Regretful. That's how Chinese actress Fan Bingbing describes the Chinese censors' decision to remove all cleavage-baring scenes in her new historical drama, The Empress Of China.
The epic 74-parter created a stir in China last December when it was abruptly and mysteriously taken off air after four episodes for "technical reasons", shortly after its debut on Hunan TV.
When it returned to the small screen a week later, the series had been conspicuously edited. Shots of the actresses were tightly-cropped - leaving only their heads and shoulders - to remove any sights of heaving bosoms.
In an interview with local media yesterday at TVB City in Tseng Kwan O, Fan, 33, who plays the titular role of Tang Dynasty ruler Wu Zetian, said in Mandarin: "I definitely felt that it was a bit of a pity that audiences (in China) couldn't watch our original version.
"When we produce dramas, we have a vision of how we want it to be presented. It's regretful that we couldn't have our drama shown as it was.
"That said, I definitely respect my government and my country's censorship board."
Besides being The Empress Of China's protagonist, the A-list actress was also one of its producers.
Back in December, a day after The Empress Of China was pulled off air, Fan made her displeasure known.
She posted a cryptic message on Weibo: "Don't lower your heads! The crown will fall. Don't cry! The bad guys will laugh at us."
It led to a wave of encouraging comments from netizens.
According to Xinhua news agency, many viewers speculated that the Chinese censors were reacting in response to rabid online discussions about the female characters' "squeezed breasts".
The decision to use close-ups in the censored version showed they did not approve of the revealing period costumes and plunging necklines.
The Empress Of China tells the life story of Wu, China's only known female empress, tracking her journey from teenage courtesan to vicious leader.
Besides Fan, the large ensemble cast includes Hong Kongers Aarif Rahman and Kathy Chow. (See report, right.)
The trio were at TVB City yesterday to promote the drama's launch on Hong Kong's TVB channel.
Despite the censorship setback, the cast and crew of The Empress Of China have something to rejoice about - the drama has become a ratings hit in China and Taiwan.
"To our surprise, it did so well in China and is doing very well in Taiwan too," said Fan, who was last seen in Hollywood superhero flick X-Men: Days Of Future Past last year.
"Its success and high ratings made us forget the pain of having those scenes cropped out." The series, which has ended its run in China, is currently airing in its original, uncut form in Taiwan.
However, Singapore viewers will not get to see the glorious display of bosoms. StarHub TV acquired the show through TVB, which had hired a Chinese CGI team to "provide extra coverage" for the controversial cleavage scenes. (See report, above.)
Instead of using close-ups and doing away with wide-angle shots the way the Chinese censors did, the TVB version used CGI effects to cover the "offending material".
The Empress Of China premieres on April 26 at 9.30pm on TVB First (StarHub Ch 860).
Fan does not see Hong Kong's CGI version as a dampener. In fact, she is confident it "will be better" than the version shown in China. "The CGI effects will help to retain the original essence of the drama even more," she explained.
While Wu Zetian was best known in Chinese history books for her ruthlessness and mercilessness towards her enemies, Fan said that through her portrayal, she has "developed more empathy" for Wu.
"Wu Zetian was a ruler but at the same time, she was also a human being. She had romantic relationships, she was a mother. She faced many dilemmas and challenges in her life."
'Tang Dynasty women wore low-cut outfits'
Hong Kong actress Kathy Chow, who has a meaty supporting role as Consort Yang in The Empress Of China, doesn't understand the brouhaha over the cleavage-baring scenes.
"It's common knowledge that women in the Tang Dynasty wore low-cut outfits," said the 48-year-old in a separate interview.
"As a kid, I saw paintings and murals depicting the Tang Dynasty. Women then were really sexy and open-minded."
That said, she felt the edited versions of The Empress Of China "did not affect the storyline of the show, which is the most important".
Hong Kong actor-singer Aarif Rahman, 28, who plays Emperor Gaozong and the husband of Wu Zetian, said "it was a huge relief that the drama could even continue airing in China".
When a female reporter asked if he felt saddened that his co-actresses' cleavage couldn't be shown on screen, Rahman - whose mother is Chinese and father is a mix of Chinese, Malay and Middle Eastern - said jokingly: "Come on, do you really need to see that?
"Don't you have (cleavage) too?"
Extra CGI effects cost $2m
Why did Hong Kong's TVB channel decide to go with a special CGI-edited version instead of using Beijing's edited version of The Empress Of China?
Mr Felix To, assistant to the group chief executive officer at TVB, told Singapore reporters in a separate interview it was "impossible" for the original version to be aired as it was "not permitted by the Chinese government".
"(But we also) didn't want to go with the version Hunan TV eventually aired, as the scenes were cropped too tightly. They didn't meet the to-air standards here at TVB," he said.
He said the extra CGI effects cost an estimated $10 million yuan (S$2.1 million).
"It was a massive effort that needed 200 to 300 people," he added.
This article was published on April 21 in The New Paper.