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Caution: lust

Jan 10th 2008 | BEIJING

From The Economist print edition



IN A country awash with pirated films featuring explicit sex and violence, China's prudish censors risk irrelevance. Their heavy-handed treatment of two recent films has sparked a lively debate about whether cinemas should at last be allowed to show something racier.


At present, films deemed unsuitable for children may not be shown to adults either. But the censors are under attack. Critics include Gong Li, a famous actress and government adviser, who last March appealed for a rating system that would give adults more choice. Complaints have mounted following the removal of sex scenes from “Lust, Caution”, a spy thriller by a Taiwan-born Oscar-winning director, Ang Lee, and the outright banning this month of “Lost in Beijing”, a sexually explicit drama by a Chinese director, Li Yu.


The internet and rampant film piracy mean censors' cuts do not go unnoticed. Chinese internet users can readily find websites showing the expurgated parts of “Lust, Caution”. Uncensored bootleg copies are peddled on the streets. The rapid growth of overseas tourism frustrates the censors too. The press reports that some Chinese travel agents have been offering trips to the cinema to see “Lust, Caution” uncut as part of their Hong Kong tour packages.


The censors initially approved the showing of “Lost in Beijing”, albeit in a heavily censored form. But just over a month after the film's debut in China, officials changed their minds. They accused the film company of circulating the censored sex scenes on the internet (the filmmakers blamed pirates) and banned the Beijing-based company from making films for the next two years.


Officials have mentioned the possibility of eventually introducing a film-rating system, but they appear in no hurry. Communist Party conservatives abhor the idea of condoning explicit sex. One Beijing newspaper reported last year that officials were worried that a rating system would make it more difficult to curb the distribution in China of foreign films, many of which fail to meet current censorship standards.


A quixotic attempt by a graduate student in Beijing, Dong Yanbin, to sue the censors for cutting the sex scenes out of “Lust, Caution” resulted in a predictable brush-off by a low-level court in the city. It said that the case could not be accepted unless the student could submit an uncensored version for comparison. Mr Dong prudently refrained from offering the court a pirated copy.



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