China’s government is notorious for censoring work it deems critical of the country; it’s also infamous for its opaque decision-making processes, which often make it difficult to identify censorship in the first place. The latest instance came up during the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival, when veteran filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s “One Second” was pulled from the competition lineup shortly before its premiere for “technical reasons,” according an official statement posted by the film’s representatives and circulated by the festival. That term led many to assume that the movie, which deals with a prison escape during the Cultural Revolution, did not pass muster with China’s Communist Party.
If indeed Zhang’s latest work is a victim of censorship, he wouldn’t be the only the major Chinese director to face that fate. In 2013, Jia Zhangke’s multi-part “A Touch of Sin,” which explored the specter of violence throughout Chinese society, was banned in China and never received a theatrical release, even though it won the best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival and found acclaim around the world.
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As the Berlin news made the rounds this week, Jia was in the United States to promote his latest exploration of China’s evolving identity, “Ash is Purest White,” which premiered at Cannes last year. Asked about the allegations of censoring Zhang, Jia bemoaned the meager explanation for the decision.
“The only person who really knows what’s going on is Director Zhang,” the filmmaker said through a translator at the offices of Cohen Media, noting that there had been no other reporting on the decision to pull the film beyond the statement. “That’s the official government story, and Director Zhang’s story as well, but we learned about it from the media and no one really knows what’s really going on. So a sense of transparency will help. If we don’t know where the problem is, how are we going to face it, overcome it, and challenge it?”
The situation with Zhang’s film is especially puzzling given that his 2014 film “Coming Home” also took place during the Cultural Revolution and involved the experiences of an escaped prisoner. Other Chinese films, including Wang Xiaoshuai’s “So Long, My Son,” Wang Quan’an’s “Ondog,” and Lou Ye’s “Shadow Play” played at this year’s Berlinale without incident — but Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang’s youth-centric “Better Days” was also pulled, reportedly because it had yet to gain approval from censors.
Jia said the government’s decisions around censorship are unpredictable. “It’s really hard to know exactly what can be made, what you can make, and what you can’t make,” he said. “The ambiguity is such that sometimes your films can get banned and you don’t know why. The standards are constantly shifting and changing.”
When “A Touch of Sin” was censored in China, Jia said he learned to make peace with the outcome. “I made the film the way I wanted, it was banned, I couldn’t release it in China,” he said. “What do you do? I did my best to negotiate, to communicate, to really somehow find a way to have this film to be seen by a Chinese audience. But it was not meant to be, so I just put it aside and then I made my next film.”
Ultimately, he was able to publish the screenplay and circulate reviews throughout the country. “So I do think that there are ways we can still have some kind of visibility, even if it can’t be shown in theaters, to continue the discussion,” he said. “One of the worst things that can happen to any director isn’t censorship of the government; it’s the censorship the filmmakers impose on themselves. That’s not the way I operate. I believe in the stories I’m trying to tell.”
Jia struck an idealistic note. “Instead of paying attention to what can be made and what can’t be made based on the government’s ambiguous standards, it’s more important to think about what you want to make,” said the director, who also heads the Pingyao Film Festival, which showcases independent film from around the world as well as contemporary Chinese film. “As a filmmaker, the most important thing is that I make the film I want to make without paying attention to what the other parts of the society, the government, or the market tell me can or can’t be made.”
Despite these censorship hurdles, Jia wants to continue working in his native country. “At this point, I have to say that my focus is still very much in China,” he said. “Every year there are so many issues and things that happen that really touch me, move me, disturb me, or just cause a lot of reactions, that I want to express through storytelling to really reflect on what’s going on right now in China.”
“Ash is Purest White” opens in limited release on March 15.