Censored on the mainland, Ang Lee’s ‘Lust, Caution’ is a hit in Hong Kong

By Howard W. French
Published: December 18, 2007
Copyright The New York Times
SHANGHAI: For weeks now the ranks of Chinese visitors to Hong Kong have swelled with a brand-new category of tourists: moviegoers.
In a response to the censoring of a film by the Taiwanese director Ang Lee about love and betrayal in Shanghai during the Second World War, mainland movie fans have flocked by the thousands to Hong Kong to see the full, uncut version of the film, “Lust, Caution.”
The phenomenon of so many people voting, as it were, with their feet has highlighted the public’s rapidly changing attitudes toward the long unquestioned practice of government censorship of the arts and prompted debate about the way films are regulated in China.
Travelers have made their way to Hong Kong to see movies before but always in much smaller numbers. Critics and commentators here attribute the interest in Lee’s movie to a variety of factors, from word of mouth about risqué sexual content stripped from the censored version, to a sensitive political subtext rarely seen in mainland cinema, to the fame of the Academy Award-winning director.
Perhaps most important, though, is the rise of a class of affluent urban dwellers in China’s prosperous eastern cities who have grown increasingly accustomed to ever more choice in their lives.
“I went to Hong Kong with my girlfriend to see ‘Lust, Caution’ because it was heavily censored here,” said Liang Baijian, 25, a businessman and stock market investor from the southern region of Guangxi. “We could have bought a pirated copy of the movie here, but we were not happy with the control and wanted to support the legal edition of the film.”
At least one Chinese movie fan has tried to sue the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, which regulates the industry in China, for deleting some of the film’s content. The lawsuit has been repeatedly rejected by Beijing courts.
Lee, the director, has said that the censored material was regarded as politically unacceptable in Beijing because it reinforced the notion of sympathy between a young Chinese woman and a Japanese collaborator.
Many in the Chinese industry support the idea of a ratings system similar to the one used in the United States, which advocates say would lessen the need for outright censorship. The state film administration, however, has resisted this idea, notably saying that “films that are not suitable for children are not suitable for adults, either.”
Other travelers to Hong Kong, meanwhile, said they accepted the rationale of a censorship system in a country of stark disparities in regional income and education but thought the practice was no longer justified in wealthy urban centers.
“For myself, I strongly object to censorship, but for the country as a whole, I think I can still understand its necessity,” said Yan Jiawei, a graphics designer from Shanghai who saw “Lust, Caution” on a recent business trip to Hong Kong. “It has something to do with people’s educational level. In big cities like Shanghai, people will treat the deleted scenes as art, while those in less developed areas will only think of them as immoral.”
People within the Chinese movie industry said that the fact that a censored “Lust, Caution” was available at all in mainland China demonstrated how far the parameters of the acceptable have broadened since the beginning of China’s era of change more than two decades ago.
Not long ago, Chinese film was thoroughly dominated by plot lines that heavy-handedly reinforced conventional dividing lines between good and bad, with little room for moral complexities. Unquestioned love of country was a favorite theme.
While many have been drawn to “Lust, Caution” by the allure of sex scenes, which even now run the gamut from tame to nonexistent in most Chinese cinema, even more groundbreaking for a film released here is the notion of a traitor in a leading role depicted as an attractive character instead of a villain.
“The country has undoubtedly become more and more open and advanced, and this is the tide of history, which no one can prevent,” said Fang Li, a leading producer. “Compared to a market economy that’s developing so fast, I’ve never seen an industry in China as backward as the film industry, though.”
Fang said that much of the blame for this lay with the censors, a group of mostly elderly people who work in committee and invite critical comment on movies by different branches of government, from the All-China Women’s Federation to provincial governments, all seeking to present their constituency in the best light and to avoid offense. The censors “spend most of their time worrying how not to lose their post,” he said. “They are very careful not to make mistakes.”
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