LB: Why I’m Not Writing Films in China

This is, of course, subject to change if I get a good enough offer. Meanwhile:


The SARFT is the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, described in Robert Cain’s fascinating (to me anyway) blog, ChinaFilmBiz.Com, this way:

The process of enforcing media censorship in China falls to the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT), a powerful branch of the government which controls the content of all radio, film, television, satellite and internet broadcasts in China. Within SARFT there is a committee of 30 or so staff who oversee movie censorship. These 30 individuals come from a broad array of backgrounds,  including the film industry, the Communist Youth League, the Women’s Federation, and various government departments. They are divided into various areas of authority. International co-productions, for example, are handled by a small group of three or four staffers.

The principal aims of the censorship system are to promote Confucian morality, political stability and social harmony. SARFT upholds these values by subjecting each and every film, beginning with the script, to a three-step process:

  1. The filmmakers submit their screenplay or finished film to the Censorship Board for review. The board has 15 days to offer a response, though things don’t always move this quickly.
  2. SARFT then offers comments and often suggestions for altering the film to meet censorship requirements. The filmmakers are given the opportunity to make modifications to comply with any requested changes.
  3. The script or film is submitted back to SARFT for review of the changes and an approval decision.

If the filmmakers disagree with the results of the review process, they can apply for an additional review.

The SARFT itself released the following guidelines almost 5 years ago, and as far as I can tell from my experiences in the People’s Republic they’re still in force:

Films containing any of the following content must be cut or altered:

(1) Distorting Chinese civilization and history, seriously departing from historical truth; distorting the history of other countries, disrespecting other civilizations and customs; disparaging the image of revolutionary leaders, heroes and important historical figures; tampering with Chinese or foreign classics and distorting the image of the important figures portrayed therein;

2)  Disparaging the image of the people’s army, armed police, public security organ or judiciary;

(3)  Showing obscene and vulgar content, exposing scenes of promiscuity, rape, prostitution, sexual acts, perversion, homosexuality, masturbation and private body parts including the male or female genitalia; containing dirty and vulgar dialogues, songs, background music and sound effects;

(4)  Showing contents of murder, violence, terror, ghosts and the supernatural; distorting value judgment between truth and lies, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, righteous and unrighteous; showing deliberate expressions of remorselessness in committing crimes; showing specific details of criminal behaviours; exposing special investigation methods; showing content which evokes excitement from murder, bloodiness, violence, drug abuse and gambling; showing scenes of mistreating prisoners, torturing criminals or suspects; containing excessively horror scenes, dialogues, background music and sound effects;

(5)  Propagating passive or negative outlook on life, world view and value system; deliberately exaggerating the ignorance of ethnic groups or the dark side of society;

(6)  Advertising religious extremism, stirring up ambivalence and conflicts between different religions or sects, and between believers and non-believers, causing disharmony in the community;

(7)  Advocating harm to the ecological environment, animal cruelty, killing or consuming nationally protected animals;

(8)   Showing excessive drinking, smoking and other bad habits;

(9)  Opposing the spirit of law.

The next time you read about a film company like, say, Marvel Studios, shooting in China, try to take all this into consideration as you squint in between the lines of whatever the article says. (Especially when you read about  the “Chinese version” not being the same as the International or U.S. version.)

I’ve always viewed TV and film making as a guerilla war between the oppressive financiers and the upstart creatives, but until the rules change in China, I don’t see any upstart victories in sight. Every company that shoots in China has to follow China’s rules. Ain’t nobody gettin’ away with nuthin’, and that means that not only does the audience lose, so does…art.

Author: LB

A legendary figure in the television writing and production world with a career going back to the late ’60s, Larry Brody has written and produced hundreds of hours of American and worldwide television and is a consultant to production companies and networks in the U.S. and abroad . Shows written or produced by Brody have won several awards including - yes, it's true - Emmys, Writers Guild Awards, and the Humanitas Award.

3 thoughts on “LB: Why I’m Not Writing Films in China”

  1. Everybody hates SARFT. It’s not as bad as it seems, though. Lately, the Party cares about itself more than anything. There was a huge scandal last year (a top party member’s wife murdered someone she was sleeping with to protect her kid at Harvard from the man’s threats) (or did she kill him… it’s still unclear) and the top leadership just changed over. So party stuff is pretty taboo right now.

    As for murders, bad language and even ghosts — yes, that’s popping into films more and more. Even those released in theaters.

    Everyone suspects that China’s Hayes Code will be replaced with a rating system in the coming years. Actually, they’ve been thinking that for the past five years. I suspect it’ll come. (There’s economic growth to be made in depictions of vice, after all.)

    Another thing to remember about China is that there a million laws, but only have of them are enforced. Laws sit around for years until certain campaigns and crackdowns creep up.

    The last Chinese film that I subtitled past the SARFT review except for one thing. The film is called “The Last Supper,” and it’s about the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, who went a bit crazy. In one scene, he scolds one of his scribes: “You! What are you writing down!” And the scribe says, “Whatever you tell me, sir! That’s exactly what I’ll write down!”

    SARFT had a problem with that.

    We had to change the scribe’s words to something like, “Only the truth, for posterity’s sake!” (I forget, but it was silly.)

    As for the blood and sex and foul language and ghost-like schizophrenia, well they didn’t have a problem with that.

  2. Ah, one more comment.

    The Chinese writers/directors that I know point to Tarkovsky as a model for themselves. He too was bound by strict censorship, yet still produced great work within his parameters.

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