Lost in Censorship
By Maymay Liu
“I’ve never been antagonistic toward those official agencies. I’ve been feeling my way along.” Fang Li said bitterly in 2007. He had just received notice from the SARFT (State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, the entertainment censorship wing of the Chinese government) that the film Lost in Beijing no longer had screening license, and that he would be punished as a producer - he was to be unfairly banned from filmmaking for the next two years.
At the end of 2007, the SARFT announced that films containing “rape, prostitution, and explicit sex” were no longer allowed to compete in film festivals - Lost in Beijing had made it to 57th Berlin Film Festival in February of that year, so Fang Li (wrongly) assumed that he was safe. But should he have been shocked at this retroactive castigation? China has no official movie rating system, so all films must be sanctioned by the SARFT for public release. Directors and producers are required to submit a copy of the film script to the SARFT and filming can only begin when this script is given the green light – most of the time, this involves multiple revisions, which can set progress on the film back by months (and even years).
Lost in Beijing narrates the ruin of two marriages when Lin Dong, the proprietor of the Golden Basin Massage Parlor rapes one of his workers, Pingguo – after finding out that she is pregnant, her husband An-kun hatches a plan to sell the baby to the childless Lin Dong. With a story so moored around rape and its aftermath, the film made a journey from script to the big screen that was predictably rife with conflict: after an initial viewing, SARFT deputy director Zhang Hongsen harshly censured the film, claiming that it did not “consciously defend the honor of the motherland.” It was only after heavily revising and truncating their work that Fang Li and director Li Yu were able to show Lost in Beijing to the Chinese public, almost a year after it was first presented to the SARFT. The version that was finally released in China had lost twenty minutes of original footage, including scenes that depicted “explicit” sex and side characters like Xiao Mei, who becomes a prostitute after being fired from her masseuse position, and had a drastically different ending. The film also underwent a name change from Lost in Beijing, the title of the international version, to Pingguo, which means ‘apple’ in Mandarin, and is also the name of the lead female protagonist.
My frustration with the SARFT’s characterization of the film as a betrayal of China and its subsequent script revisions stems from what I see as the growing tension between the Communist Party’s attitude toward commerce and the part the Communist Party plays in the film industry - and hence, on a larger and more troublesome scale, in the lives of Chinese residents. What does “consciously [defending] the honor of the motherland” even mean, nowadays? Zhang Honsen explained that the film was censured because it didn’t represent the “real Beijing.” This ambiguous statement evidences how the SARFT refuses to acknowledge that the world depicted in Lost in Beijing is very much a part of contemporary Beijing. Li Yu offered an accurate rebuke: “wherever you shoot in Beijing isn’t really Beijing, because today’s Beijing is far too complicated a concept.” Indeed, the film only explores potential realities of a capitalistic society - and China is now a machine driven by capitalism, regardless of what the Communist Party may have us believe. After all, Li Yu’s preferred title is Lost in Beijing, and not This is Beijing. Still, the latter would not be inappropriate, because Beijing really has become a place where love and pride can be traded for stacks of currency; it is a place where Buddha’s golden head is fervently rubbed for luck during gambling; and yes, it is a place where one can lose sight of what it really means to be human. The SARFT’s - and, by extension, the Communist Party’s - denial of these aspects of Beijing reveals a disconcertingly willful blindness regarding the consequences of their own economic and cultural policies.
Watching the film for the first time years later (the SARFT’s ban still in place), I felt disturbed by the discovery that Lost in Beijing, which I saw first in its international form, had been mutilated for its official domestic release. After viewing the domestic version as well, I couldn’t tell why the end result was considered more appropriate for the Chinese audience. For instance, the truth behind the change in title struck me as jarring. The fictional book that the film is based on has the title Pingguo, so I thought that the film’s name, Lost in Beijing, was an intriguing choice on the director’s part in shifting attention away from the titular character. I was disappointed to see this fascinating decision reverted through a bureaucratic imposition laid down by a third party. The SARFT’s change from Lost in Beijing, which the SARFT objected to because it contains ‘Beijing’, back to Pingguo is actually counterproductive to the SARFT’s attempts to smother the blatantly sexual overtones of the film; not only does it highlight Pingguo’s central role in the plot as a sexual object (as clearly demonstrated in the domestic film poster above), the imagery of an apple also evokes the same connotations of temptation and sin in Chinese culture that it does in the Western world. Perhaps even more significantly, at the end of the international version, Pingguo takes Lin Dong’s money with her when she decided to start her own life, while in the domestic version, she leaves it all behind. The SARFT insisted on this change to prevent Pingguo from descending to the same level of moral depravity that An-kun and Lin Dong achieve, which would leave the film on a more positive note. But I question whether they actually achieved this goal - for me, Pingguo’s morality (or lack thereof) was confirmed with her silence when the original baby contract was made. The SARFT’s cuts are plainly shallow ones that do nothing to change my opinion of the characters in the end. Nor do they undermine the film’s blatant portrayal of the desolation and greed that form an integral part of everyday life in the city – the SARFT’s attempts to move the film toward a more “accurate” portrayal of Beijing were ineffectual and unnecessary.
This is not to say that Beijing is depraved to the core - it’s just that with the spread of consumerism and globalism, and the prosperity provided by a booming economy, modern Beijing citizens are experiencing a rapid inflation of social boundaries that has resulted in a more materialistic lifestyle fueled by profit. The Communist Party seems unwilling to acknowledge the fact that its desire to maintain China’s competitive economic edge causes a subversion of the basic Communist maxim of protecting the working classes from exploitation – something that Lost in Beijing clearly tries to substantiate. While the Chinese government continues to push for further economic growth, it simultaneously seems to be neglecting escalating issues like stark wage inequality and pollution, which have the most adverse effect on proletarian citizens. Hence, despite SARFT criticisms that the plot of Lost in Beijing is far-fetched, there are aspects of the film that remain strongly rooted in very real and relevant issues. For example, the film often moves into the closet-like room that Pingguo shares with her husband, An-kun - when their relationship sours, the mood of desolation is powerfully intensified by its confinement in a tiny, claustrophobic space. In reality, exploding demand for housing in China’s biggest cities by the upper classes has catalyzed a proliferation of luxury complexes, which has, in turn, driven land prices up, making it nigh impossible for rural migrants (and even the established middle-class) to find accommodation – Li Yu reflects this palpable frustration. Lost in Beijing thus offers an accurate taste of the bitterness swelling in the neglected corners of the city; a spreading collection of pools filled with dark, stagnant water.
The point is that I don’t feel like films that recognize the darkness of human life at all besmirch the “honor of the motherland.” Lost in Beijing is not a documentary, and no one has ever presented it as such - it is a creative interpretation, and in trying to silence this voice, the Communist Party turns deaf ears to significant, inevitable cultural developments in the Chinese population that can have serious economic ramifications. Not only that, I desperately want the Communist Party to recognize the fact that as a Chinese person, I love China in all its imperfections. Sure, it can be corrupt, and it can be dirty, but these are my sins; this is my city, and I don’t appreciate it being whitewashed. Still, I retain hope because of the persistence of the very individuals that are being repressed, who seem to share my determined love: in response to a journalist’s question as to whether he would refrain from producing such movies in the future, Fang Li said, “No. This is China’s most moving, most important point in time, and all of this won’t be around again… How could I not film them?”