Who's afraid of Hannibal?

WHEN it comes to creepy movies, I'm utterly yellow.

Hands up all those brought up with the cane, and threatened with monsters, prison or violence for mischief, idleness or bad grades

I've resisted watching The Ring, bowed out of The Blair Witch Project, avoided The Exorcist.

But I've never had a problem with gore or violence.

Guts flying in gritty flicks like Saving Private Ryan are just so much SFX rubber and fake blood to me. So I swallowed the gut-wrenching visuals of Hannibal last week with little more than critical distaste: Such unsubtle movie-making, tsk tsk.

But I heard the faint sounds of my fellow moviegoers sobbing, whimpering and gagging, during - you know - the dinner scene. ''What were the censors thinking?'' exclaimed a friend in Australia when told about the film getting a PG, then NC-16 rating only after public protest ('So, sex is bad but violence okay?' Eyeball, Feb 23).

And he's one of those who routinely lament the heavy hand of censorship here.

Had the Films and Publications Department (FPD) lost their touch?

Did the film's undeniable commercial appeal hold sway?

Or had they deemed the general public, like myself, largely inured to gruesome violence?

After all, the full-coloured gore of real-life decapitated heads and spilt blood have already been splashed in the newspapers.

Besides, Hannibal is arguably a morality tale, that oh-so-Asian art form.

Lesson 1: Don't be rude.

Lesson 2: Never take food from strangers.

Our culture loves to scare its children straight.

Hands up all those brought up with the cane, and threatened with monsters/prison/violence for mischief, idleness or bad grades.

Remember the Hell Galleries - once the signature dish at Haw Par Villa?

As a child, I was marched past its 3D cavalcade of imaginative punishments meted out for various moral crimes - adultery (boiled in oil), lying (tongue cut out), treason (hung, drawn and quartered).

It made Hannibal seem positively amateurish.

Of course, the tour was designed as a moral tonic for the young.

There's something primal about inflicting violence as retribution - and it's been creeping into our cultural psyche since childhood.

Don't be rude to your elders, ''or else the lightning god will strike you down'', writer Catherine Lim reminds us in an early work.

How about the clueless recruit in the NS ghost story?

He tactlessly defiled some ancient grave - and was found the next day with trench tools in his belly and innards on the floor.

We grow up with the macabre - and that might explain the runaway popularity of horror stories in our bookstores and cinemas.

Our love for horror could also be harmless escapism, all the more appealing because it's so remote from our ordered, safe, rational existence.

It might even answer a deep human call for natural justice.

We yearn to see the big, bad and ugly receive - or in some cases become - just des(s)erts.

And while sex, particularly in art, tends to celebrate transgression, horror reaffirms the authority of forces beyond our control: Divine retribution, the supernatural, Hannibal's genius.

It's all about respect.

The censors probably have more earthly reasons when they chop out porn and let in the slashers.

Still, the process certainly deserves a closer look after the ruckus over Hannibal.

It helps that the FPD's new website and film database (http://www.fpd.gov.sg) exposes film-rating decisions (though not the reasons behind them) to the light of public scrutiny.

Seems they're slowly opening up their X-files and engaging with public feedback.

That's reassuring.

But the alternative - a mysterious censorship process that's still in the dark and out of touch with public taste - is even scarier.

© alvin pang
clm : rvw : esy : rfl