In 2018, when a celebrated Chinese director wanted to film a movie, his team sent novelist Geling Yan a 33-page script with her name on every page. Ms. Yan said that made sense to her because she had written the Chinese-language novel that inspired the film.
But when the film ‘One Second’ was released in China and elsewhere two years later, her name did not appear in the credits. It was directed by Zhang Yimou, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker whose works include “Raise the Red Lantern” and “House of Flying Daggers.”
Ms Yan, who has publicly criticized the Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, said she was not surprised to see her name removed from a film produced in the country. Still, she said, she thought the companies that distribute and promote it outside of China might agree to credit her in some way.
Since then, Ms. Yan and her husband, Lawrence Walker, who is also her manager, have been asking companies in Asia, Europe and North America to do just that, either in the film itself or in their promotional materials.
“I don’t think they should resign themselves to these kinds of breaches,” said Ms Yan, an established Chinese-American novelist living in Berlin.
But they have mostly remained silent. Ms. Yan’s campaign and muted response show how an apparent censorship decision in China can quietly flow through the arthouse film world.
“It’s not the first time we’ve been involved in an issue like this with Chinese cinema,” José Luis Rebordinos, the director of Spain’s San Sebastián Film Festival, told Walker in an email last year. Mr Rebordinos added that despite his efforts to help, “sometimes we can’t do anything.”
The disappearing credit
Released in 2020, “One Second” is set during the Cultural Revolution in China. It follows a prisoner who escapes from a labor camp to watch a newscast, hoping to catch a glimpse of his daughter.
Ms. Yan, 63, has said the film’s storyline mirrors “The Criminal Lu Yanshi,” her 2011 novel about a Chinese intellectual who is sent to a labor camp in the 1950s.
The film was “definitely influenced” by the book, though it diverged in other ways, said Huang Yi-Kuan, a literature professor at the National Changhua University of Education in Taiwan. “I think it should at least be mentioned that the inspiration for this film was taken from Yan Geling’s novel,” she said.
Ms. Yan sold the film rights to the novel in 2011 to Mr. Zhang, according to a contract reviewed by The New York Times. Three years later, he released ‘Coming Home’, a film based on ‘The Criminal Lu Yanshi’ about a political prisoner during the Cultural Revolution. The contract did not explicitly prohibit Mr. Zhang from making another film based on the same book.
In late 2018, a literary advisor to Mr. Zhang told Ms. Yan via WeChat, a Chinese messaging platform, that “One Second” could not credit “The Criminal Lu Yanshi”, according to screenshots of their correspondence that Ms. Yan’s husband provides to The Times. . The advisor said this could pose a legal problem for the director as he had an unrelated copyright dispute with a Chinese production company.
As a compromise, the advisor offered to add a line at the end of the film to thank Ms. Yan for her contribution without mentioning her novel, the correspondence shows. Ms. Yan agreed, she said in a recent interview, because she trusted Mr. Zhang.
“We had worked together for so many years,” said Ms. Yan. In addition to “The Criminal Lu Yanshi,” one of her other novels became the basis for Mr. Zhang’s film ‘The Flowers of War’, which came out in 2011, starring Christian Bale.
But just before “One Second” was released, she said, the literary advisor called to say the Chinese government had ordered that her name be removed from the credits.
Neither Mr. Zhang nor the literary adviser who spoke to Ms. Yan responded to requests for interviews. Neither does the China Film Administration, a state agency that oversees the country’s film industry.
Huanxi Media, one of the production companies behind “One Second,” said in an email that the film “has nothing to do with” Ms. Yan’s novels. And mainland Chinese films cannot be changed once they are allowed to be released publicly, the company added.
In 2019, “One Second” was unexpectedly withdrawn from the Berlin Film Festival, a move that attributed the film’s official account on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, to “technical reasons” — a euphemism in China for government censorship.
Mr Walker said he and his wife understood the reality of the Chinese market. What they cannot accept, he said, is that most of the companies and festivals that distribute or promote the film abroad will not recognize it in any way.
“This is not something that happens to a poor soul in a remote part of China,” said Mr. walker. “This is happening to a professional screenwriter and a US citizen — now, in the United States and other countries — as a result of Chinese censorship.”
There are two notable exceptions.
One of the companies Mr Walker wrote to, Mubi, a streaming service based in London that caters to arthouse cinema buffs, now lists Ms Yan on a page of her website promoting ‘One Second’.
And this month, Yorck, a Berlin-based cinema group, began showing what they called an “introductory remark” before the screenings of “One Second,” which cited Ms. Yan’s novel as the inspiration for the film. Marvin Wiechert, a spokesperson for Yorck, said in an email that the company learned of its claims of missing credit from its lawyers and people attending a recent preview of the film in Berlin.
“We thought it would be an appropriate response as an arthouse exhibitor who cares deeply about artistic expression and ownership,” he said of the decision to add the note.
But Mr Walker said he had not heard from Mubi, Yorck or any other companies involved in the film’s international distribution. The list includes companies in Hong Kong and the United States, as well as film festivals in Boston and two Canadian cities. None of them responded to questions from The Times, except a spokeswoman for the Toronto International Film Festival, who said the festival director was too busy for an interview.
Ms. Yan has not filed any lawsuits over her claim. For now, said Mr. Walker, her legal team is looking for a settlement in France or the United States.
Isabelle Denis, the head of legal and business affairs for Wild Bunch International, the film’s international distributor based in Paris, told The Times in an email that the company did not produce “One Second” and therefore had no jurisdiction over Ms. Yan to assess. about a missing film title or mediates between her and the filmmaker.
Ms. Yan’s case echoes past cases of film censorship in China, a country that is a huge source of revenue for Hollywood. This year, for example, the ending of “Fight Club,” the 1999 cult film starring Brad Pitt, was dropped from the Chinese edition. It was only restored after the changes attracted international attention.
In Ms. Yan’s case, her lawyers probably wouldn’t be able to make a strong legal case for giving credit in “One Second” because Mr. Zhang never agreed in writing to do so, Victoria said. L. Schwartz, a law professor. at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.
However, legal exposure is not the same as reputational risk, said Professor Schwartz, who specializes in entertainment law and intellectual property litigation. Ms. Yan’s campaign, she said, raises the question of whether the United States film industry, including unions representing writers, should develop better standards for rating international films from “censorship-heavy markets.”
“Should there be standards?” said Professor Schwartz. “Shouldn’t these companies be doing better because it’s legal, but because it’s the right thing to do?”
Liu Yi research contributed.