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China’s Turbulent Relationship With Film Festivals Explained

China has had a roller-coaster year so far at festivals worldwide, with high-profile wins and accolades but also more instances of highly disruptive censorship than ever before. In 2019, five international film festivals around have so far ended up tangling with China’s content overlords, who are on unusually high alert ahead of a particularly sensitive political anniversary for the ruling Communist Party in October — the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.

The year kicked off with a bang in February at the Berlin Intl. Film Festival, which became a showcase of both the country’s highs and lows. China was the best-represented non-European country at the festival, with three entries in the main competition (Zhang Yimou’s “One Second,” Wang Quan’an’s “Ondog” and Wang Xiaoshuai’s “So Long, My Son”); two in the Panorama section (Lou Ye’s “The Shadow Play” and Xiang Zi’s “A Dog Barking at the Moon”); and Chinese film producer, director and screenwriter Vivian Qu on the jury for First Feature Film. Beijing came out of the fray with two top prizes: Silver Bears for actor and actress, awarded to Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei, the leading couple in “So Long, My Son,” a harrowing look at the impact of the one-child policy on one family and their friends.

But things got hairy with the shock withdrawal of two other titles due to censorship. Zhang’s Cultural Revolution-era “One Second” was considered a top contender, but was pulled for “technical reasons” — a euphemism for not passing censorship. Zhang’s 2002 action film “Hero” screened instead. Hong Kong director Derek Tsang’s youth drama “Better Days” was also yanked suddenly from the Generation section. It later had its summer theatrical debut cancelled as well, with sources telling Variety that scenes of violent bullying were the likely source of authorities’ displeasure.

China continued its strong arthouse showing with two films at Cannes in May: Diao Yinan’s stylish neo-noir “Wild Goose Lake” in the main competition and first-time director Zu Feng’s contemplative crime thriller “Summer of Changsha” in Un Certain Regard. Again, censorship troubles struck. The latter film wasn’t able to get its “dragon seal” of approval before its festival debut rolled around, yet unable to exit the festival at such short notice, it ended up screening without it — a big no-no. The director and creative team tried to douse the flames of official fury by not attending the event, citing “technical reasons” for their absence.

Surprisingly, troubles have plagued Chinese films on home turf as well. Huayi Bros.’ highly anticipated summer tentpole “The Eight Hundred” was supposed to premiere as the opening film of June’s Shanghai Intl. Film Festival. Despite being a patriotic war film intended to laud the Party, it was deemed not quite patriotic enough and yanked from the line-up the day before its bow. Later, its theatrical release was cancelled as well, leaving Huayi in hot financial water.

Even the First Film Festival, in far-flung Xining, the capital of the more rural Qinghai province, hasn’t escaped scrutiny. This year’s Palme d’Or winner “Parasite,” by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, was scheduled as its closing film before censors pulled it the night before — again, for undisclosed “technical reasons.”

China’s censors are always extremely strict, but such a spate of highly visible cancellations is unusual. Previously, only one such instance of censors intervening at the last minute to pull a film had occurred in recent years, when the animated thriller “Have a Nice Day” was removed from the Annecy animation festival in 2017, despite having premiered in Berlin a few months before.

Yet there are some bright spots when it comes to mainland festivals. First, which some have deemed China’s equivalent to Sundance, remains vibrant in its focus on first and second features from new directors. It continues to nurture and launch careers, such as that of Wen Muye, whose “Dying to Survive” became China’s eighth-highest grossing film of all time last summer.

While truly independent festivals have been stamped out, government-backed and approved ones play a growing role in the country. Jia Zhangke’s Pingyao Intl. Film Festival is set to expand this year; meanwhile, the new Hainan Intl. Film Festival, in the southern, tropical island province of Hainan, hopes to become a contender as well. Its first iteration took place last December, and its budget was robust enough to entice Johnny Depp, Nicolas Cage, Bollywood’s Aamir Khan and Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan to attend.

Politics, however, are never far from the picture. This year, China will be touting its Golden Rooster Awards, a biannual event that has recently found a permanent home in the coastal city of Xiamen. With tensions on the rise between the mainland and the independently governed island of Taiwan, the mainland organizers chose to host it on the same day as Taipei’s well-regarded Golden Horse Awards. Chinese authorities have banned mainland films and professionals from participating in the Golden Horse festivities, saying that anyone who goes forward with plans to attend will be put on a watch list and denied the opportunity to screen in the world’s second-largest film market.

This comes as a huge blow to the Taipei-based event that leaves its future uncertain, given that mainlanders have come to dominate the nominations for top prizes, nabbing about half the awards in the past five years. Nevertheless, the rather maligned Golden Rooster Awards will need to put on a flashy display this year if it hopes to shame the Golden Horse ones into obscurity, given its reputation as a Communist Party-led rather than artistically driven venture.

Chinese-language films from any location have been allowed to compete in the Golden Rooster since 2005, but in the past decade, only seven films from Hong Kong and Taiwan have won prizes, with most of them Chinese co-productions. Submitted films must pass the Chinese censorship before consideration. While a handful Golden Horse Award best picture winners like 2007’s “Lust, Caution” have also won top prizes abroad at Berlin, Cannes or Venice, no best picture from over a decade of Golden Rooster prize-winners has ever gone on to win gold at an international festival.

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