In their Dec.06/Jan/07 issue, Venice Magazine interviewed Li on a wide variety of subjects. In addition to describing the current state of competition in the Chinese theater industry, part of the interview was a revealing look into how media piracy can be used as an effective tool against government censorship.
Venice: Have you ever been censored in your work, your acting?
Gong Li: Some of my films have been censored and are not allowed to be shown in China. Raise the Red Lantern was probably the biggest one. Curse of the Golden Flower is ok and so is Miami Vice. Some scenes that are in the American version have been cut out of the Chinese version. But things are more open now in China than they used to be.
Venice: How does the whole censorship process work?
Gong Li: Things are different there, so I'm not entirely sure about the details but this is how I think it all works. First, a script is written. If the script is passed, then the film is made. Upon completion, the film is screened. What exactly happened on Raise the Red Lantern I'm not so sure, but it was back in the 90's when things were much more strict. Apparently, they showed the film a couple of times and somewhere, somebody, a certain somebody, raised some doubts about it and so the film was pulled. But it's all part of the system.
Venice: How do you believe American films are different from Chinese films?
Gong Li: With American film there is a much broader variety of what you can make and what can be seen. Because of the aforementioned script review system in China, it limits the films you can make quite a bit.
Venice: How are films seen in China? I know there are big cities which are modern with movie theaters, but what about the interior of the country, which is quite rural. How are films effectively distributed to the public?
Gong Li: In the big cities on the East Coast there are many theaters. Specifically, there are two kinds: National theaters that are run by government agencies, and privately run theatres. The privately run theaters show a wider variety of films. They are also much more luxurious, cleaner, and have digital projection capabilities; everything you have here in American theaters. But they tend to be much more expensive. Towards the western part of China, there tend to be fewer private and more National theaters, so the movies might be a little older and the range of films may be a bit narrower.
The bigger problem in China is video piracy. People get pirated videos because they are cheaper and easier to find than going to the movies. So people stay at home and watch a pirated DVD instead of going to the movie theater. In a way, this really shows that Chinese people truly love watching movies. If there were fewer pirated videos available then people obviously wouldn't see as many movies.
Venice: There's no way the government can censor pirated videos.
Gong Li: You're right You can't censor pirated videos. You can censor the cut versions that are shown in theaters, but the uncensored videos are still out there. So again, the problem is the pirated video, because if you want to do real censorship control, you have to censor the pirated video.
Venice: So then an argument could be made that pirated videos in China are a good thing. That the pirated videos are opening Chinese culture up to the rest of the world?
Gong Li: [laughs] Right, because if you censor a film or cut some of it, people are still going to see it all on the pirated video. A paradox is created by the censorship and banning. They think, why are people objecting? What is wrong with it? It makes them want to see it even more. So this really is a paradox; it has a way of increasing the pirate video market due to the curiosity.
Here in the U.S., piracy can also be looked upon as the current form of our Boston Tea Party as applied to the electronic age. While there is no direct government censorship here akin to the Chinese model, there has certainly been an overreach of copyright schemes that adversely affect free speech.
One must consider the role piracy has to offer as a legitimate form of social protest in certain areas of the current debate over copyright restrictions. [Though naturally, I don't use the word "legitimate" here in the context of "legality", but rather "moral" legitimacy along the lines of the Boston Tea Party - an act that was every bit as unlawful as media piracy.]