Making a biopic – a biographical movie about real people– is complicated. And one of the biggest concerns is liability for defamation. In an ideal world, filmmakers would get everyone depicted in the movie to sign a release. But that’s often impractical: people want too much money, too much control over how they are depicted, or both. And that assumes filmmakers can even find the people in question. It’s understandable; nobody wants to see the embarrassing things they’ve done memorialized onscreen. But a movie without conflict isn’t much of a movie.
In the United States, filmmakers have two main legal tools at their disposal when countering allegations of defamation. First, the truth is a defense to defamation. Even if Ike Turner didn’t like how he was depicted in What’s Love Got To Do With It, that he did in fact beat his wife insulated the filmmakers from liability. Second, you can’t defame someone who is dead. Which (in part) explains The Brittany Murphy Story and many of the other biopics on Lifetime.
But in China, the law on defamation is markedly different. Truth is not a defense, and you can defame someone even if they’re dead. That can (and does) have a chilling effect on biopics in China.
Chinese defamation law is not specifically spelled out as such, but it has been developed from Articles 101 and 102 of the General Principles of the Civil Law (enacted in 1987), and several subsequent supporting documents: the Supreme People’s Court’s Answers to Certain Issues Concerning Trials of Cases Involving the Right to Reputation (released in 1993), nterpretation of Certain Issues Concerning Trials of Cases Involving the Right to Reputation (released in 1998), and Understanding and Application of the 1998 Interpretation [link no longer exists].
As explained in the 1993 Answers, defamation exists if (i) the defendant has committed an illegal act, (ii) the plaintiff’s reputation has been damaged, and (iii) the illegal act caused the damage. Such defamation exists in three circumstances:
- Written or oral insults or libel that damage a person’s reputation;
- Unauthorized disclosure of personal information that damages a person’s reputation; or
- A news report containing “gross error” that damages a person’s reputation.
In Understanding and Application of the 1993 Answers, the SPC clarified that truth was NOT a defense to defamation. If a work insults and damages a person’s reputation, it is defamatory even if true.
The 1993 Answers state that either the allegedly defamed person or their close relatives (defined as spouses, parents, children, siblings, grandparents, and grandchildren) have standing to sue. That rules out almost anyone alive from 1950 onward as a character that can be included without fear of liability.
To be sure, the difficulty in securing effective injunctive relief in China does not create the same sense of urgency to get releases as in the United States. But the existence of the defamation laws, along with the heavy hand of the Chinese government overseeing content, explains why so many biopics in China are either hagiographies or set in ancient times. Why take the risk of depicting real people unless the Chinese government has specifically asked you to do so?
Perhaps emboldened by the not particularly artist-friendly laws, a recent lawsuit attempted to extend the protection against defamation to an absurd conclusion. A woman with the same name as a character referenced in Feng Xiaogang’s 2016 movie I Am Not Madame Bovary sued the filmmakers for defamation, alleging that her reputation and health had suffered because a character with her name was described as a slatternly woman of low morals. The character in question, Pan Jinlian, isn’t even in the movie per se – she’s a femme fatale from the classic Chinese novel, Water Margin, who is merely mentioned as a counterpoint to the film’s lead character. This would be like someone named Mata Hari suing a film that mentioned the World War I temptress/spy. If Ms. Pan has a complaint against anyone, it’s her parents for naming her after the character in the novel.
It’s one of the more ridiculous arguments I’ve heard, but at the same time it’s oddly encouraging for two reasons. First, it’s encouraging because the case was quickly dismissed; the judge noted that the character in the movie refers to the character in the book, not to anyone in China that happens to have the same name. Second, it’s encouraging to see that people in China feel confident enough in their legal system to bring a lawsuit when they have been aggrieved, even for something as nonsensical as this.
But if the characterization had been a little closer to the truth, the outcome might have been different.
Another recent Chinese movie, Dearest, was based on a true story about a couple whose child was kidnapped. The woman who was the basis for the lead character alleged the movie made things up about her life and suggested she was unchaste. She threatened to sue for defamation, but the director managed to resolve the dispute with a personal apology. It’s not always going to be that simple.
Even if a movie is not considered defamatory in the United States, it still might be considered defamatory in China. And the Chinese distributor/exhibitor would be held liable. As the Chinese media market continues to grow, and as the Chinese court system continues to gain strength and credibility, I wouldn’t be surprised to see many more defamation lawsuits in China, especially as US studios launch more partnerships with Chinese film companies to create Chinese-language content for the local market.
The bottom line for filmmakers is that getting releases has become all but mandatory. Especially for movies likely to be shown in China.