Why scary Chinese movies are so scarce [People’s Daily / Sweet & Sour Cinema]

by Li Anlan (Shanghai Daily)

October 31, 2012

[On] Halloween…, thrills, chills, spirits and horror are in order. Why not catch a scary flick at the theater with friends, eat popcorn and enjoy a good old-fashioned, blood-curdling night at the movies?

Scary movies are a Halloween tradition and fun year-round. The global horror-ghost-thriller industry is booming, except on the Chinese mainland, which has a huge film industry, vast audience and few scary flicks.

Though its audience has a great appetite for horror (both physical and psychological), China’s own horror industry seems seems drained of blood and vitality. Thus, viewers get their fix from abundant Asian and Western fare. DVD stores are packed and virtually every creepy film can be downloaded from the Internet.

Over the years a few mainland directors have made horror films in China, but with low budgets and strict censorship, it’s fair to say that making these films is a nightmare that doesn’t make money.

You might call it a dying industry, suffering death by a thousand cuts.

The bottom line: The State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) has very detailed guidelines about what’s not permitted in terms of the supernatural and violence (see [below] for gory details).

China has no rating system and films are approved one by one, scene by scene.

For example, no “real” ghosts are permitted because they represent superstition – thus, the only allowable ghosts must be in dreams or the imagination. And they can’t be too graphic.

But today, a rare Chinese mainland horror film “Haunting Love” by Liang Ting, will be released, telling not only a horror story, but also a love story, and a murder mystery.

In brief, a female radio host attempts suicide before her wedding when she learns her fiance has been unfaithful. He dies mysteriously as do other people as the tale unravels.

Actually there are a few memorable films on the mainland. In 2003, Shanghai Film Group produced “Midnight Ghosts” directed by Li Xiepu about two young women who facing a terrifying series of events in an old house.

For Li, the low-budget horror film was fun and challenging. “I don’t think it was splendid or brilliant, but I tried,” he tells Shanghai Daily.

Authentic ghosts and anything ghost-related will not be permitted in contemporary films, Li says. “Because of the censorship system, the choice of topics is limited. In horror films, only people can kill people or cause catastrophes. People must pretend to be ghosts,” says Li Yunliang, screenwriter and executive producer of “Midnight Ghosts.”

The only exceptions are the ghosts and horror figures in well-known Chinese classics, such as “Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio,” or “Liao Zhai Zhi Yi,” a collection of around 500 tales compiled by Pu Songling (1640-1715) in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). They have been adapted into many period films (“The Painted Skin,” 2008) and TV series. But there can be no modern ghosts or hauntings.

“Art is a dream factory, ghost stories are made up and this doesn’t violate the concept of materialism,” director Li says. “If we break the ice and provide more space for horror films, maybe we will have more excellent works.”

Another restriction is the amount and degree of blood, gore and violence. Horrific visuals are restricted. If there’s too much blood or violence, the scenes are cut. Films cannot be shown in theaters unless they pass censors.

Chinese director Agan (he uses only one name) has made four somewhat successful horror films, meaning they didn’t lose money, including “Fierce Spirit” (2001) and “The Game of Killing” (2004). The audience bought tickets for a big-screen experience that beats DVD, but they gave poor reviews.

Agan agrees those films weren’t effective or scary.

“With our film standards, you can’t make horror films that will satisfy audiences – the most basic visual horror is strictly limited,” Agan tells Shanghai Daily.

Standards and red lines for horror films have shifted over time. Today’s Hollywood horror films are too visually realistic and provocative to make it – intact – into China.

When Agan was making “Fierce Spirit,” the title was designed in Dongba pictographic glyphs from Yunnan Province because they looked mysterious. But it was rejected because the title images looked a bit violent, Agan says.

“Every inspection was torturous, they don’t like too much blood or people dying, issues that seem rather childish, but there has been improvements in recent years.”

It’s not just blood, violence and the supernatural that make films scary. Suspense, cliff-hangers and other devices are terrifying without risking the censor’s editing.

“It’s not physical violence that attracts people to horror films,” director Li says. “It’s the unexpected, when the audience worries something is going to happen.” The psychological horror film is more intriguing, frightening and “cleaner” to make, he says.

Horror films from many sources are so familiar and available that the situation is slowly improving, Agan says. “People treat them like games, like going to a haunted house. Nobody takes them seriously, there’s no serious negative social impact.”

Because the genre is so appealing, filmmakers should invest more money to make more effective and quality films, Agan says.

Scary American and Japanese films are very popular though they cannot be shown in theaters without significant cuts…

…Japanese horror films are very different from Western-films – and ghosts play important roles. Director Hideo Nakata’s 1998 film “Ring” and 1999 film “Ring 2″ are so popular that the character Sadako Yamamura, her face always hidden behind her long hair, is a ghost figure in popular culture.

People watch these films for entertainment, to unwind. Daily life is stressful and when people return home, they want something fun,” director Li says.

Scriptwriter Li says the quality of horror films is dropping because scripts are poorly written – there’s no logic, they’re just scary. Low budgets mean costumes and makeup are unrealistic. Little is spent on post-production.

Famous screenwriters rarely do horror films because most are tasteless, and they don’t earn much, director Li says.

“Good imported horror films often raise important social issues or ask questions about humanity. The best are well-plotted and logical,” scriptwriter Li says. “We lack literary skills and recently screenwriters and even directors just make up any kind of story.”

Film no-nos

Elements prohibited in Chinese mainland films:

* Publicizing feudal superstition and disturbing social public order;

* Dramatizing murder and violence, encouraging people to ignore the dignity of the law and suggesting crimes;

* Defaming and insulting people.

Must be cut or altered:

* Obscene and vulgar content that violates moral standards and public taste;

* Language and dialogue in bad taste;

* Vulgar and tasteless background music and sound effects;

* Detailed descriptions of crimes that might encourage others to imitate them;

* Provocative scenes of murder, drug abuse or gambling;

* Descriptions of absurd, cruel and violent actions against others;

* Plots that positively describe the omnipotence and fervor of religions.

Article link: http://english.people.com.cn/90782/7998522.html

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