Before you get all cut up over a film cut

We seem to be having a particularly sweary, smutty Oscar season - and it is making some Singapore cineastes hot and bothered.

More Academy Award-nominated films are hitting the R21 ratings ceiling (only adults aged 21 and older are allowed), the most restrictive category other than an outright ban, than in previous years.

At least two films of the nine in the Best Picture category this year - Dallas Buyers Club and The Wolf Of Wall Street - have received that rating in Singapore.

Last year, none of the nine films in this category was hit with that harsh rating.

The most explicit movie then was Django Unchained (2012). For all its violence, director Quentin Tarantino's Django received a relatively milder M18 rating and was passed clean - no edits were required of its distributor.

You have to scan down last year's Oscar nominee list, to the Best Supporting Actress section, to find one R21 movie, The Sessions (2012). It is based on a true story of a sexual surrogate, played by nominee Helen Hunt, who worked with disabled clients. Again, it was passed clean.

It was the same in 2012. Of the nine films in the Best Picture category that year, none was rated R21.

What's different this year is that not only are there two R21 films in this year's Best Picture list, but also that both had to be trimmed by distributors before their release to meet the Media Development Authority's guidelines.

Five minutes were taken out of Wolf by its distributor here for "gratuitous, exploitative or offensive depictions" in its sex scenes and religiously profane cursing.

Dallas Buyers Club, which opens this Thursday, got away relatively unscathed: Only a single utterance of the expletive "Jesus f***ing Christ" had to be removed, in line with regulations about "language that denigrates religion", according to the Media Development Authority's online films classification database.

It is one thing when a trashy exploitation flick, such as, say, 3-D Sex And Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (2011), is snipped to meet community standards. But when The Wolf Of Wall Street, a prestige project from Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, goes under the scissors because of its prolonged scenes of sex, people get upset, and for good reason.

Film-maker Sun Koh was angered enough by Wolf's edits that she made a Facebook post vowing that she would not watch the film in Singapore.

She had told Life! earlier: "I won't watch the cut version of the film in Singapore theatres because films should be viewed the way a director and his team present it. It will do Scorsese creative injustice to see a chopped-up version of his film."

Her outrage echoes complaints that have emerged over the years over the touchy subject of censorship on films of artistic value.

In 2007, public gripes were over Taiwanese director Ang Lee's drama Lust, Caution after it emerged that an NC16 version, minus nine minutes, would be released here. Distributor Buena Vista International later released an R21 "festival version" (so described on the film classification database), though its management denied that it was due to public pressure. The R21 version was passed clean.

With all due respect to film fans such as Koh, I think that saying you will boycott a movie because it has been cut to meet community standards is not seeing the issue in perspective.

First, because it assumes that there is one sacred, definitive "director's cut" of a movie. Very often, many hands other than the director's touch a work before it is released. Studio executives might take a whack at editing if a director has signed away "final cut" rights.

Scenes might be held back from the theatrical release to juice up the DVD. Works are also re-edited and re-shot after test screenings with consumer groups.

And because more than 50 per cent of box-office takings now come from outside America, films are edited or bulked up for non-American audiences. The China-only version of Iron Man 3 (2013) has a four-minute scene featuring Chinese actors added to it.

Second, American directors edit with domestic censorship in mind. They cut to avoid the dreaded NC17 rating (only those 18 and older are allowed) from their own standards board, the Motion Picture Association of America.

The NC17 rating replaced the infamous X rating in 1990, but smaller theatre chains in conservative areas still avoid such films. Wolf received the milder R rating in the United States, which admits audience members 17 and younger if accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Other regions have been less generous. In Dubai, about 45 minutes, or about a quarter of the three-hour Wolf, have been shed. Three scenes were removed for the India release. In Malaysia and Nepal, it has been banned altogether.

In other words, censorship is not an "on" or "off" issue. It falls within a spectrum. A film's final shape is determined by the tyranny of producers and the marketplace as it is by moral guardians.

If Singapore film-maker Ken Kwek's controversial 2013 release Sex. Violence.FamilyValues had been boycotted because of cuts made to its racial humour, what would cinema chains here think? Would they be inclined to carry risky local works in future?

So, if you must shun a movie, do it for the right reasons. Don't boycott it because it has been cut. Boycott it if you think it has been cut unfairly.

Go to any search engine and type "MDA film classification database". Find out what edits have been made, if any, then decide.

Smart audiences raise everyone's game.

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