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Banned in Berlin: Why China Said No Go to Zhang Yimou

Chinese executives and international film festival programmers are scratching their heads to understand why Zhang Yimou’s “One Second” was withdrawn from the Berlin Film Festival’s main competition just days before its premiere.

The Berlinale echoed the film’s official social media site Monday in saying that the highly anticipated film was being withdrawn for “technical reasons.” Zhang’s color-drenched martial arts film “Hero” from 2002 will takes its slot on Friday evening, but will play out of competition.

The phrase “technical reasons” is both a euphemism and a reality for Chinese filmmakers, none of whom can ever be said to have completed their movie until regulators sign off on every detail. No Chinese director or producer, however skilled, acclaimed or wealthy, has final say over his or her movie. That rests with the Chinese government.

In the case of “One Second,” it is possible that the subject matter, rooted in Mao Zedong’s 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, was the problem. The ruling Communist Party has acknowledged that the period was an economic and social disaster. But it remains a highly sensitive subject.

Zhang’s movie depicts an escaped prisoner and an orphan girl who has stolen a newsreel containing the one second of footage that the man desperately wants to see. Zhang had framed the story as his tribute to cinema.

The film’s historical setting and storyline must have been known to film industry regulators several months ago, when “One Second” cleared its first step, script approval. The question now is what happened to spark the embarrassing last-minute withdrawal from the Berlin fest.

One potential reason is administrative. The so-called “Dragon Seal,” a title card shown ahead of every film confirming that it has cleared all local and national censorship processes, may no longer be enough on its own for a film to premiere at a foreign festival. The film must receive an additional travel permit. Once that is granted, the film’s length and dialog cannot be changed, and additional producers and investors cannot come on board.

This process is understood to have been introduced in 2017, as part of China’s Film Industry Promotion Law, but only to have been strictly applied from this year. It’s believed that the Wang Quan’an film “Ondog,” which played in competition in Berlin on Friday, and the Wang Xiaoshuai film “So Long, My Son,” which premieres in Berlin on Thursday, both obtained exit permits. It’s not clear that “One Second” had completed that extra step.

Other reasons are political. Responsibility for the entertainment sector in China shifted last year from the State Council to direct control by the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department. That has meant a tightening of ideological oversight.

Presenting his own potentially inflammatory film depicting rioting, corruption and murder, director Lou Ye revealed that getting “The Shadow Play” approved had taken two years of negotiation with censors. The film plays in Berlin’s Panorama section.

“This was the most complicated material I’ve ever presented. And it was the most difficult censorship process I’ve ever lived through,” he said Monday at a Berlin press conference. “Over the past 10 years, I’ve been asked about censorship more than any other topic. My position on censorship has not changed: Film should be free.”

In the past, both Zhang and Lou have been considered by authorities as troublemakers. Zhang, who was sent for re-education during the Cultural Revolution, saw his 1994 epic “To Live” banned in China, despite winning awards in Cannes that year. Though Westerners may not understand the message, Zhang’s “Hero” was criticized in some quarters for an ending that in some eyes supported the Communist Party narrative.

Zhang was only fully rehabilitated in 2008 when he choreographed the opulent opening and closing ceremonies of the  Olympic Games in Beijing that year. In 2015, Zhang was fined over $1 million for violation of China’s one-child policy, which the government officially dropped the following year.

But if Zhang himself is the problem, why was his last film “Shadow” allowed to play at both Venice and Toronto, seemingly without problem?

“One Second” is the second mainland Chinese film to be withdrawn from the Berlinale in the space of a week. On the eve of the festival, it was announced that youth film “Better Days” would also not be able to play. Sources have told Variety that the reason was censorship-related.

While the fate of Zhang’s picture remains a mystery, one thing is for sure: Festival programmers selecting Chinese movies need to have contingency plans.

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