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Will 'Parasite' make it past China's film censors?

Inkstone logo Inkstone 15/2/2020
Park So-dam talking on a cell phone © Handout

Chinese film fans still don’t know if, or when, they will get to see Parasite, the South Korean film that made history by winning the 92nd Academy Award for best picture, along with three other Oscars.

Some expressed doubts the film would be shown in China given its unflinching criticism of social inequality and extreme poverty, and its amoral storyline.

It wouldn’t be the first Korean film to fall foul of Chinese censors. Korean directors have not been shy about depicting their country under dictatorship, and are likened to French filmmakers in their stylistic portrayal of sex and gore.

Chinese censorship rules ban the explicit portrayal of sex, violence, sensitive political issues, practices that promote superstition or disturb social order, such as drug-taking and gambling, and a long list of other activities perceived to adversely affect the country’s well-being.

Among recent Korean films denied a Chinese release was 2016’s Train to Busan, a hugely popular horror film about zombies running amok on a train. The movie broke domestic box office records and grossed $98 million globally.

International blockbuster Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds (2017) and its sequel Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days (2018) are fantasy action films that portray the trials and tribulations of their protagonist in the underworld and his quest for reincarnation – topics Chinese censors would have seen as promoting superstition.

Gritty films that portray social ills or Korea’s bloody quest for democracy face a certain ban in China. 

Hence 2017’s A Taxi Driver, based on the true story of a taxi driver who escorts a foreign journalist to see the beating and merciless killing of civilians by soldiers in the 1980 Gwangju uprising in South Korea, was denied a screening.

China’s answer to Rotten Tomatoes, Douban, and another film rating site, Mtime, removed the film from their listings.

The Attorney – a 2013 political drama about an attorney who becomes a human-rights advocate hell-bent on revealing police torture, based on the life of late Korean president Roh Moo-hyun – also never saw the light of day in China.

The day after Parasite’s Oscars win, Mtime said there was no information about a cinematic release in China for Bong Joon-ho’s film. Streaming giant iQiyi said the film would be on its platform, but did not give a date for when. China’s cinemas have been closed indefinitely to limit public gatherings as the country’s authorities fight a deadly outbreak of a novel coronavirus.

Parasite becoming the first foreign-language winner of the best picture Oscar was greeted with admiration but also envy in China. Its victory brought into sharp relief the divergent paths taken by the Chinese and Korean film industries since the 1980s, when both enjoyed a resurgence.

South Korea did away with quotas for foreign film imports in 1986, and state-led film censorship was abolished 10 years later. In China, censorship remains in place, and a quota limits to around 40 the number of foreign films allowed to be shown in the country annually.

In an analysis published on culture media site Jiliuwang, film blogger Yu Ni said Parasite ’s win made Chinese people envious not only of its recognition by Hollywood but of South Korea’s liberal social and political mores, which allowed Korean filmmakers to thrive.

“The Korean government is not in an adversarial relationship with the movie industry … It believes that society can only progress healthily with movies’ inquisitiveness about social problems. A society with healthy development can in turn nurture a prosperous movie industry,” Yu wrote.

For now, those in China who want to watch Parasite have the option of pirated-video websites or of sidestepping China’s Great Firewall by using a virtual private network to watch the film on overseas streaming sites.

This story originally appeared on Inkstone, a daily multimedia digest of China-focused news and features.

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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