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Chinese Box Office Self-Harm Continues With Axing of ‘The Hidden Sword’

Long-awaited martial-arts film “The Hidden Sword” announced Monday that its theatrical release this Friday in China has been canceled because of “market reasons,” becoming the latest casualty of a censorship campaign that is damaging the country’s box office.

The film is helmed by writer-director Xu Haofeng (“The Final Master”), who was also the screenwriter for Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster.” “The Hidden Sword” stars Xu Qing (“The Hidden Man,” “Mr. Six”),  Zhang Aoyue (“The Final Master”) and Huang Jue (“The Final Master,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” ). It was completed and approved in 2017 by China’s official censors, who issued it the necessary “dragon seal” of Chinese government approval for theatrical release.

That year, it won the prize for best artistic contribution at the 41st Montreal World Film Festival and was nominated for four prizes at the Taiwan-based Golden Horse Awards, long the most prestigious awards for Chinese-language films. Posters and trailers for the movie were released, but it never ended up hitting Chinese theaters, supposedly because of creative differences between the director and his team.

Rumors began to swirl online late last week that the film had hit yet another roadblock. On Monday, just four days before its scheduled debut, it released a statement that said: “Due to market reasons, the film ‘The Hidden Sword’ has canceled its original July 19 release. Thank you for your anticipation, your attention and support!”

The phrase “market reasons” and “technical reasons” have become euphemisms for government interference.

The news comes as figures show China’s year-to-date box office earnings lagging behind last year’s level by nearly 5%. It also follows the high-profile cancellations of Huayi Brothers’ “The Eight Hundred,” which fell out of favor for its depictions of Chinese soldiers fighting Japan, and the Zhou Dongyu-starring “Better Days,” which was reportedly axed for scenes of violent bullying. The former was abruptly yanked from its debut at the Shanghai International Film Festival ahead of its planned theatrical release, while the latter was pulled from the Berlin Film Festival in February.

Set against the backdrop of 1930s Republic-era China, “The Hidden Sword” tells the tale of an officer who leads Chinese soldiers wielding only swords to defeat a Japanese attack on the Great Wall, and the fight for the rights to his martial-arts technique lineage that ensues after he disappears.

In the months leading up to the 70th anniversary, in October, of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, government censors are on high alert for material that might portray history in an unflattering light for the ruling Communist Party and its political legitimacy.

The busy summer movie-going weeks of late July through August are typically a period of an informal ban on imported foreign content to protect China’s domestic content-makers. Moviegoers were outraged to see yet another local film bite the dust.

“What is this, imported film protection month?” one commenter asked sarcastically on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform. Another lamented: “After all these withdrawals, the cinemas are full of nothing but silly family films right now.”

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