Banned movies spark debate about film censorship

By Linh Do   November 3, 2021 | 12:29 am PT
Banned movies spark debate about film censorship
Bassley, a struggling Nigerian footballer in Le Bao's movie 'Vi', which has been banned in Vietnam because of its excessive nudity. Photo by Courtesty Photo
The banning of a few films has provoked ideas about how to improve local film censorship, from better classification to eliminating censorship altogether.

The latest case is director Le Bao’s ‘Vi’ (Taste), which won the Special Jury Award in the Encounters Section at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival in March. This movie has been banned from cinemas because it features around 30 minutes of nudity.

According to Vi Kien Thanh, director of the Bureau of Cinematography, the law does not specify how much nudity can be shown and gives censors room to interpret whether nude scenes are necessary to a movie or simply gratuitous.

Bao’s movie is about a struggling Nigerian footballer who migrates to Vietnam to work, has his contract terminated, and is forced by circumstances to co-habit with four middle-aged Vietnamese women in a poor neighborhood.

This is not the first time that such an unflattering cinematic representation has clashed head-on with censors’ sensibilities.

In recent years, several movies have sparked debates about whether Vietnamese censors are being too conservative and holding back contrary artistic expression.

For instance, Charlie Nguyen’s 2013 movie ‘Bui Doi Cho Lon’ (Chinatown) about gangsters was banned because the censors considered its portrayal of violence "unrealistic" as a scene featured hundreds of gangsters fighting in the street without any passers-by or the police.

The 2019 New Currents award winner at the Busan International Film Festival, Tran Thanh Huy’s ‘Rom’, a coming-of-age story about gambling addiction among working-class people, had to be edited to tone down its violence before it earned an 18+ classification for local screening.

As happened to ‘Vi’, its producer too was fined for attending the Busan festival before receiving a combined classification and screening certificate from the censors.

At the heart of the controversy are some basic questions: Whether filmmakers can be freed from censorship, which many say hampers the creative process, especially international collaboration which could involve complicated shooting in many countries and not just in Vietnam; whether the government can legitimately ban any work rather than simple classifying; and whether the local classification system can be extended to include bolder works.

In response to the first issue, cinema bureau director Thanh and some directors have said that censorship rules, which take only 15 days for reviewing a film, are not holding back filmmakers.

Thanh said that since 2006, when the Cinema Law was passed, only a few cases have been found violating the law while hundreds of other films have been produced and approved for local distribution or participation in international events without any problem.

For many filmmakers and viewers, however, certain cases point out areas that need improvement. For instance, international film festivals often accept rough versions for preliminary rounds, which could take a few months, and filmmakers mobilize enough funding after being short-listed to finish their work.

But in Vietnam the censors require complete movies, forcing some filmmakers to opt to break the law and go abroad without permission. Some have thus suggested having less stringent requirements to give filmmakers who aim for international awards more leeway, an idea Thanh has said is worth considering.

But he said the argument the government should not interfere in content does not hold water, pointing out that a full fifth of international scripts have been found misrepresenting Vietnamese politics, history and culture, and denied permission to shoot in the country.

When it comes to forbidden content, many filmmakers have argued over the years that the law is vague and easily lends itself to arbitrary interpretation, like the often cited prohibition of anything that "sabotages Vietnamese customs".

Director Pham Nhue Giang recalls a scene in her 2013 movie ‘Lac Loi’ (Lost) that she found perfectly fine but was removed by the censors. In the scene, a farmer takes out his wife’s underwear, contemplates and kisses it to relieve his longing for her after she leaves him.

"As an artist, I think this gesture shows that here is a simple-minded man who has a unique way of loving his wife," Giang said."But the censors criticized it as being distasteful and contrary to Vietnamese customs."

Arbitrary interpretations aside, some directors and lawmakers have suggested adding another classification, "adult," so as not to exclude legitimate artistic efforts that seek to capture complex social nuances.

Since 2017 there have been four classifications for films: general public, 13+, 16+, and 18+.

The latest amendments to the cinema law, which are being discussed by the National Assembly, also propose another new category: films with parental guidance for children under 13.

For films like ‘Vi’, some have suggested adding a "limited screening" classification, a label to allow perusal for research and other professional purposes at film schools and local film festivals, an idea with which Thanh agrees.

At present, Vietnam has four central film censoring committees to handle four categories: feature-length and short films, and feature-length and short scripts.

The censoring process is also becoming more decentralized, allowing local administrators and entities to share the task.

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