Why the Gay Kisses in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Won’t Make It to Chinese Cinemas

First published

The award-winning movie Bohemian Rhapsody is set to debut in mainland China later this month but foreign media reports on censorship of gay scenes within the movie have prompted animated discussion on Chinese social media. Why are these scenes being cut at all? What’s on Weibo explains.

In March 2019, Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic on the life and career of Freddie Mercury, will be released in theatres across mainland China, with various Chinese news outlets identifying the Chinese National Alliance of Arthouse Cinema (全国艺术电影联盟) as the movie’s distributor.

The National Alliance of Arthouse Cinema is a non-profit film distribution organization established in 2016. According to QDaily, the organization cooperates with major Chinese cinemas in distributing films throughout the country and has some 1500 member cinemas – about 3% of the country’s total number of movie theatres.

Various foreign media outlets, including The Guardian and The Hollywood Reporter, report that portrayals of drug use and several intimate kisses between Mercury and other male characters will be cut from the Chinese version of the film, a decision that has been regarded as controversial by social media users both inside and outside of China.

 

Film Censorship in China

 

The Chinese movie industry is an area that has always been subjected to strict control and censorship. The first movie censorship laws in China were implemented as early as the 1930s, carried out by the Central Film Inspection Committee since 1931, with the purpose of legally prohibiting movies deemed “offensive to the Chinese public” (Pang 2011, 463; Zhu 2003, 202).

Theatrical releases in China are controlled by the SARFT (State Administration for Radio, Film, and Television), which is overseen by the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party (Grimm 162-163).

Throughout the years, China’s censorship apparatus has affected the screening of hundreds of foreign films in the PRC in a multitude of ways. The famous Titanic scene in which Rose (Kate Winslet) poses naked for Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), for instance, was cut from the Chinese version. In Mission: Impossible III a scene in which Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) distracts two Chinese henchmen and kills one was also eliminated in China.

In March 2017, a new film censorship law came into force in mainland China, officially titled the ‘Film Industry Promotion Law of the People’s Republic of China’ (中华人民共和国电影产业促进法),  laying out the regulations for prohibited content and content that must be cut. The law applies to the various pre-shooting and pre-screening stages, and is meant to “promote the healthy and prosperous development of the film industry.”

The law, as outlined here, stipulates that, among other things, movies cannot contain any elements that, for example:

  • violate, resist, or undermine the basic principles of the constitution
  • “harm national unity, sovereignty, or territorial integrity” or “damage the national dignity”
  • “slander ethnic cultural traditions” or “instigate hostility towards ethnic groups”
  • damage the “mental health of minors”
  • harm China’s “social morality” or disturb the “order of society”
  • promote “obscenities,” “gambling,” “drug abuse,” or “violence”

Although some of the stipulations in the law are straightforward, there are also many parts that are vague. How does one determine what is harmful to the “mental health of minors”? Is there an objective way to judge whether a film is “hurting the feelings of ethnic groups”? What is the censors’ definition of “obscene”?

In the end, these regulations leave ample room for the main censorship body, the SARFT, to determine case-by-case how and if foreign films that have been allowed to be screened in mainland China should be altered to stay ‘in line’ with the country’s strict censorship policies.

 

Banning Gay Content?

 

Homosexuality is no longer illegal in mainland China since 1997, and has been removed from a list of mental illnesses since 2001, but bans on content displaying homosexuality have made headlines over the years, highlighting the general discomfort of Chinese regulators towards gay-themed dramas and films.

In early 2016, Chinese State Administration released new regulations banning “homosexuality” in filmography for conveying “unnatural” values of love (Guangming Online). That same year, China’s popular gay-themed web series Addiction (上瘾) was yanked by censors due to disapproval at the plot’s lengthy exploration of homosexuality. A year later, Chinese regulators laid out rules stating that online videos showing “displays of homosexuality” were no longer allowed. In 2018, gay romance Call Me by Your Name was suddenly pulled from the Beijing film festival.

At the same time, there is no shortage of examples that show homosexuality has some leeway in China’s (online) film and media landscape. Last year, 2018, saw the mainland release of gay movie Seek McCartney (Looking for Rohmer) (寻找罗麦). Thai gay-themed film Fathers was released on popular video platform Bilibili in 2017.

Chinese version of Thai gay-themed film “Fathers” or “Two Fathers”

An online video showing a young Chinese man coming out to his parents as gay became an online hit in 2015. And now, in 2019, Bohemian Rhapsody, centered around one of the LGBT community’s most global cultural icons, is set to hit the big screen in China – albeit censored.

Mixed signals? Confused censors? Not necessarily. According to renowned Chinese sexologist Li Yinhe, the Chinese government is not against homosexuality per se. At an Amsterdam symposium in 2014, the LGBT rights activist stated that “the government is not against homosexuality, but against sex in general.”

Such a stance was made explicit with the March 2017 Film Industry Promotion Law, which, in the words of a Beijing-based film director, has since forced many in the industry to “prioritize education over art” so that their work can get past the censors. Any scenes including (explicit) portrayals of prostitution, LGBT relations, extramarital affairs, polyamory, or pornography, will generally not be permitted to reach a large Chinese audience, wrapped in conservative rhetoric that accuses such scenes of “promoting obscenities” or being “harmful to the healthy development of Chinese minors.”

At a time of a rapidly transforming (and aging) China, “healthy content” is mostly the kind of content that depicts the conventional family – marriage and children – as the cornerstone of a stable Chinese society. Depictions of Freddy Mercury kissing other men, apparently, does not fit the ideal family model propagated by Chinese authorities; with the government’s ongoing trumpeting of the two-child policy, homosexuality’s refusal to be dictated by the laws of biological fertility may also be one of the many reasons motivating the censors’ decision to tone down the ‘gayness’ of Bohemian Rhapsody.

 

Weibo Responses

 

On Weibo, news about censorship of the Chinese release of Bohemian Rhapsody became a trending topic.

Although a large number of netizens are happy that the movie will be released in China, there are also many dissatisfied with the censorship that comes with it.

Some people argue that the selective cutting of scenes will be detrimental to the overall quality of the movie. Popular Weibo user ‘Gongyuan 1874’ (@公元1874), a self-proclaimed ‘author’ and ‘cultural critic’ with more than 3 million online followers, wrote a lengthy post on February 28  in which he describes Freddie Mercury as a “rebel fighter” whose life was defined by freedom. The author argues that the “artistic value of the movie is “greatly reduced” by censoring those parts that show Mercury letting himself go.

Some commenters are so disgruntled at the movie’s censorship that they are boycotting it. One Weibo user wrote: “Because I want to protest against the unfair treatment of LGBT by authorities, I will not go and see the edited version of Bohemian Rhapsody.”

“I’d advise everyone to go and get a pirated version of the movie,” another commenter writes: “Homosexuality and drugs were a part of Freddie Mercury’s life, to ‘castrate’ this movie is disrespectful [to his memory].”

There are also some more moderate netizens, well aware of the current restrictions placed on the film and TV industry, who argue that cutting some scenes – total scene time cut from the Chinese release is alleged to be no longer than two minutes – will leave the message conveyed by the movie unharmed, and that viewers should be grateful such a film is being screened in China at all.

“I have been watching the comments about Bohemian Rhapsody and the deleted gay scenes,” one music blogger writes: “Some people think it’s an insult to Freddie Mercury, and say we should boycott the movie. I think this kind of reasoning doesn’t show much goodwill.”

The blogger argues: “I think Freddie Mercury is a great singer, a well-respected artist, and an icon of his time – not just a representative for gays. The exploration of his own identity was a major influence in his life and artistic work, but if you insist on discussing the content of the film, the legendary experiences of the band…their artistic achievements and rock ‘n roll spirit are all relevant – all in all, don’t hold on to sexual orientation [as the most crucial theme].”

There are some who might agree, asking “is it necessary to screen those deleted gay scenes in China?”

Amid hundreds of comments on the issue, there is no clear consensus. While some point out that the Chinese release of a movie such as Bohemian Rhapsody is a sign of ‘progress’ in a strictly controlled media environment, others see its censorship as doing a disservice to the film’s main themes of artistic freedom and LGBT emancipation.

However, in an age where censors even go after heterosexual, ancient Chinese dramas, the mere entry of Bohemian Rhapsody into the Mainland perhaps suggests an atypical loosening of the stranglehold being placed on China’s TV and film industry. Any way the wind blows, apparently, does really matter to Chinese netizens.

By Manya Koetse , edited by Eduardo Baptista

References [online sources via in-text hyperlinks]

Grimm, Jessica. 2015. “The Import of Hollywood Films in China: Censorship and Quotas.” Syracuse J. Int’l L. & Com. 43 (1): 155-190.

Pang, Laikwan. 2011. “The State Against Ghosts: A Genealogy of China’s Film Censorship Policy.” Screen 52 (4): 461-476.

Zhu, Ying. 2003. Chinese Cinema During the Era of Reform: The Ingenuity of the System. Westport, Connecticut, London: Prager.

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