Cannes has chosen two mainland Chinese titles for its official selection: Diao Yinan’s “Wild Goose Lake,” in competition, and Zu Feng’s “Summer of Changsha,” for Un Certain Regard. Both films appear to have received the necessary official approvals from Chinese authorities to premiere overseas. But their journey to the Cote d’Azur is by no means a certainty.
After two mainland Chinese films were withdrawn at the last minute from the Berlin Film Festival in February, it takes a determined – or brave – selector to program Chinese movies in prominent festival positions. Until the film actually screens, there is an ever-present risk of an embarrassing cancellation.
Veteran producer Shen Yang told Variety that “Wild Goose Lake” has cleared all the formalities in China ahead of its Cannes premiere next month, including receipt of its so-called Dragon Seal from China’s top movie-industry regulator, the National Film Administration. She said that the film is set for a Chinese theatrical release sometime in June to capitalize on its buzz in Cannes and any awards it receives on the Croisette.
The producers of “Summer of Changsha” have not responded to a request for comment. But they appear confident about making the trip to southern France, having already uploaded poster images for the film that include the Cannes festival logo.
The last-minute withdrawals from the Berlinale of Derek Tsang’s edgy youth drama, “Better Days,” and Zhang Yimou’s 1960s-set “One Second” sparked fears that Chinese authorities are cracking down harder on the cultural sector.
They also showed how difficult it is to read the situation in China these days. It has been common practice at some major film festivals not to include Chinese film selections in their lineup announcements until they are certain that all formalities have been completed. Both “Better Days” and “One Second” were thought to have received their Dragon Seals, but they were unexpectedly yanked anyway.
In particular, the withdrawal of “One Second” has stirred debate in Chinese film circles. The film deals with the Cultural Revolution, a tumultuous period that remains extremely sensitive for the ruling Communist Party. But it is neither the first Chinese film to do so, nor even the first film by Zhang that touches on the subject. Moreover, Zhang necessarily obtained regulatory approval for his screenplay before shooting began.
There are at least two different theories as to why it was canceled in Berlin. One says that a foreign-bound film must now obtain an screening permit in addition to the Dragon Seal, which “One Second” failed to do. The other theory says that the script for “One Second” was approved by China’s previous film regulatory body, which was abolished in March last year, but the finished work alarmed decision-makers at the new National Film Administration. The administration reports directly to the Communist Party’s propaganda department.
The ultimate fate of “One Second” is unclear. Although some have speculated that it might resurface in Cannes, the producers at Huanxi Media and Edko Films have remained tight-lipped about its status.
Director Lou Ye, a regular on the European festival circuit, presents a further puzzle. His film “The Shadow Play” (AKA “Cloud in the Wind”) traded in the hot-button topics of suicide, corruption and forced land deals. Lou told reporters that the censorship requirements imposed on “Shadow Play” were the most demanding he had ever faced. But the film still received a Dragon Seal and played in Berlin’s Panorama section in February, even as “One Second” and “Better Days” got pulled from the lineup.
Lou’s latest effort, “Saturday Fiction,” with superstar actress Gong Li in a lead role, was widely expected to be selected for Cannes. Sources close to Lou say that he only recently completed a first pass through the film, and that much post-production work remains to be done. It could still make it into the official selection, as Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux says he is open to adding two or three more titles to the competition slate, which currently stands at 19 films.
But as the Berlinale now knows all too well, the presence of any Chinese film at a foreign festival is really only guaranteed when the lights go down and it starts to unspool. Stay tuned.