For a man with a reputation as a critical voice, leading Chinese director Feng Xiaogang has been remarkably quiet of late. His latest film “Youth” premiered in Toronto, but at the end of September was removed from the releasing calendar in China at the last minute. There was barely a murmur, either from the industry regulators or from Feng.
“After discussions with the film bureau and other related parties, ‘Youth’ intends to accept recommendations and change its release date,” his company said blankly on social media.
A Feng film is always an event — he has enjoyed unparalleled critical and commercial success with films including “Aftershock” and “Cellphone” — and “Youth” had been positioned to be one of the major releases of the Oct 1st National Day holiday week. So, it suddenly being pulled was a big deal.
On the other hand, if popular reasoning is correct — that the film was too sensitive to play in the run up to the once-every-five-years National Party Congress — then the forces ranged against the pictures were simply too great. And Feng is too smart to fight against overwhelming odds.
Perhaps he will speak his mind more clearly this week in Los Angeles, when he receives a major prize from the Asia Society. The society is organizing its annual Film Summit in the days before the American Film Market, and will screen “Youth.”
By then the film should have been seen by its first audiences in China, albeit a non-commercial crowd. With the Party Congress completed, “Youth” was set as the opening film of last week’s indie-themed Pingyao Intl. Film Festival.
Feng has previously used overseas platforms to speak his mind on the ills of the Chinese film industry. In 2013, while promoting wartime famine drama “Back to 1942” in Los Angeles, Feng called the death by a thousand cuts imposed by censors a “great harm” to individual films and “a headache to all directors.”
Months before, when receiving the director of the year prize from the China Film Directors Guild, he made an acceptance speech in which he said that all directors suffered a “great torment” from censorship. While the live audience got to hear his detailed reasoning, the live TV feed was abruptly cut before the word “censorship” could be widely heard.
What makes his critiques so interesting is that Feng is not a dissident or a wrecker. Nor is he a young punk. He is an established entertainer.
Often described as China’s Spielberg, Feng has been a purveyor of popular comedy (“The Dream Factory”) and large-scale spectacle (“A World Without Thieves”). In the past 10 years he has also dealt in tear-jerking drama (“Earthquake”) and the brutality of civil war (“Assembly”).
Rather, as Feng told Variety in Toronto last year, he is enjoying the reverse trajectory from that of most filmmakers. Most start out idealistic and become more mainstream as their career blossoms. Feng, on the other hand, enjoyed early success and, with his reputation and bank balance intact, can now afford to take on challenging subjects with less compromise.
If it wasn’t so calm and formal in its experimentation with different round and square frames, Feng’s “I Am Not Madame Bovary” from 2016 might have been regarded as revolutionary. It cast China’s biggest female star, Fan Bingbing, as a peasant woman who is casually tossed aside by her husband and accused of adultery. Her dogged quest for justice in a system utterly rigged against the individual, mocks society and Chinese officialdom at every turn.
A drama of epic length “Youth” has the appearance of a nostalgia piece, wallowing in patriotism and the halcyon two decades of an army dance troupe. But Feng serves it as a bittersweet memory of the period stretching from the end of the Cultural Revolution to China’s stirring modernization. Subplots include parents sent away for re-education and the horrors of the Sino-Vietnamese War.
Indeed, it may be Feng’s ability to mix up pain and spectacle without sugar-coating his message that allows him to dodge the worst problems of censorship. He also retains a loyal following. This summer, Feng told a Shanghai Film Festival seminar that “crap films” and “crap audiences” feed each other. Despite the harsh words, he was applauded for telling things like they are and trying to raise industry standards.