China's latest, notorious case of censorship has nothing to do with politics. Rather, it’s about actress Kate Winslet’s 15-year-old nude scene in the film "Titanic."
On April 10, the 3-D edition of the film was released in China minus the scene. What makes the government's decision to cut it particularly controversial is that officials did not tamper with the scene when the original, conventional version of the movie was released in China in 1998.
For Chinese film buffs, this is nothing short of a personal affront that raises two questions. First, where’s our 3-D nude scene? And second, why can we be trusted to handle a 2-D nude scene in 1998 and yet not be trusted to handle a nude scene with an extra dimension in 2012?
One film aficionado wrote, in one of the most popular quips to circulate on China’s microblogs in months: “I didn’t wait 15 years to see 3-D icebergs.”
One cannot overstate just how big "Titanic" is in China. From 1998 to 2009, it reigned as China’s all-time box office champ (it was dethroned by "Transformers 2"). China’s thousands of pirate DVD shops frequently display copies of the film prominently for eager customers. Illegal downloads of "Titanic" with Chinese subtitles are easy to find online. And for those who are only interested in the four-minute nude scene, microbloggers readily share links to the clip.
So, who are the archaic government censors so out of touch with the reality of contemporary media distribution? They are among the nameless bureaucrats at the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), an office with broad oversight over domestic and foreign media companies -- and the power to censor all content released into China. As Chinese filmgoers know, the censors have a conservative, even prudish streak, as the long list of content stripped from films -– especially foreign ones -- attests.
SARFT has yet to comment on why it banned Winslet’s nude scene from the 3-D version, but that’s not for a lack of media inquiries. Even the nationalist Global Times, a subsidiary of People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, has failed to extract a reason.
When official China refuses to explain its decision-making processes, unofficial China tries to fill in the blanks with satire, rumor-mongering and contempt online. Netizens on Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblog, have frequently suggested that China’s internet censors are just dirty old men who see smut in what is actually a beautiful love story.
One Sina Weibo user known by the handle Free-Wings stated: “Foul-hearted people can only see the wretched and pornographic.” Similarly, another user with the handle Exercise Book, who has 2.5 million followers, tweeted: “Sometimes nude scenes are without pornographic and obscene elements, while the deletions made by certain privileged gentlemen are truly obscene.” This posting has been re-tweeted more than 12,000 times.
But by far the most influential tweet on the topic was written by a previously obscure Sina Weibo microblogger with the difficult-to-translate handle Bean Sauce Teases Your Little Sister. The original tweet looked like an official statement quoted in a newspaper article. The Offbeat China blog offered this English translation:
"Considering the vivid 3-D effects, we fear that viewers may reach out their hands for a touch and thus interrupt other people’s viewing. To avoid potential conflicts between viewers and out of consideration of building a harmonious ethical social environment, we’ve decided to cut off the nudity scenes,” according to an official at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.
This is near perfect Chinese satire, especially in its precise lampooning of official China’s tendency to frame every action as enhancing social harmony. Soon, the tweet became an international phenomenon. After it went viral on Chinese microblogs, some mainstream and state-owned media reported it as fact, others as rumor despite China’s high-profile campaign against online rumor-mongering.
For example, on April 11 the Global Times reported:
The State Administration of Radio, Film and Broadcast could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but some rumors circulated online that authorities decided to remove the scene out of concern that viewers may attempt to reach out and touch the screen during the scene and hit the heads of viewers sitting in front of them.
It wasn’t just the Chinese media that were fooled. Like sheep to the slaughter, foreign entertainment magazines -- including Entertainment Weekly, E! Online and the Hollywood Reporter -- dropped the Global Times’ comparatively cautious approach and ran the story as fact.
In a subsequent blog post citing the Onion as his fake news inspiration, Bean Sauce Teases Your Sister compiled a partial list of Chinese and foreign news organizations duped by his spoof. Clearly proud of himself, he linked to a clip of James Cameron -- the screenwriter, co-producer and director of "Titanic" -- earnestly explaining to Steven Colbert on The Colbert Report that China’s censors feared that Chinese men would try to reach for the screen during Winslet’s nude scene. As the crowd laughs, Cameron adds: “This is true. You can’t make this up.” Bean Sauce Teases Your Little Sister declared that he’d “made the most successful fake news in many years.”
Neither censorship nor satire has seemingly had much negative impact on the commercial prospects of "Titanic" in China. Over the weekend, the film's 3-D version enjoyed the biggest box office opening in Chinese history, with a take of $67 million in just six days, exceeding the total earnings from the film’s original theatrical run in the country.
(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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