A crime drama based on a high-profile murder has triggered a backlash from the victim’s family, who claim the movie is being produced without their consent and say they plan to sue the filmmakers for refusing to hear their side of the story.
Producers of the upcoming movie “The Playground” are making the movie without consulting the family of the man who was murdered and stand accused of ignoring their suffering, according to the family’s attorney Zhou Zhaocheng.
While disclosing the dispute Friday, Zhou said after the release of the movie’s poster earlier this month, the victim’s wife was traumatized to discover her husband’s story had been turned into a script for a commercial movie and had to seek psychological counseling.
“The Playground” is based on the 2003 murder of Deng Shiping, a school administrator in central Hunan province who was killed by a construction contractor to conceal shadowy work practices. The contractor, Du Shaoping, then buried the body in the school’s soccer field, only for it to be found 16 years later.
A screenshot shows workers digging the playground where Deng Shiping was buried for 16 years in Xinhuang County, Hunan province, 2019. From Weibo
The spat between the filmmakers and Deng’s family has underscored the ethical practices of adapting real-life stories, some of them available in the public domain, into commercial projects without first consulting the people they’re associated with.
Last month, Amanda Knox, the American who was convicted and later exonerated for killing her roommate in Italy, brought the same issue into focus after the Matt Damon-starring Hollywood release of “Stillwater,” which is loosely based on the story. Knox claims the studio is attempting to profit from her past without any input from herself, leading people to ask: “Who owns Amanda Knox?”
Likewise, in 2018, hit movie “Dying to Survive” — a dark comedy about a man detained for smuggling Indian leukemia drugs into China — also came under scrutiny after a man disapproved of his portrayal in the movie. Lu Yong, a cancer patient whose experience the film is based on, accused the filmmakers of framing his character as a profiteering drug seller.
In China, all scripts require approval by the China Film Administration prior to filming, while legal experts say adaptations of public events — including murder cases — do not need authorization from people directly associated with them. However, there are laws that forbid artistic works that portray real events or people from damaging their reputation.
“The Playground” was approved for filming last year, with shooting scheduled to start in October. Its plot summary, available online, shows the movie is based on Deng’s murder.
Though the filmmakers weren’t obligated to speak to Deng’s family, Zhou told Sixth Tone that they should have approached the family for first-hand information about the case. This could avoid violating the victim’s reputation and family’s right to privacy.
“We know film producers will modify the case for artistic purposes to some extent,” Zhou said. “If the film adaption seriously deviates from the real experience, violating the character’s right of reputation and leading to public misunderstanding, the producers should bear the legal responsibility.”
The film’s director, Ah Nian, has said that the movie’s script is based on facts and “appropriate artistic embellishment,” adding the team went through the case files with the support of relevant government departments. The family’s lawyer, however, refutes the claim that the producers had approached the local authorities handling the murder case.
The director and the film’s producers hadn’t responded to Sixth Tone’s request for comments by time of publication.
Meanwhile, “The Playground” has triggered heated discussion online over ethics involved in adaptations of news events — a related hashtag on microblogging platform Weibo had been viewed over 300 million times as of Tuesday. Many social media users accused the film of “consuming the dead” and “adding insult to injury,” urging filmmakers to respect the victim’s family.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: A poster for “The Playground;” right: the site where Deng Shiping was buried for 16 years in Xinhuang County, Hunan province, 2019. From Weibo)