Chinese fans hoping to see gay romance Call Me By Your Name will be sorely disappointed as last week it was reported that the film has been pulled from the Beijing International Film Festival. Although neither Sony Entertainment nor the festival have offered any comment on this sudden withdrawal, it is suspected that the movie’s LGBTQ theme might have offended Chinese censors.
Movies that depict same-sex relations have long experienced difficulties receiving approval from China’s media regulators. In the past few decades, movies with LGBTQ storylines and characters have largely been denied distribution in China, with notable examples including Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain. Since theatrical releases of gay films were unlikely, Chinese moviegoers had to rely on festivals or screenings in smaller venues in order to see movies that depicted homosexuality. Movies like Moonlight, for example, gained clearance to be screened at the Shanghai International Film Festival last year, although it was unable to secure a wide release in the world’s second-largest movie market.
The rules by which China’s movie regulator approve certain films that portray queer relationships and bans others have been notoriously hard to pin down. While last year China’s censors chose to cut out a gay kiss in Alien: Covenant, it also opted to not lop off a brief moment in the live action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast that shows the side character LeFou dancing with a man. The three-second dance scene caused outrage in Malaysia and Russia, but apparently, according to a tweet posted by People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s Communist Party, it was innocuous enough to pass scrutiny.
The slipperiness of these regulations have allowed for movies like Seek McCartney (寻找罗麦 xúnzhǎo luō mài) to be greenlighted for public screenings. The movie, which depicts a romantic relationship between a Chinese man and his French friend, is being publicized as the first commercial gay film to pass China’s movie censors. Its journey to the big screen, however, has been torturous. The movie was first approved by media regulators in 2015, and then approved once more in 2017, before it finally nailed down its current release date, April 13 this year.
Recent industry guidelines have, however, put the kibosh on homosexual representation in various forms of media. In 2016, the soon-to-be-sidelined State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) issued rules banning the depiction of homosexuality in China’s television productions. And last year, China Netcasting Services Association, an industrial body for online broadcasting, passed guidelines prohibiting the broadcasting of online content that showed “abnormal sexual behavior,” including homosexuality.
China’s ‘no-ghost’ rule affects release of Chinese horror film ‘The Possessed’
Call Me By Your Name isn’t the only film to have seemingly offended China’s censors. According to Mtime, the Chinese horror film The Possessed (中邪 zhōng xié) had its premiere canceled days before its scheduled release. The movie, a low-budget pseudo-documentary that focuses on exorcism rituals in rural China, was originally going to be released on April 4. Last weekend, however, the movie’s distributor began to circulate a notice in WeChat circles that the movie’s premiere would be postponed because of “technical issues.”
Before news broke of its axed release, The Possessed was one of the most highly anticipated films set to debut during China’s Tomb-Sweeping Festival holiday, which is today. It had won Best Artistic Exploration at China’s FIRST International Film Festival two years ago and was billed by many industry insiders as “one of the best Chinese horror movies in recent years.”
Entertainment outlets like Wenyu360 have suspected that it was the film’s marketing that landed The Possessed in hot water. In interviews, director Ma Kai 马凯 and hosts would play up eerie, supernatural happenings that supposedly occurred during the movie’s filming. Seeing that depictions of the supernatural, be it ghosts or local superstition, are already considered taboo in Chinese cinema, it’s not unlikely that the film’s promotional activities were considered one step too far for China’s media regulator.
The Chinese Film Bureau’s censorship of supernatural elements in movies has, like its protocol against homosexuality, been fairly inconsistent in recent years. Domestic horror films have largely been able to skirt this rule by resolving the supernatural with scientific explanations. Hollywood fare like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Crimson Peak have been less lucky — both were reportedly denied a release in China by the film bureau because spirits featured heavily in the storylines. Interestingly, the same regulatory institution allowed Coco, a movie that takes place in the Land of the Dead and has many ghosts as its main characters, to pass censorship last year. A common, perhaps apocryphal, explanation circulating on the internet is that members of the bureau’s censorship committee were “moved to tears” by the movie and therefore allowed the Pixar movie to be released in theaters.
The indefinite postponement of The Possessed’s theatrical release shows that China’s oversight of its media industry remains stringent and will perhaps become even more so after regulation of China’s movie and TV industry becomes subsumed by the Communist Party’s propaganda department. Two weeks ago, China announced it was abolishing its top media regulator, SAPPRFT, and replacing it with a new body that would be directly under the control of the party’s publicity department.