×

Chinese Director Feng Xiaogang Survives Attacks on His Reputation

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.

More Biz

  • Singer-rapper Psy performs during the 70th

    YG Agency Boss Quits as K-Pop Scandals Expand

    Yang Hyun-suk last week resigned from his remaining positions at YG Entertainment. The talent agency he co-founded is deeply mired in a series of inter-linked scandals that stretch from drugs to prostitution. Problems started with the band Bigbang and its star Seungri, but now also encompass other YG artists. Hwang Bo-kyung was appointed as the [...]

  • NEW YORK, NY – JUNE, 24:

    LGBTQ Stars Honored at Variety’s Power of Pride Celebration

    New York City felt the full Power of Pride on Monday, as Variety celebrated its inaugural issue devoted to the annual recognition of LGBTQ people worldwide. At an intimate gathering at Mr. Purple, the rooftop bar at Hotel Indigo Lower East Side in Manhattan, Variety’s cover stars and luminaries gathered for cocktails and the unveiling [...]

  • Motown Seeks to Block 'O-Town' Trademark

    Motown Seeks to Block 'O-Town' Trademark

    UPDATED: The boy band O-Town briefly rose to fame in 2000, with a star turn on MTV’s reality series “Making the Band.” But the reformed group has just one obstacle to its efforts to trademark its name: Motown Recordings. The label’s parent company, Universal Music Group, is trying to block the band from registering “O-Town” [...]

  • Alyssa Milano

    Alyssa Milano Settles $10 Million Suit With Former Accountant

    Actress Alyssa Milano has settled a legal battle with her former accountant as the case was on the verge of going to trial. Milano and her husband, agent David Bugliari, filed suit in 2017, alleging that accountant Kenneth Hellie had forged her signature on checks, failed to pay overdue bills and taxes and allowed costs [...]

  • J Balvin ‘Amicably’ Parts Ways With

    J Balvin ‘Amicably’ Parts Ways With Longtime Manager Rebeca Leon

    J Balvin and his longtime manager Rebeca León have “amicably” parted ways, reps for the singer and León confirmed to Variety. The news was first reported by Billboard. León — who also oversees the careers of fast-rising Spanish singer Rosalia as well as Colombian superstar Juanes, with whom she founded Lionfish Entertainment — began managing Balvin early in his career [...]

  • Ann Sarnoff Headshot

    Warner Bros. Taps BBC Studios Americas Chief Ann Sarnoff as CEO (EXCLUSIVE)

    Warner Bros. has tapped BBC Studios Americas president Ann Sarnoff as its new CEO, a surprise pick that is sure to shake up the venerable studio. Sarnoff becomes the first woman to head Warner Bros. in its nearly 100-year history. She was under the radar during WarnerMedia’s search for a successor to lead the studio [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content