I’ve just had my attention drawn to this piece of news on the BBC website regarding the decision by the British Board of Film Classification on August 18th not to pass the Japanese horror film Grotesque (Gurotesuku). The film is directed by Koji Shiraishi, best known as the director of Slit-Mouthed Woman (Kuchisake onna) from 2007, released internationally by Tartan under their ‘Asian Extreme’ label as Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman, and one of the two films that came out around the same time based on the same Japanese legend (the other being Takuaki Hashiguchi’s 2005 supernatural pink film of the same title). Shiraishi also directed a number of straight-to-video J-horror titles, and the 2005 feature Curse (Noroi), so he’s not exactly a major name by any standard.
I can’t say that Grotesque is a title that has ranked high on my must-see list. In fact, I was completely unaware of it until today. It was released theatrically in Tokyo in January of this year, but it hasn’t exactly created a huge buzz on the festival circuit. To give you a bit of background, culled from Kevin Ouellette’s Nippon Cinema website, the film is a gruesome rendition of the minimalistic torture porn genre exemplified by Eli Roth’s Hostel, featuring a sadistic maniac who kidnaps a young woman (played by AV actress Tsugumi Nagasawa) and her boyfriend and precedes to torture, mutilate and kill them. In other words, the pseudo-snuff video Guinea Pig series of the 1980s reprised for the big screen.
There’s nothing on the BBFC website entry about the reasons for rejecting the film, which was submitted by distributor 4Digital Media Ltd, although the BBC article quotes the BBFC director David Cooke as saying it presented “little more than an unrelenting and escalating scenario of humiliation, brutality and sadism…The chief pleasure on offer seems to be in the spectacle of sadism (including sexual sadism) for its own sake.”
It’s funny, because compared to the era in which I formed my viewing tastes, back in the 1980s when the BBFC was run by the tyrannical hand of James Ferman, I’d not really been aware of any cases of films being “banned” outright in the UK, although certainly cuts are still regularly being demanded (Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer in 2002 is just one Japanese example I can recall, but I know there’s been plenty more for the video market). If a film isn’t passed, it’s usually a low-profile offering for the home-viewing market or a pornographic title: only three films hoping for an 18 certificate have been refused over the past four years. These, as the BBC article states, include “violent sex thriller Murder Set Pieces and Terrorists, Killers And Other Wackos, a film comprising real clips of execution and torture.”
Now, you won’t see me weeping bitter tears over the non-availability of such throwaway titles as Grotesque, nor succumb to the facile knee-jerk cries of “hypocrisy!” (or even “racism”!) that often accompany such BBFC rejections, but in the wake of the body’s passing of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist a couple of months ago, with the proviso that the poster contained the warning “contains strong real sex, bloody violence and self-mutilation” it seems high time this self-serving institution’s role in the 21st century was subjected to a little more scrutiny.
Perhaps the rejection of Grotesque is best seen as a token gesture to show that the BBFC does still have some purpose, a case of being seen to act rather than actually having the power to stop people seeing films that can still be (illegally) downloaded or ordered from overseas online retailers. After all, it’s a minor title that few would have heard about (although the ban ironically means that more people will hear about the film now), as opposed to von Trier’s film, whose presence in competition at this year’s Cannes had already generated its fair share of press attention and wrapped it up in a specious arthouse sheen.
I’ve not seen Grotesque, as I’ve mentioned, but I know there are those that have perceived artistic merits in Antichrist that completely bypassed me. But surely the subjective notions of the quality of the films in question should not be a decisive factor in what gets passed and what gets rejected. What the BBFC are trying to do here is second guess the motives of the filmmakers, the distributors and the potential audience for such materials. It seems assumed that while viewers will be sickened by von Trier’s sexualized graphic violence, a different demographic will revel in similar displays in Shiraishi’s film.
The BBFC’s decisions seem to hinge more on how a film is marketed than its content. As an example, during a panel discussion entitled ‘Sex on Screen’ that took place as part of this year’s Bird’s Eye View festival in March, Petra Joy, a German woman who makes tasteful sex films for the couples and the female market, complained that the audiences for her works was unfairly restricted in Britain, as the BBFC automatically stamped them with the 18R certificate (introduced in 1999), meaning they could only be sold in licensed sex shops or screened at licensed cinemas, even though they were often less explicit than art cinema releases such as Baise Moi and Anatomy of Hell. We’re on the dodgy ground of content versus intent here, but it seems bizarre to me that films intended to titillate are treated as something more seditious than films that are intended to disturb or disgust.
In this age of internet downloads, it’s safe to say that anyone who really wants access to violent or sexually explicit material is going to be able to find it. The BBFC cannot stop that, nor is it in its remit to do so. It can only prevent films from theatrical or video release in UK markets. If the BBFC does have a role, it should be in the classification of releases, not the suppression, to give age guidelines about whom the film is suitable for. Distributors should also be allowed to bypass the organization entirely, as in America, and release their films unrated.
Because if the BBFC’s continued presence is of any consequence, it is mainly though protecting the interests of larger distributors and restricting the number of films that are commercially viable for release. To release a film theatrically or for the home-video market, it is a legal requirement to submit them to the the BBFC, whether they be sex films, horror films, action films or innocuous children’s titles or documentaries. The body charges a mandatory per-minute fee, charged separately for theatrical and DVD releases: if a company wants both, it gets charged twice, and once again for all DVD extras. This charge would be the same for Paramount and Universal as it would for if I decided to set up a label operating from my own bedroom. If, like me, you regard the moving image as much a valid form of communicating ideas as print media, then you’ll regard the BBFC’s power as profoundly undemocratic. Even if you don’t, it’s still an unfair bar on those wishing to enter the market.
The fact is, for smaller distributors, the BBFC submission charges are the most significant costs they’ll face. If a film is likely to sell less than 1000 copies, you might as well not bother, which immediately discounts the bulk of “minority interest” (in other words, foreign-language) films. A longer film, say three hours in length, would be charged twice as much as a 90 minute feature. This is the reason why Koji Wakamatsu’s United Red Army will probably never see a commercial release in the UK (I challenge somone to prove me wrong here!)
I personally couldn’t give two hoots about whether I, nor indeed anyone else, have the opportunity to see Grotesque. But there are plenty of other foreign films that won’t see release in Britain because the financial bar is set so high for distributors that they are commercially unviable. As the number of small indie distributors, valid commercial enterprises that are vital to the UK film industry, dwindle under the pressures brought about by the current economic situation and the rise in illegal downloading, this is more than a shame. It has implications for the entire cultural climate of the country.