SINGAPORE - Complaints still dog Singapore's film censorship policy, more than 20 years after a ratings system was put into place.
Earlier this year, there was some online grousing accompanying the release of A Good Day To Die Hard, the fifth in the Die Hard action movie franchise starring Bruce Willis.
This "international version" of the film, according to the Media Development Authority's film classification online database, had come from the film distribution company with the swearing already muted. It was therefore "passed clean" and given a PG13 rating, meaning that parental guidance was suggested for viewers aged 13 and below.
Fans were upset that the colourful swearing, a signature of the films, was gone. As is often the case, some said they would boycott the film. Once again, film distributors have proactively self-censored so as to get a lower age rating, they said.
Others said they would turn to the Internet and, via illegal methods, watch the uncut American version.
It is hard to quantify just how many films come into Singapore via the Internet. But the number cannot be small, given that 85 per cent of households here have broadband Internet access, according to an international survey taken in 2011.
The issue of movie-watching via illegal downloads or streaming has not escaped official notice.
Last year, the Government convened a 12-member Media Convergence Review Panel to look into, among other things, how to make Singapore's content classification systems more meaningful when it is so easy to view unclassified material on sites such as YouTube.
Singapore takes a symbolic stand by requiring Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block a list of 100 or so websites containing objectionable material.
Speaking on the issue of digital piracy, Mr Koh Boon Hwee, chairman of the Nanyang Technological University's board of trustees, and chairman of the Media Convergence Review Panel, said: "Anyone who is technologically sophisticated would know that you can get around it... But it is symbolic. It is a signpost of what our society stands for."
The authority, summing up the panel's recommendations, has a section tellingly called Pragmatic Considerations, which recognises that online content is now both "borderless" and vast in volume.
Rather than prune and corral, the panel suggests steps such as user education and acting when someone flags the content.
That pragmatism is justified.
There are countless sites containing videos that would never get past the censors here that are left unblocked, among them well-known file-sharing sites such as The Pirate Bay. Among the films available for download on that site: A Good Day To Die Hard, presumably the version with full swearing.
Singaporeans with virtual private networks (VPNs) can also watch legally streamed movies not released here.
Newer Singapore-based ISPs ViewQwest and MyRepublic offer a geographical cloaking service called a VPN, allowing subscribers to pay for United States-only video services such as Netflix, Apple iTunes and Hulu.
Festivals in Singapore are held to a more relaxed film classification standard, allowing them to screen films that would otherwise need trimming.
Last year, distribution company Cathay-Keris Films submitted the drama Shame (2011) to the authority in the hope of exhibiting the film in mainstream cinemas. The distributor was told that the film would get an R21 rating, on condition that a scene involving group sex was edited. Director Steve McQueen refused, and the film was withdrawn.
But in January this year, the film, acclaimed by critics and winner of several prizes, was re-submitted for classification by the Singapore Film Society. This time, the authority gave it an R21 rating, without cuts.
The MDA said that the uncut version had been passed because of the special circumstances of the screening.
"For film festivals, we do allow some leeway during classification as they attract a niche audience for their limited screenings and the primary purpose of such events is to promote film appreciation," said the spokesman.
That a film like Shame, with its graphic scenes of sex, can be shown, reflects the changes that have occurred in film censorship policy in the last three decades.
In an interview with The Straits Times last year, the former Board of Film Censors chairman Amy Chua gave figures showing how much things have changed. Twenty-one per cent of film titles were rated R(A) in 2003, the year before M18 was introduced.
In 2011, the number of R21 titles was just 8.4 per cent and M18 titles were at 13 per cent. In other words, the finer slicing of age groups had allowed more young adults to watch films they could not have under the cruder R(A) regime, she said.
She added that the board has over time become more sensitive to scenes that might look objectionable but which actually fit into the context of a story and should be left intact.
This contextual awareness came into play when the acclaimed period drama Lust, Caution (2007), directed by Ang Lee, was released here in two versions - an edited NC16 version that was nine minutes shorter and another that was R21-rated and uncut.
Explaining the no-cut version, Ms Chua said the sex scenes featuring the two lead characters were relevant to the story as "the relationship did start as lust, but as the movie progressed it changed to a closer bond, and in a way, that was reflected in how the sexual scenes were filmed and portrayed".
While it seems that censorship is less of a factor pushing users towards Internet sources, the Government is still exercising greater caution on issues that it considers particularly troubling, such as Singapore politics, homosexuality, youth gangs, race, religion and the use of Chinese dialects.
The drama Black Swan (2010), for example, was passed with an M18 rating, but only after a scene showing a lesbian sexual act was cut.
In 2011, the Oscar-nominated drama The Kids Are All Right (2010) was given an R21 rating and restricted to one screen because it portrayed two lesbians raising children.
The film had actually exceeded what is allowable under R21 because it appeared to normalise a homosexual lifestyle, but was given a one-print condition because the MDA took into account the higher level of interest in the film following its Oscar nominations.
The Singapore film, Sex.Violence. FamilyValues, was banned last year following complaints of racist speech in a trailer for the film.
The comic satire was later given an R21 rating, following edits to one segment in which two men, one Chinese and one Indian, insult each other with racial slurs.
The episode tested the limits of racial speech in film here and was widely reported in the local and international press, and generated much online debate. Those in support of the ban called it prudent, while the film's backers argued that the ban was bad for the arts in Singapore.
Besides allowing for the purchase and viewing of unapproved materials, the Internet allows film-makers and supporters to create communities that support change. Recently, an online petition was created to "support the reintroduction of dialects on local TV and radio in Singapore".
Aimed at the MDA, it has collected about half of the 2,000 signatures it is asking for.
The ban on satellite dishes was relaxed in 1991 so that financial institutions could get news at the same time as those in other countries. Traders here had been slower than those elsewhere in finding out about the start of the Gulf War.
On television, the most heavily pirated show on the Internet is the violent and sexually explicit fantasy drama Game Of Thrones. A trimmed, all-ages version is available here on cable television channel HBO.
Straits Times writer Sherwin Loh in a commentary earlier this year asked what is being done to help traditional commercial entities such as HBO, who could be losing subscribers to piracy, or to newer services such as Netflix, because of HBO's adherence to censorship guidelines.
These examples encapsulate the forces at work in film censorship today. There are now more grassroots discussions on Facebook, film enthusiast sites and online forums on the issues of censorship.
Added to this are the forces of civil society, represented by arts personalities speaking on the issue of artistic freedom. And, in the background, are the online outlets for uncensored film and television shows that Singaporeans can access, if they know how.
The push and pull between the forces of openness and censorship has been going on long before the arrival of worldwide electronic networks. But as the Internet generation comes of age, that dialogue will take place more often, and become louder.
Film classification comes of age
In 1989, in an angry note to The Straits Times letters page, reader T.A. Song said: "It would be appreciated if the censors could give more respect to the mentality of adult Singaporeans. The absence of a system of film classification reduces everyone to the lowest level - that of primary school and kindergarten children."
The cause of Song's ire was a cut. The Board Of Film Censors had deemed the gang rape scene in The Accused (1988) to be too explicit and the five-minute segment was chopped.
The snip led to letters such as the one from Song and at least three others, all decrying the board's actions, which they said removed an element essential to the story.
The other cut that made the news: The fake orgasm performed by Meg Ryan in the romantic drama When Harry Met Sally (1989).
Those scenes and others depicting sex, drug-taking and foul language fell to the censor's scissors before age-appropriate film classification was introduced in 1991.
The first steps to relaxation had been taken in 1981 with the release of the Jayakumar Report.
The six-person group led by then Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs S. Jayakumar supported existing standards, but suggested that the Board of Film Censors "move towards a less strict censorship policy, (but) gradually and with caution".
Then, in 1991, age-appropriate classification arrived. Films were classified as either G (General) or R (restricted to those over 18).
Cinema distributors and operators swamped the market with soft-core movies, leading to replacement of the R rating with R(A), for Artistic, and the raising of the age threshold to 21.
The first Censorship Review Committee was formed in 1991, and its findings, released in 1992, were based on discussions with cinema operators and a survey of moral attitudes, among other sources.
Its recommendations led to the further refinement of age-based classification through the NC16 (no viewer below 16) category, among others.
The next Censorship Review Committee report, in 2002, led to the creation of the M18 (no viewer below 18) category. It also recommended that the "limited use" of Chinese dialects be allowed in movies and on cable television shows.
A mid-term review committee was appointed in 2009 and the report, released in 2010, recommended the creation of the PG13 film rating (parental guidance for those under 13) to alert parents to the mature nature of the content.
It also recommended a lifting of the ban on material flagged as R21 on platforms that can be controlled by adults such as cable television. The following year, in 2011, the PG13 rating was announced for film, television and video.
In October last year, R21 content began to become available through SingTel's mio video-ondemand service.
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