• Amarsanaa Battulga

Mainland cinema’s journey to the west and back

“Hey, I finally watched that film you were talking about.”

“Oh, they released it in China? How did you like it?”

“I loved it. The ending—the final scene with the voiceover—is so touching.”

“Wait, what voiceover?”


This was more or less how a conversation between a friend in the U.S. and I started last November. The film under discussion was Wei Shujun’s Striding Into the Wind (2020), the up-and-coming young director’s take on the road film genre with a final-year film school student as the protagonist.


Although the film was screened at various international film festivals worldwide as early as October 2020, it found its way into Chinese cinemas only in November 2021. And when it did, it came back as a changed film.


The international poster of Striding Into the Wind. Provided by Douban. 30/11/2021


A journey to the west and a homecoming


Due to the stringent rules and regulations of the film industry in China, it has become commonplace for mainland directors to tour the festival circuit abroad with their new film while waiting to secure a theatrical release in their own country.


Indeed, international film festivals abroad have served as a stronghold for mainland directors ever since the emergence of the Fifth Generation of mainland Chinese directors in the 1980s. The reception of these directors and their films at the festivals often influences the CFA's decision regarding if or how the films should be re-edited or whether they should be issued a film release permit at all.1


The “dragon seal” logo of the China Film Administration, without which films are prohibited from theatrical screening. Provided by Weibo. 30/11/2021

Films entering festivals, however, still need to obtain official approval, but this is a relatively smoother process compared to applying for permission for domestic release. The censors are usually more flexible—of course, within certain uncompromising bounds—with films going abroad since they have with the filmmakers an unwritten agreement, so to speak, that the films will most likely have to be recut once they return home to domestic cinemas.2


Striding Into the Wind is no exception to this agreement.


The cast of Striding Into the Wind with the director Wei Shujun (third from the left) and the producer Liu Qingling (first from the left) at the 4th Pingyao International Film Festival in 2020, where the film’s domestic version was first shown. Provided by Douban. 08/12/2021


Adds, reshoots, and cuts


Film censorship in China is not as inflexible as many Western media and filmgoers tend to portray it as. It has become a discursive process whereby the authorities negotiate with the filmmakers and other stakeholders to reach a compromise, i.e., a recut, instead of imposing an outright ban.3


Broadly speaking, these compromises come in three main ways: something added, something reshot, and something cut out (no something blue—if there were to be a color, it would be red, anyhow). You can see all three in Striding Into the Wind.


Without delving into the plot, at least one brief scene that got cut out of the international version (国际版 guoji ban or 海外版 haiwai ban) of the film takes place inside a prison warden’s office and depicts bribery—not much leeway for negotiation here.


At least one scene that was reshot follows the scene in the office. In the international version, the protagonist looks out of the window and sees a couple dozen prisoners practicing 武术 wushu or Chinese martial arts (where the film’s Chinese title comes from).4 Upon hearing a command, they sit down with heads down and hands behind their head, and reveals two Chinese characters with their formation: 感恩 ganen or “gratitude.”


The inmates’ formation spells 感恩 ganen or “gratitude” in the international cut of Striding Into the Wind. Provided by Weibo. 26/11/2021

In the domestic version, however, the overall color palette of the scene is much brighter, and the prisoners remain standing, rendering the two characters nearly illegible.


The same scene in the domestic version. Provided by Douban. 27/11/2021

Finally, what is added—relatively unusual, compared to the other two types of editing—in the domestic version (国内版guonei ban or 公映版 gongying ban) is the voiceover at the end of the film that I mentioned at the beginning of this article. In the comments section on Douban, Chinese IMDb, some have complained that the voiceover served as “positive energy” (正能量 zhengnengliang, a phrase that can be used in a derogatory sense against overoptimism) or that it diminished the emotional impact of the last scene. Others argued that they were touched by the voiceover and that the scene was just as good as, if not better than, the one in the international version.5



Not an exception to the norm


One can find numerous news and journal articles on how foreign films, especially Hollywood productions, “change” in order to gain entry to China, whose film market is currently the largest in the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the global film industry.6 Comparatively little has been written, however, on how mainland Chinese films “change” so that they can be allowed to meet the local audiences.


But the phenomenon of cutting two versions of the same film is neither a recent development nor an exception to the norm. In fact, some Chinese film and media scholars advocate such a practice to “take into consideration different audiences at home and abroad.”7


Well-known examples include Li Yang’s Blind Mountain (2007), which deals with the present-day trafficking of women in rural China, and Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son (2019), which chronicles thirty years of social changes in China from the 1980s onwards.


The international and domestic cuts of Blind Mountain had drastically different endings: in the former, the father of the female protagonist fails to rescue her from the villagers, even with the help of the local law enforcement, and the film ends with a violent, bleak turn of events, whereas in the latter “harmonized version,” the father successfully saves his daughter.8 Similarly, the domestic version of So Long, My Son is ten minutes shorter than the international one and omits certain scenes that deal with factory workers’ unrest and the direct ramifications of the one-child policy.9





Ship of Theseus?


What mainland Chinese cinema you watch depends on where you are watch it. But does it matter? Asking whether the “essence” of the film changes due to additions, reshoots, or cuts is, in a sense, similar to asking whether the Ship of Theseus is still itself after its parts are replaced.


Is the domestic cut of a Chinese film inherently inferior to or not as “good” as the international cut? What if it adds something to the film that helps audiences better appreciate it, as contended by some in the case of the voiceover in Striding Into the Wind?


Instead of rushing to pass judgments, it might be more fruitful to appreciate how these practices enrich mainland cinema as an industry, if not necessarily as an art, and observe how the different parties navigate this site of contention.


You might disagree. But then again: same film, different versions; same question, different answers.



 

References / To go further


  1. Yifen T. Beus, “Festivals, Censorship and the Canon: The Makings of Sinophone Cinemas,” in Sinophone Cinemas, eds. Audrey Yue and Olivia Khoo (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 46-48.

  2. Sebastian Veg, “Eliminating Disharmony: Recent Examples of Censorship in Chinese Writing and Cinema,” China Perspectives 3, no. 71 (2007): 67.

  3. Veg, “Eliminating Disharmony,” 69.

  4. The film’s Chinese title—野马分鬃 yema fenzong—can be literally translated as “parting a wild horse’s mane” and refers to a type of posture in Chinese martial arts.

  5. “Striding Into the Wind,” Douban Film, https://movie.douban.com/subject/30425827/discussion/637095999/.

  6. Examples abound: Iron Man 3 (2013), 21 & Over (2013), Looper (2012), etc.

  7. 李亦中.中国电影的国际传播路程与路径[J].现代传播(中国传媒大学学报),2011(03):56-59.

  8. 李娜. 新世纪中国独立电影的发展现状研究(2000-2012)[D].河南大学,2013: 31-32.

  9. 超人叔叔, “《地久天长》之删减与增改,” Douban Film, January 28, 2020, https://movie.douban.com/review/12191990/.