Director Diao Yinan is enjoying unprecedented domestic success with his gritty thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice.

Chinese filmmaker Diao Yinan is enjoying unprecedented domestic success with his gritty thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice, earning an unheard-of RMB100mil (RM51.5mil) for an independently-produced art house film in China alone.

Diao’s film went on release in March and has become the first art-house production to break the RMB100mil (RM51.5mil) mark at the Chinese box office, which is dominated by commercial blockbusters.

Although the film about a former policeman ensnared in a mysterious series of murders is an unvarnished portrayal of modern China, Diao said the true reach of the nation’s filmmakers and storytellers was being stymied by stringent censorship, adding that he could've achieved more if not for the restrictions censors impose on him and his fellow Chinese art-house filmmakers. 

Advisory: The two clips of Black Coal, Thin Ice below contain scenes that may be disturbing to young viewers. 

”Chinese filmmakers are not lacking in imagination and if we manage to get more freedom, we could certainly reach the level of US directors,” said Diao, talking to AFP at the Far East Film Festival in the northern Italian city of Udine where Black Coal, Thin Ice was showing. ”It is like Hollywood filmmakers and Chinese filmmakers are playing the same game of soccer but they play to different rules,” said Diao.

China’s communist authorities impose strict rules over what films can be seen by the public, banning what it considers any negative portrayal of contemporary politics or issues seen as potentially leading to social unrest. Rules governing censorship in China are opaque and reasons are not given for why cuts are made. Few films escape the censors unscathed, unless they offer a particularly flattering depiction of Chinese people.

Last year, Jia Zhangke’s Tian Zhu Ding (A Touch of Sin) was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won Best Screenplay at the Cannes International Film Festival. A violent, four-part story that took real life events as its inspiration, the film dazzled critics worldwide. But it has not yet been given clearance by China’s censors. In contrast, Diao says censors required only minor cuts to his film.