The new James Bond thriller, Skyfall, is just one of several dozen foreign films that China allows into the country each year. But Her Majesty's secret agent still cannot do whatever he pleases in the Middle Kingdom.
In one of the scenes of the international box office hit, Bond kills a Chinese security guard. This was too much for Beijing censors and the scene landed on the cutting room floor before the film landed in Chinese theaters.
Censorship remains a touchy subject in China, and this time especially, Chinese moviegoers and freedom activists protested loudly.
"Maybe they have very high quality standards as far as the image of Chinese guards is concerned," quipped Chinese film director Wang Jing with a dash of sarcasm, "but this cut was completely unnecessary and senseless. They totally overreacted."
On top of this, China's censors are also prudish. A scene containing a dialogue about prostitution in Macau was changed in the Chinese subtitles.
In another movie, Cloud Atlas, nudity scenes were cut, as were scenes of men kissing. Some dialogue was deleted entirely. All in all, Cloud Atlas ended up being 40 minutes shorter in the Chinese version than in the original, according to media reports.
Commentators complained that the film was shortened so much that it became impossible to understand what was going on in what was already a very complicated film.
The rules followed by China's censors lack transparency. Many political issues are taboo right from the start, but filmmakers say they are all aware of that. Sex and violence are also not condoned by the censors, but China has no classification guidelines, like Germany for example, to make recommendations about the suitability of a film for certain age groups. As a result, just how much of a foreign film is left standing depends to a great extent on the individual censors.
Censorship promotes piracy
Chinese filmmakers, says director Wang, already have a pair of scissors in their head when writing their screenplays. "Films cannot be too brooding; the end has to give people hope. We are not allowed to show only the dark side of life; the main character cannot be a bad guy, and so on. We build our own cages, leaving little room for creativity," says Wang.
Wang argues that censorship has no place in a modern China. Even the state-run news agency Xinhua reported that the controversy over Skyfall had led to calls for reforms.
Moviegoers have little but ridicule for China's censorship efforts, since there are numerous ways anyway to view the original. Film fans, when asked, said that censorship basically forced them to buy pirated DVDs instead, which are available on every street corner for the equivalent of one euro. These, they said, were guaranteed to be the original version.