted reaches those lofty heights of awareness; the film will quite likely not make a mark on the history of cinema. Yet in Curse we can observe the atrophying effect that film policy has had on genre movies. It has forced filmmakers to use tricks that eliminate the effectiveness of the horror story within their films. “Laymen guiding experts” no longer describes today’s SARFT: these are accomplished professionals, and they ought to understand the filmmakers’ predicament.

2. Creative difficulties for Curse of the Deserted

In Curse of the Deserted, actress Kitty Zhang tells the story of Shawn Yue, an author writing a novel that tells a peculiar story of a deserted town in which a loveless couple falls under the Rouge Curse of someone unjustly executed in the Ming Dynasty. The curse sends Yue and a fan back to the chaste days of their first love. The genre film that Law has come up with wraps a thriller around a weepy teen romance, in which Zhang’s raspy voice is a good fit for the impulsive character in the book. As for the film’s use of fiction to explain the supernatural subject matter, it brings to mind the Malaysian and Singaporean versions of Hong Kong films that would always add a dream sequence, a sort of self-delusional deception now widespread, and today requires that the audience understand a curse as the effect of a magnetic field. The bloodshed and madness of Yue and the others becomes an inexplicable magnetic field effect, something that yanks the unknown out of art and slips in a scientific explanation that is unconvincing to the audience. The outcome, which mixes in unjustifiable external elements, leaves most of the audience at a loss.

The need for a clever plan prevents Curse from being a pure, ordinary horror film. Once the secret is revealed at the end, the audience learns that the movie had no ghosts or supernatural elements whatsoever – everything was wrapped in layer upon layer of fiction. Written By (再生号, 2009), directed by Wai Ka-Fai, is the same way, and horror films by Hong Kong and Taiwan directors such as Ann Hui, Peter Chan, Chen Kuo-fu, Wilson Yip, Herman Yau, Chao-Bin Su, Pou-Soi Cheang (Double Vision with its heavy religious overtones, the mysterious, supernatural Silk and Troublesome Night, and the superstitious revenge and unexplained questions of Horror Hotline: Big Head Monster) were unable to be brought into the mainland, related no doubt to inspection by SARFT’s Film Bureau. The present article discusses the space available for the growth of one particular film genre, and since films and TV shows all fall under SARFT’s jurisdiction, no original work can tell stories of ghosts, spirits, gods, or devils unless it is adapted from a classic such as Journey to the West, Strange Tales from Liaozhai, or Invention of the Gods. And a gulf exists when compared to novels and online games, a policy imbalance among the creative industries of a single nation.

3. Policy restrictions on horror films

SARFT has reiterated the rules contained in the “Regulations on Film Management” and the “Management Provisions on Project Initiation of Film Scripts (Treatments) and on the Examination of Films” and has stated that that they must be strictly followed by individual departments and work units throughout the registration, production, inspection, and screening stages. The first article in the rules on film examination reads: “The state advocates the creation of superior films that possess a unified ideology, artistry, and viewability, that are close to reality, life, and the masses, and that are conducive to the healthy development of minors, and advocates vigorous development of advanced culture, support for healthy and beneficial culture, efforts to transform backward culture, and resolute resistance of decadent culture.” The rule concerning horror films is in the fifth point of the subsequent article: “[Film content may not include the following:] Violations of state religious policy, dissemination of cults and superstition.” And the fourth point of the subsequent article stipulates that certain content must be cut or revised: “Content that mixes murder, violence, terror, monsters, and spirits; whose value orientation reverses true and false, good and evil, and beauty and ugliness, or which confuses the basic nature of justice and injustice; played-up, detailed depictions of crimes and the details of their commission, or exposure of special investigative techniques; particularly offensive killing, gore, violence, drug abuse, and gambling; abuse of prisoners, tortured confessions; excessively shocking visuals, dialogue, background music, or sound effects.”

Constrained by the above regulations, psychological horror is the only route is available to Chinese-language horror pictures, and audiences are surely aware that no matter how shocking, exciting, or spooky a movie may be at the start, it will have made an about-face by the end and will come up with a scientific explanation that is completely at odds with the whole idea of a horror movie. One of the most important genres of world cinema is horror, and in Hong Kong this is no exception. In addition to films that involved abuse, killing, and violence, many films before the turn of the century started off from the assumption that ghosts are real (we won’t discuss materialism vs. idealism or science vs. superstition here). However, after CEPA, most Hong Kong filmmakers began working under the guidance of mainland film policy. Current policy has led to a noticeable displacement between the freedom allowed to imported films and that granted to Chinese films when they are inspected. We can bathe in the sensory thrills of foreign-language movies, but Chinese-language films have to dance in shackles.

4. The future of the Chinese-language horror genre

In the past, when Hong Kong horror films have shown in Singapore and Malaysia, they used to come with explanatory text, or they use the dodge of having the main character be dreaming. Today, if a film is to screen on the mainland, the Film Bureau requires that it does not cut a separate version for other regions. This essentially puts an end to horror films featuring karmic retribution and intense violence. Horror films and thrillers from overseas, like The Shining, Saw, Child’s Play, Ringu, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, The Exorcist, and Silence of the Lambs, have little hope of appearing in Chinese adaptations. Chinese horror is limited to lightweight, fake horror remakes like The Phantom Lover (夜半歌声), Rouge (胭脂扣), and Painted Skin (画皮) that possess at most a suspenseful atmosphere, but which do not chill you to the bone. And as for films like Jaws and Alien, with their high demand for special effects, Chinese cinema has no hope of carrying them out successfully for the time being.

The unknown is always at the root of horror, but the right to the unknown is what Chinese horror filmmakers lack most seriously. The trend in Chinese horror in recent years has been in the only direction available: characters, for various reasons, find things psychologically unbearable, so they experience hallucinations and enter a state of altered reality. But the fact that the ghosts are not real is the goblin that sits atop all the other problems. To pull in viewers, a movie must mislead its audience, because otherwise there is nothing attractive about the B-movie content, simple plot, and poor CG of a mid- to low-budget horror film. If Gordon Chan’s Painted Skin, for example, had followed the original and made Xiao Wei (played by Zhou Xun) a ghost instead of changing her to a monster, the film would not have been approved. And then there’s Herman Yao’s 2004 effort The Ghost Inside – just from the title (疑神疑鬼, literally “doubting gods and demons,” has connotations of excessive suspicion or paranoia), you can glimpse the difficult situation of Chinese-language horror. Not only the characters in that story, from the protagonist Lin Xiaoyue and her husband, to the guard, to the former occupant of their house who supposedly committed suicide, but everything they do, especially her romantic and stubborn guardian, Fang Cheng, are but fantasies and self-persecution inside Lin’s own mind. In Curse of the Deserted and Written By, a work of fiction is used as a shortcut.

Most movie viewers over the age of eighteen, I trust, will have seen a great number of horror movies through other channels before they ever watch a horror film in a theater. They will already be able to appreciate, read, discriminate, compare, and accept or reject the various elements that make up a work of art, and they ought to have a firewall against ideology, religious expression, and sensory stimulation. Thus they will be unlikely to change their criteria for looking at things simply because of a movie. Not all horror films, those special genre pictures with their shocks and frights, all vulgar and lowbrow. Movies can give release to the audience’s tensions and can cultivate in them the ability to compare and discriminate. Horror movies may give adult viewers goose-bumps, but those viewers will not go out and cause trouble because of what they saw. For viewers under the age of 18, I believe it might be harder for them for the time being. They are more easily misled and taken off-track, but one could adopt as a model the entry system used in web cafés. Even if the Chinese film industry as a whole will not implement a ratings system, then perhaps as a trial, a portion of genre films could admit only viewers older than 18 to see what effect it has. Actively seeking audience feedback and then adjusting practical details might be beneficial to the development of Chinese-language cinema. Finally, let me reiterate that the present essay is just a suggestion, merely a hope for more tolerant polices rather than a request to totally suspend the “Regulations on Film Management” and the “Management Provisions on Project Initiation of Film Scripts (Treatments) and on the Examination of Films.” Exploring ways of improving the quality of Chinese-language cinema will require the involved cooperation of the government, filmmakers, and audiences to set a roadmap and a timetable and, through communication in good faith, work a stable way toward the desired goal.


  • This continues with the old monk telling the young monk the same story.
  • 管得太具体 文艺没希望, translated on Danwei here.
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There are currently 2 Comments for Chinese horror films: It was all just a dream.

Comments on Chinese horror films: It was all just a dream

“The state advocates the creation of superior films that possess a unified ideology, artistry, and viewability, that are close to reality, life, and the masses, and that are conducive to the healthy development of minors, and advocates vigorous development of advanced culture, support for healthy and beneficial culture, efforts to transform backward culture, and resolute resistance of decadent culture.”

I've observed that this sort of regulation has two results: one is that it ends up with most PRC-made films are mind-crushingly boring, and the other is that young Chinese prefer to download non-PRC-made movies from the internet. Maybe some change will come when the greybeards in SARFT die off and are replaced by younger people who were forced to go and find their entertainment elsewhere.

So monsters are ok, but not ghosts? Interesting logic...

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