We all know that if something has been banned it’s instantly more appealing. I recently tried a two-week stint of sobriety and I spent most nights dreaming about a frosty pint. I don’t even like beer very much. It’s the same with food, music and definitely with film. How many people have either watched or been tempted to watch The Human Centipede II?! I’m willing to wager at least 85% of you, you naughty people.
Well just for you, we’ve compiled a list of films that were banned in China, and we’ve watched and reviewed them for you too, because we’re nice like that. Not all of the bans have stuck, and many of these films are now available on DVD, though some are easier to get hold of than others.
East Palace West Palace (AKA Behind the Forbidden City)
Director: Zhang Yuan
Reason for ban: ‘Staining the socialist image,’ and ‘giving out corrupt ideas’
Rating : 6/10
Where we found it: Found in most DVD shops, but without English subs so streamed online
East Palace West Palace, originally written for stage, is the story of a young gay man (A Lan) who lives in Beijing and regularly frequents a park in the dead of night to ‘make friends.’
In an early scene we see A Lan being busted by the police and given a firm warning about his ‘depraved behavior’, but that doesn’t stop him returning to his favorite pick up spot. The second time he’s caught, he is arrested and detained for the night by a policeman.
From the policeman’s hard line of questioning we learn about A Lan’s difficult life as a victim of abuse and violence. After spending some time with him, the policeman’s feelings change from those of repulsion, to a kind of understanding, and ultimately to attraction.
East Palace West Palace was the first movie to come out of Mainland China with explicitly homosexual themes. It was smuggled out of the country for completion and premiered in Europe at two major film festivals. It was, of course, banned in China very quickly, with the authorities seizing Yuan’s passport so that he couldn’t attend the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, and forbidding him from making any more movies for several years. Ouch.
There were some tender moments towards the end, where the script becomes almost poetic, and the acting was consistently good, especially considering there were only really two actors on screen for the majority of the film. However, there was a slump in the middle where everything seemed to stagnate a little, and some more character and plot movement would have been welcome. That being said, this is definitely a film you should check out even if it’s just to admire how bold Yuan was with many of his directorial choices.
Director: Lou Ye
Reason for ban: ‘ Sex scenes and political undertones’
Where we found it: Downloaded
Our man Lou Ye is back once again – not content with his two year ban from filmmaking after making Suzhou River, he earned a five year ban for his 2006 Sino-French production Summer Palace.
Unlike Suzhou River, the themes that might offend the censors are pretty obvious. Following the journey of Yu Hong to Beiqing University (a not-so-subtle reference to Beijing University) in 1988, the story takes place during the events of the following year. Combine this with what can only be described as a VERY large number of mostly nude sex scenes, and it’s easy to see why Lou’s decision to screen Summer Palace at the Cannes Film Festival without government approval didn’t go down too well.
At its heart the film is a love story, one with very little conversation between lovers. The student protests are present, but they are only briefly referred to and the true political story is told via the interactions between Yu Hong and the people she meets.
As we see relationships made and unmade with barely a word, it’s easy to dismiss this film as controversy for the sake of it. The sex is key to the film but there’s probably too much of it (if that’s possible…) and the 10 minutes of screen time given to the protests seem cursory. The film should either have explored the issue more, or discarded it altogether.
That said, there are some wonderful moments – Hao Lei puts in a good performance in a difficult role as Yu Hong and some of the shots are breathtaking and powerful in their simplicity.
Summer Palace is an emotionally charged, haunting film and despite its flaws is well worth a watch for anyone with an interest in Chinese cinema.
Last Train Home
Director: Li Xin Fan
Reason for ban: Not strictly speaking a ‘banned’ film... Last Train Home was not approved by the authorities and was only shown to audiences in small venues
Where we found it: Big Movie, Hengshan Road. Available in most DVD shops
When asked, ‘what is the largest human migration in the world?’ What would your answer be? The pilgrimage to Mecca? Maybe rush hour in New York? Well, you’re wrong if you said those things, or anything else for that matter… unless you got the answer right before reading this review, in which case, well done.
No, the largest human migration in the world happens right under our noses, here in China. Every year, 130 million migrant workers make the journey from the cities to their rural homes for Chinese New Year. Last Train Home is a documentary following one family dealing with the reality of working in Dickensian factory conditions all year round, and the trauma of the most stressful trip home imaginable.
Fan shot the documentary over a period of two years. The prolonged exposure to the camera means that the family seem completely at ease, giving the audience a very real experience, quite unique to this style of documentary. We sympathize with the subjects instantly, as we catch a rare glimpse of conditions in factories in the megacities of China.
As the documentary progresses we cut between the family’s home life and the parents daily struggle to keep their oldest daughter in school. The children are left in the care of their elderly grandmother, who bears the weight of their upbringing and the up-keep of the family farm on her shoulders. Throughout the film we see a growing resentment between the family. This is a feeling that is no doubt shared between a huge amount of the Chinese working class, who have to adapt to a new wave of industrialisation and a break away from traditional communist values.
This film is a must-see to go some way towards understanding a little of what life is like for the many, many migrant workers in China. Prepare to have your heart strings tugged on, and at times pretty much ripped out. This harrowing, gritty, very real documentary may even leave you questioning the humanity of the world we live in.
WORDS BY ANNA BENNETT, PETER DIXON AND ED MOON