Source: NYT (9/25/17)
Touching on History, a Chinese Film May Have Been Burned by It
By CHRIS BUCKLEY
BEIJING — One of China’s most popular directors, Feng Xiaogang, was determined to triumph at the box office with the release of his new film “Youth” during the weeklong National Day holiday.
In the run-up to the film’s expected release later this week, Mr. Feng and his actors had been touring China, promoting the romantic drama set against the Cultural Revolution and China’s brief, harrowing war against Vietnam.
But then Mr. Feng’s premiere was abruptly canceled.
Chinese film buffs say “Youth” appears to have fallen victim to official jitters ahead of a Communist Party congress next month, which is expected to give President Xi Jinping five more years in power. Mr. Feng said on Sunday that the film’s release had been indefinitely postponed, meaning the premiere would not coincide with the holiday, one of the most popular weeks at the country’s cinemas.
“Due to reasons that leave me no choice, the nationwide roadshow for ‘Youth’ can only go this far,” Mr. Feng said at a tearful news conference in Shanghai. “We have to say farewell to everyone before it even started, and I feel helpless.”
“I apologize to all the filmgoers who’d pre-bought tickets,” he said. “I apologize most of all to them. I’ve let them down.”
Neither Mr. Feng nor Huayi Brothers Media, the film’s main backer and distributor, have explained why the film’s release was abruptly canceled. Huayi Brothers declined to comment when called.
But Zhan Jiang, a retired professor of journalism and communications at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said he thought it was “definitely” done for political reasons, a view shared by critics and fans who pointed to the party congress starting in Beijing on Oct. 18.
“It’s difficult to say what’s problematic about the film, and there shouldn’t be any major problems as it had already passed censorship,” Mr. Zhan said. “But October is a special time, first because National Day is highly political, and even more important this year there’s the 19th Party Congress.”
About 2,300 delegates, most of them officials, will gather next month in the capital. Historically, the party is wary of promulgating anything that is critical, controversial or even downbeat ahead of the meeting.
Users of Weibo, a popular microblogging site, suggested that Mr. Feng had delayed the release as a publicity stunt, or in fear of a poor showing at the box office. But Mr. Feng said he had no choice.
“There are rumors, but no solid facts, about what happened,” Zhang Xianmin, a film critic in Beijing, said about the postponed release. “It’s possible that this was all about boosting the market for the film, but there could also be substantial censorship problems. Commercially, it doesn’t seem to make sense to postpone. Delaying distribution will certainly cost.”
Chinese cultural officials have not commented on the delay of the release.
Security at the congress, like other big events in China, will be tight, a measure meant to ensure that no protests, accidents, controversies or surprises sully the spectacle. Roads leading into Beijing are under tighter security, extra guards are manning buses in the city and officials and the police across China have been admonished to make sure nothing upsets the weeklong meeting.
“The only thing that is certain is that pulling this was not a performance directed by Feng Xiaogang,” one film enthusiast said on WeChat, a popular Chinese social media service.
“Its problem probably has something to do with the war,” the comment said. “It’s not in keeping with the gentle warmth of this harmonious society.”
Many Chinese people, especially in Beijing, become inured to the restrictions and security that surrounds big official meetings.
Yet Mr. Feng and others who worked on “Youth” appeared surprised by the sudden cancellation after cinemas had already started selling tickets.
At the news conference, Mr. Feng did not disguise his frustration.
“I tell you sincerely that right now I’m feeling somewhat distraught,” he said. “We wanted this film to hit the screens more than anyone.”
Liang Pengfei, a Chinese film critic, wrote on a Chinese news site, Observer, that the losses caused by suddenly postponing the film’s release “can be estimated to run to tens of millions” in Chinese renminbi, which would be millions in dollars.
Mr. Feng, 59, is a popular director who has learned to work within, and sometimes adroitly nudge against, China’s heavy boundaries of censorship. He often sets his stories during dramatic historical events, such as China’s massive Tangshan earthquake of 1976, and a famine in the 1940s.
Yet Mr. Feng also steers away from overt political messages, preferring to dwell on personal drama. “Youth” adds a patina of romance to its depiction of Mao’s traumatic Cultural Revolution.
As. Mr. Zhan noted, “Youth” had already passed the scrutiny of Chinese censors, and it was shown at the Toronto Film Festival this month. But the memories and themes evoked by the film may have prompted senior officials to reverse approval for its release during this sensitive political season.
Based on a novel of the same name, “Youth” tells the story of He Xiaoping, a young woman in a People’s Liberation Army dance troupe, who ends up dragged into China’s brief war with Vietnam in 1979. Before she joined the troupe, her father was condemned as an enemy of the party and sent to a labor camp.
These hints at China’s harsh past may have been too much for officials.
Under Mr. Xi, historians and writers have come under increased pressure to steer away from discussing the Cultural Revolution, the convulsive and often bloody political campaign that Mao launched in 1966. The 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution passed last year in near-total official silence, and unofficial commemoration was discouraged.
China went to war with Vietnam in 1979 after Deng Xiaoping, who had recently returned to power, pushed to punish Vietnam for occupying Cambodia and overthrowing the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, a Chinese ally.
The People’s Liberation Army’s incursions into Vietnam, however, did not go as planned, and even today some Chinese veterans of the war say their sacrifice and needs have been ignored by the government.
“This is not extolling war,” Mr. Feng said of “Youth” last month. “It’s to make audiences see the cruelty and terror of war.”
On Sunday, he said a new release date would be announced later.
This is not the first time the filmmaker has seen a release date abruptly changed. Last year, his film “I Am Not Madame Bovary” was released in November, to disappointing box office results, after its National Day holiday release was also postponed, although commercial reasons may have figured then.
Adam Wu and Karoline Kan contributed research.