- New studio plans film based on news reports of alleged killer of 11 women and girls.
- Financier Meridian forms studio with popular online discussion forum Tianya.
- Films addressing social ills are rare and when not banned are heavily censored.
Barely a week after China’s most notorious serial killer was apprehended, a new Chinese entertainment studio has announced it is bringing the story of the country’s own “Jack the Ripper” to the cinema screen.
Financier Meridian Entertainment announced on Thursday it is forming a new studio with the popular Tianya (天涯) online discussion forum to make the film about Gao Chengyong, the alleged killer of 11 women and girls, caught by police in late August.
The announcement is notable considering films that deal directly with China’s social ills are rare, and when not banned completely, are highly censored.
Aynne Kokas, an expert on Chinese media at the University of Virginia, says the announcement indicates that companies may be perceiving a loosening in censorship standards, as pressure to bolster flagging box office numbers rises.
“A lot is at stake in ensuring Chinese box office numbers continue to grow,” Kokas told China Film Insider. “It’s clear that regulators are taking whatever steps they can to help propel China into the world’s number one box office spot.”
The Tianya Future Film Studio (天涯未来影视工作室), will produce a number of thriller and action movies that center around sensational ripped-from-the-headlines stories which have stirred up discussions on the Tianya forum.
Stanley Rosen, a USC political science professor and expert on the Chinese entertainment industry, says the news comes as a surprise, given the history of heavy censorship of films that deal with similar themes.
Rosen says one of the reasons director Jia Zhangke’s film A Touch Of Sin (天注定) never got approval to play in China was because the the film’s four story threads did not end in a way the government approved of.
The fact that actor Wang Baoqiang’s serial killer character is never apprehended in the film is something Rosen says would not have pleased Chinese officials.
“For Chinese films to be approved by the censors, the ending has to reflect the positive values the government promotes,” Rosen told CFI.
Censors have long been wary of life imitating art. Local officials in Shisun Village in southwestern China blamed the movie Blind Shaft’ (盲井) which won a Silver Bear at the 2003 Berlin Film Festival, for inspiring five miners, executed on Thursday for killing four colleagues and then faked accidents to claim compensation.
The Tianya online forums, sometimes referred to as Tianya Club in English, are similar to Reddit, and have hosted vibrant discussions about current affairs and society since 1999.
Tianya users rejoiced when Gao Chengyong, 52, a married father of two, was detained in late August after a tip-off at a grocery store at the Baiyin Industrial School and admitted to the killings, 28 years after his killing spree began.
The forums have for years been host to tens of thousands of threads on forensic discussions of the Gao Chengyong case. Some of the contributions to the discussion have been so professional, that many netizens believe investigators close to the case were using the online forum anonymously to push the case forward.
The deal will see the new studio adapt the top 10 unresolved crime cases featured on the Tianya forum, including one infamous case about the horrific murder of a Nanjing University female freshman in 1996.
Rosen says films about serial killers like Gao Chengyong or the case of the murdered university student would normally face censorship problems over concerns about copycat crimes, excessive violence, and any sexual overtones.
“In any film about real-life criminals, the bottom line is that the perpetrators not only need to be caught and punished, but the cases should serve as a warning to deter others,” Rosen said.
However, if the stories are doctored too much to “promote socialist values,” the audience may find them too far removed from the real cases “and may be encouraged to learn more about the real cases, something else the government would not want,” Rosen added.
Jennifer Dong, founder and CEO of Meridian Entertainment, said the new studio would enlist help from top crime film script writers as well as foreign filmmakers to ensure the resulting films are of high quality.
Meridian Entertainment’s investments include Chinese box office hits Running Man (奔跑吧！兄弟) and Mojin: The Lost Legend (寻龙诀).
In July, FremantleMedia North America bought Penguin Random House’s Random House Studio and teamed with Meridian Entertainment to produce movies and TV shows based on works by the publishers’ authors.
The company is also financing a feature film based on the real-life murder and disappearance of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey, with James Schamus’ Symbolic Exchange producing.
Additional reporting by Wang Qingyuan.