China’s first gay-themed commercial movie will hit theaters soon after passing the country’s strict censors—a milestone for the world’s second-largest movie market, which is heavily censored. And the movie’s distributors are not taking any chances.
Seek McCartney, a romance about a secret relationship between two gay men, one Chinese and one French, released its first trailer last week (link in Chinese). From the trailer, which mostly depicts a one-man road trip in Tibet, it’s almost impossible to tell the story is about same-sex love:
Meanwhile, the film’s official Sina Weibo account (link in Chinese, registration required) describes the film’s theme as “the fourth category of love,” meaning a relationship that is beyond friendship but not yet romance. That’s a very different approach to the film’s first promotional material that appeared in 2013—a poster featuring the bare backs of the two heroes.
Seek McCartney is co-produced by China’s Chunqiu Time and Wuhan Chuanqiren, and France’s Reboot Films, and was first presented at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. In September 2015, director Wang Chao broke the news on Weibo that his work has passed Chinese censors. ”This is a small step for the regulator, and a big step for filmmakers,” Wang wrote in his post. The film was originally expected to hit theaters at the end of last year.
Homosexuality is forbidden by China’s top media watchdog—the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT)—with same-sex relationships usually ruthlessly censored. So when news broke that Wang’s film was approved, many saw it as a sign of more openness from Chinese censors.
But the opposite has happened. Early this month, a new set of rules from a subdivision of SARFT banned Chinese producers from making television shows depicting “abnormal sexual relations or sexual behavior,” including homosexuality—along with a detailed list of forbidden content, from drinking to vengeance. A gay-themed online drama called Addiction was abruptly pulled from Chinese video portals, and a viral internet comedy about bisexuality was banned.
“The fact that this film can be released in theaters doesn’t mean gay films in the future will be able to released in China,” Fan Popo, an LGBT filmmaker and rights activist, said of Seek McCartney in a September interview with AFP. He warned that Chinese censors have an “unstable” process for evaluating films that largely depends on “the individual censor’s whims.” His documentary about young gay Chinese and their parents was removed from the internet days after Seek McCartney was approved.
While downplaying the movie’s gay theme ahead of its cinematic release is probably a wise move, some potential viewers were concerned. ”Hope it hasn’t been turned into a story about brotherhood by the SARFT,” one Weibo user commented.