Finished films we might never see

Source: The Chna Project (1/20/23)
Finished Chinese films that we might never get to see
From Cultural Revolution dramas to China’s answer to ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ censors have stopped these movies from being screened in China, and many are not available elsewhere either.
By Amarsanaa Battulga

Illustration for the China Project by Derek Zheng

Last week, we introduced The China Project’s ten most anticipated Chinese movies of 2023. With sweeping lockdowns gone and people gradually learning to coexist with COVID-19, the country’s film sector is ready to throw away its crutches and run again.

But not all films — albeit completed — get to participate in this race. For Chinese films aiming for domestic distributions, one of the most crucial qualifying conditions is a greenlight from the China Film Administration(CFA), which oversees all aspects of filmmaking in the country. Far more long-term and harmful — both creatively and financially — than the COVID-zero policy, the Chinese film censorship is among the strictest in the world and has only gotten more rigid, extensive, and unpredictable in recent years.

It should also be noted that some films are not approved for public screening not necessarily because of their content but because they were at the “wrong” festival or had the “wrong” actor or for other reasons, as you will find out below.

Here are ten recent Chinese films — out of many more — that might never see the light of the day.

1. Under the Light 坚如磐石 jiān rú pánshí — completed in 2019

No filmmaker is exempt from censorship in China. Zhāng Yìmóu 张艺谋 may have directed the opening and closing ceremonies of two Olympic Games and his name may have become virtually synonymous with Chinese cinema since the 1980s, but even he has to play by the rules.

Under the Light follows two police officers, played by Léi Jiāyīn 雷佳音 (A Life Long Journey) and Zhōu Dōngyǔ 周冬雨 (Better Days), as they chase leads in a case connected to a wealthy businessman (于和伟 Yú Héwěi; Cliff Walkers). As the investigation proceeds, they find bodies hidden in walls and billions of yuan in underhand deals.

The crime drama marks Zhang’s second foray into the genre after his 1995 gangster film Shanghai Triad. The story is written by Chén Yǔ 陈宇, who also penned the script for Zhang’s Korean War battlefield drama, Snipers(2022). Originally set to hit cinemas in 2020, a trailer for the film was released in June of that year.

On the set of Boyhood. Image via actor Huang Pinyuan’s Weibo.

2. Boyhood 少年时代 shàonián shídài — completed in 2019

A leading figure of the “Fifth Generation” of Chinese cinema, Chén Kǎigē 陈凯歌 helped put China on the arthouse map in the 1990s with his flamboyant spectacle Farewell, My Concubine, which was the first Chinese film to win the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

But in recent years, Chinese filmgoers have criticized Chen for only making patriotic “main melody” films such as The Battle at Lake Changjin (2021), the highest-grossing Chinese movie of all time with $902 million in ticket sales. However, to call him a sellout may not be entirely fair.

In 2019, Chen directed a semi-autobiographical drama, starring his son Chén Fēiyǔ 陈飞宇 opposite Liú Hàorán 刘昊然, the star of the Detective Chinatown franchise. Originally titled From Dust, Flowers Bloom (尘埃里开花 chén’āi lǐ kāihuā) which likely comes from the writings of Eileen Chang), the film is set during the Cultural Revolution.

Not much is revealed in terms of story, except for the rather vague synopsis on review platform Douban, which explains that the film is about “the struggle of young people who realize their self-worth and gain a profound understanding of life and their times after experiencing a lot of suffering and confusion.”

Cry of the Birds

3. Cry of the Birds 鸟鸣嘤嘤 niǎomíng yīngyīng — completed in 2020

Also struggling with the censors is Fifth-Generation director Tián Zhuàngzhuàng 田壮壮.

During a video interview with Tatler last August, Tian revealed that he hadn’t heard back from the CFA since submitting his latest film Cry of the Birds for review two years ago. “I can accept any review result. But…this [two-year silence] has really made me disappointed with [the] film [industry] once again,” said the director in the interview.

Tian’s most well-known and critically-acclaimed work is The Blue Kite, a 1993 film that directly addressed the traumatic national history during the Mao era. The film remains banned in China to this day and Tian was forbidden from filmmaking for ten years after  submitting it to festivals abroad without permission.

Cry of the Birds marks Tian’s first directorial work since 2009. Inspired by author Ah Chéng 阿城’s novella The King of Trees (树王 shù wáng), the film is set during the Cultural Revolution. Its story takes place in the southern Yunnan province where intellectual youths (知识青年 zhīshì qīngnián) are ordered to cut down “useless” forest trees and plant “useful” rubber trees. When they finally raise their machetes to the King of Trees that the villagers have revered for generations, a conflict ensues.

English

4. English 英格力士 yīng gé lì shì — completed in 2017

Although better known for her acting roles in films such as The Last Emperor and Lust, Caution, Joan Chen (陈冲 Chén Chōng) has proven herself as a director with considerable potential. Her 1998 debut Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl was nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. her segment in the recent three-act pandemic-themed Hero was the film’s only saving grace.

In 2017, Chen finished shooting a coming-of-age drama titled English. Adapted from author Wáng Gāng 王刚’s 2004 novel of the same title, the film is set during — you guessed it —the Cultural Revolution. Its poster showcases a statue of a Mao suit (known in China as a Zhongshan suit 中山装 zhōngshān zhuāng) in the style of contemporary artist Suí Jiànguó 隋建国‘s sculptures.

Set in Xinjiang, English tells the story of a group of young schoolchildren, their parents, and Wang, the new English teacher who comes from Shanghai. For the film’s young protagonist, Wang’s dictionary seems to hold all the answers and yet also seems to be the root of all troubles in the absurd world he finds himself in.

5. Love Song to the Days Forgone 东北往事之二十年 dōngběi wǎngshì zhī èrshí nián — completed in 2019

Hailing from Northeast China, the nation’s ​​heavy-industry heartland, 孔二狗 Kǒng Èrgǒu has often been called the country’s “best writer of mafia fiction.” His magnum opus is the best-selling book series Triads and Turbulence: Once Upon a Time in Northeastern China (东北往事:黑道风云20年 dōngběi wǎngshì: hēidào fēngyún èrshí nián).

In 2013, the novels were adapted into a 23-episode web series of the same title. While it enjoys a stellar rating of 8.7 out of ten on Douban, the series has been removed from all major streaming services, most likely due to its depiction of violence, nudity, and strong language.

Later, when Kong moved his work from page to the big screen, he ran into similar troubles. The cinematic adaptation was initially scheduled for a Labor Day holiday release in 2019, but the studio postponed the date. According to Kong, they didn’t want to go up against Avengers: Endgameon the same opening weekend and suffer box office losses. But the film has remained on the shelf ever since, suggesting that its troubles lie elsewhere.

Beginning shortly after China’s reform and opening-up (改革开放 gǎigé kāifàng) era in the 1980s, the story chronicles some twenty years of social changes in the country through the tales of a northern mafia headed by two men, played by Xià Yǔ 夏雨 (In the Heat of the Sun) and Hú Jūn 胡军 (Stanley Kwan’s queer classic Lan Yu).

Art College 1994

6. Art College 1994 艺术学院 yìshù xuéyuàn — completion date unknown

At the Cannes Film Festival last year, a Chinese entry in the Directors’ Fortnight section was kept under wraps until it was pulled from the festival.

The film, titled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is from Chinese animator Liú Jiàn 刘健. The official reason given was that the creators couldn’t finish the film in time due to pandemic-related lockdowns in Beijing. But another possible factor may have been the pressure to comply with China’s unofficial boycott of Cannes.

Chinese sources cited by The Hollywood Reporter attribute the punitive measure to an event from the 2021 festival: a last-minute addition and screening of a Hong Kong protest documentary, Revolution of Our Times. Thus. While the 2021 edition had four Chinese full-length films in various sections, last year’s event saw none.

Since then, the title of Liu’s animation has been changed to Art College 1994. Set in the early 1990s, the film paints a portrait of art students in their “romantic and cruel youth.” The high-profile voice cast includes renowned Sixth-Generation director Jiǎ Zhāngkē 贾樟柯 and the frontman of the popular band Wǔ Tiáo Rén 五条人, Rénkē 仁科.

Director Liu’s previous credits include Have a Nice Day, the only Chinese animation ever selected for the Berlinale main competition.

7. The Perfect Blue and Across the Furious Sea 她杀 tā shā and 涉过愤怒的海 shèguò fènnù dì hǎi — completed in 2018 and 2020

Cáo Bǎopíng 曹保平 is one of the Chinese filmmakers whose local success hasn’t translated equally well outside the country. But he’s lauded as one of the greatest crime film directors at home. In 2015, Cao started his “Scorching Heart” trilogy with The Dead End, a crime thriller that won him the Best Director award at the Shanghai International Film Festival.

However, things didn’t run so smoothly for the next two films. The Perfect Blue, featuring a revenge drama between a man and four women in two timelines, wrapped shooting in May 2018. A month later, China’s leading actress and one of the cast members, Fàn Bīngbīng 范冰冰, was embroiled in a major tax evasion scandal that eventually led her to being banned from appearing on TV and in movies.

The third installment Across the Furious Sea tells the story of a mother (周迅 Zhōu Xùn; Suzhou River) who attempts to uncover the truth about her daughter’s death and seek revenge. Having finished shooting and released a teaser in late 2020, the film originally aimed for a release in the summer of 2021. On Douban, one user jokingly commented that the movie will be released on “the 32nd of Undecimber.”

8. Fengshen Trilogy 封神三部曲 fēng shén sān bù qǔ — completion date unknown

Another much awaited trilogy is Fengshen by Inner Mongolian genre filmmaker Wūěrshàn 乌尔善. His previous credits include big-budget fantasy flicks such as Painted Skin: The Resurrection (2015) and Mojin: The Lost Legend (2015).

But his most ambitious project by far is the action-fantasy Fengshen — the most expensive production in Chinese history with a budget of $445 million for the three films. (For reference, the most expensive film ever made, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, cost $379 million).

The mythological franchise is a retelling of Creation of the Gods (封神演义 fēngshén yǎnyì), a sixteenth-century Chinese “gods and demons” novel (神魔小说 shénmó xiǎoshuō). In an interview with Variety, the director described the film as “China’s Lord of the Rings and Iron Man rolled into one.”

The three installments were filmed back to back and wrapped shooting in 2020. Originally, the first movie was to be released in the same year and the sequels in the following two years. Alas, so far none has made it to the big screen yet.

9. The Best Is Yet to Come 不止不休 bùzhǐ bùxiū — completed in 2020

First-time director Wáng Jīng 王晶’s journalism drama, The Best Is Yet to Come, was inspired by true events and produced by Jiǎ Zhāngkē 贾樟柯, for whom Wang had previously worked as an assistant director. It isn’t unfinished or banned; rather, it’s a film that didn’t get a wider release due to its sensitive content and timing.

Set in the aftermath of the 2003 SARS epidemic in China, the movie revolves around an ambitious reporter and his quest to tell the story of the country’s heavily-discriminated Hepatitis B carriers. It premiered at Venice in 2020 before traveling to several other festivals, including the local Pingyao International Film Festival, where Wang received the Best Director award.

However, given how much the story resembles memories of the COVID-19 outbreak, its theatrical release in China has been inconceivable so far. Now that China’s strict pandemic-related policies are out of the picture, whether the film can meet local audiences awaits to be seen.

10. Fire on the Plain 平原上的火焰 píngyuán shàng de huǒyàn — completed in 2020

Cinematographer Zhāng Jì’s 张骥 directorial debut, Fire on the Plain, is eagerly anticipated for three reasons that aren’t related to him. It’s adapted from critically-acclaimed writer Shuāng Xuětāo’s 双雪涛 novella; it’s produced by Golden Bear-winning filmmaker Diāo Yìnán刁亦男; and it stars two of China’s most popular young actors, Liú Hàorán 刘昊然 and Zhōu Dōngyǔ 周冬雨.

The film centers around a police officer and his childhood sweetheart, who cross paths during a murder investigation after eight years of estrangement. As crime and passion collide, the pair discovers that some things never change and some people don’t stay the same.

A trailer for the romantic crime film was dropped in June 2021. Like The Best Is Yet to Come, it premiered abroad, namely at the San Sebastian International Film Festival in September. At home, however, the film was pulled from the roster without explanation just four days before its scheduled release on Christmas Day that year.

Amarsanaa Battulga is a Shanghai-based film critic and researcher who decided to do a PhD in comparative literature instead of going to therapy. He’s from Mongolia. He cannot ride a horse.

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