Nearly 40 minutes have been chopped from the Hollywood film "Cloud Atlas" for Chinese audiences, deleting both gay and straight love scenes to satisfy local censors despite a movie-going public that increasingly chafes at censorship.
It premiered Tuesday in Beijing in a red-carpet ceremony with actor Hugo Weaving and China’s own Zhou Xun, but won’t start running in Chinese theaters until next Thursday. The filmmaker’s Chinese partners have slashed that version from the U.S. runtime of 172 minutes to a pared-down 134 to expunge the "passionate" episodes.
"The 172-minute version can be downloaded online ... so I am sure some people will prefer that to going to the cinema," said movie fan Kong Kong, 27, who lives in Shanghai.
Chinese citizens have recently become more outspoken, especially on social media, with complaints about censorship of imported films as well as the home-grown movie industry and news media, much of it imposed over elements that might make China look bad. Awkward cuts by the censors to the most recent James Bond offering "Skyfall," which opened here Monday, prompted calls for a review of the film censorship system.
"Even these kinds of movies are getting censored, for what?" wrote Wei Xinhong, deputy editor in chief at Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing Bureau, on his Twitter-like Sina Weibo. "What kind of era do we live in today! Still want to control people’s minds?"
He said he was left confused after watching China’s version of the 007 movie, which deleted a bloody scene showing a French hitman killing a Chinese security guard. It also changed the subtitles of Bond’s conversation with a young woman in the Chinese territory of Macau about her past - references to her as a teenage prostitute morphed into a mention of her membership in the mafia.
The "Cloud Atlas" filmmakers say they are confident their movie will retain its "integrity" despite being 38 minutes lighter.
Executive producer Philip Lee said Thursday that the filmmakers knew they would have to "follow the censorship requirements" to have the movie shown in China. He said he hadn’t yet seen the censored version that will come out next week, but that he was confident that the Chinese distributor, Dreams of Dragon Pictures, had made the right changes.
"We have very strong belief in our partner Dreams of the Dragon Pictures," Lee said. "They have been extremely helpful and collaborative and I am sure they will protect the integrity of the film makers, our creativity and vision."
A woman surnamed Su in charge of propaganda for Dreams of the Dragon Pictures refused to comment Thursday. Phone calls to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television rang unanswered.
China allows only 34 foreign films to be shown in its movie theaters each year and 14 of those have to be in 3D or IMAX format. However, pirated DVDs of Hollywood blockbusters are widely available in China, sometimes the result of recording films as they are shown in American or European movie theaters.
"I’m kind of surprised that the directors or the film’s producers would accept such a hefty edit on this," Florian Fettweis of Beijing-based media consultancy CMM-I said of "Cloud Atlas." Usually if Hollywood movies encounter heavy censorship, the makers change their mind about showing it in China, he said.
Fettweis said that happened with the 2008 Batman movie "The Dark Knight."
"Commonly big Hollywood directors are the ones who don’t accept edits to their films," said Fettweis.
China’s authoritarian government strictly controls print media, television, radio and the Internet. China doesn’t have a classification system, so all movies shown at its cinemas are open to adults and children of any age. This has led to calls for a tiered classification that would give clearer guidelines to filmmakers and allow some films to be less heavily censored.
There are two strands to the Chinese censorship - prudishness and political sensitivities, said Steve Tsang, an expert on contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham in Britain.
The censoring of gay love scenes in "Cloud Atlas" falls into the first category while cuts to "Skyfall" are in the second, broadly defined as anything that portrays China or the Chinese in a negative light. "Shooting a Chinese officer in uniform, they don’t want to encourage that," said Tsang.
The screen time of a pirate played by Hong Kong actor Chow Yun Fat in the 2007 "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End" was slashed in half by censors for "vilifying and defacing the Chinese," according to the official Xinhua News Agency at the time.
The changes made to Skyfall were widely reported in state-run media. Xinhua quoted Shi Chuan, a professor from Shanghai University’s film department, as saying: "Movie regulators should respect the producers’ original ideas, rather than chopping scenes arbitrarily." He renewed calls for the establishment of laws and norms for movie censors to follow.
Cinema-goers who saw the censored version were confused by the cuts, which also deleted a character’s line about having been tortured by Chinese security agents.
"Now I know why I was so confused when I watched it, and not able to connect each scene," a movie goer, Gao Yuan, who works for a cultural publishing company in Beijing, said on her Sina Weibo. "It’s not worth watching any good movies if they cut them like this. Maybe just don’t import it."