Sex Shop Comedy Goes Viral in China at Chinese New Year

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An independent feature film about a Beijing sex shop has become an online viral sensation in Mainland China, bypassing censors and reaching over 1 million views in its first week on Tudou, a Chinese equivalent to Youtube.

Until recently, audiences in China had only three options when it came to films: cinema, television, and DVD. Cinemas and television adhere to strict state regulations, while DVDs of overseas films are mostly pirated. But a new alternative is emerging, as local online video sites have begun to pay for streaming rights, bypassing the censorship process altogether. “Censorship is a long and tedious business. Why not just censor myself to save everyone the meetings and paperwork?” says “Red Light Revolution” director Sam Voutas. “I had a radical idea recently that having the movie shown uncut in cinemas would be nice. I quickly censored that thought,” he added.

“Red Light Revolution” tells the story of an unemployed Beijinger who risks his reputation to open an adult shop. The film was picked up by Tudou as its official Chinese New Year comedy, and marks the first time the internet giant has bought a foreign-directed film for its “Original Content” channel. With copycat sites already showing the film across the country, the filmmakers estimate that the actual audience is far greater than the 1.3 million viewers on Tudou alone. “One person shares it with ten or twenty others, that’s the way it goes nowadays”, Voutas said.

“Red Light Revolution” is playing in China at a time when nearly a quarter of the nation’s population, an estimated 230 million, is traveling for the Chinese New Year holidays. “One of the biggest social shifts in the country is the access of portable video devices,” says the film’s producer, Melanie Ansley. “Everyone’s watching movies now on their mobile phones, they don’t have to go to the cinemas anymore.”

The wide distribution of the film within China suggests that filmmakers may have a new alternative to submitting scripts for censorship approval. But for how long? “There’s definitely a feeling of not wanting to rock the boat at the moment”, Voutas says. “We’re lucky there’s this window now and hope it continues to open up rather than close down.” The filmmakers, who were unable to get a state permit to have the film distributed in national cinemas, hope that the sudden transit population will result in a captive audience. “You’re stuck on a train all day, why not watch a sex shop comedy?” Voutas reasons.

In a country where movies and television are strictly controlled, the internet is increasingly an attractive source for less censored entertainment, a trend that has meant growing audiences. The recent court scuffles between Tudou and its competitor Youku over copyright infringements highlight the battle for both audience share and unique content. “Red Light Revolution” itself pokes fun at censorship and bureaucracy, with several sexually explicit shots in the movie replaced with an animated title card reading “This shot has been deleted”.

Having already won several audience awards at festivals last year, the film is currently playing in cinemas in England and Canada, before a DVD and general online release in February on iTunes and Mubi. “Red Light Revolution” (http://www.redlightrevolution.com) will be launching in the USA on movie site Prescreen on January 31st.

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