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Chinese director Jia Zhangke has quit the Pingyao International Film Festival that he co-founded four years ago. The festival will be handed over to the Pingyao city government, sparking speculation and concerns over how the reputable young festival will next develop.

The internationally-renown auteur dropped the bombshell at Sunday’s press conference that concluded the fourth edition of the festival. Staff and media in attendance were shocked by Jia’s announcement, according to Chinese media reports.

“We have not spent a penny of the government’s money,” Jia said at the press conference. The festival has successfully established itself as an international brand, operating with resources from the private sector, he added.

“I should’ve left [the festival] earlier and begun to groom a new team to take over the festival, so that this festival can get rid of ‘Jia Zhangke’s shadow’,” the director said. He added that he hopes to return as an audience member in future.

The festival, which Jia co-founded with former Venice festival head Marco Muller, will be handed over to the local government, but exactly why and how were not explained at the event. Jia, a native of Shanxi province where the city of Pingyao is located, said that he hoped a new, young team would take over and lift the festival to another level in its fifth and sixth editions.

Film buffs, journalists and critics in mainland China were saddened by the unexpected news, worrying that the edgy festival will lose its appeal after its founder has left.

Speculations about the reasons were widely aired on the internet. Some suggested that the city authorities wanted the rewards for themselves. Others guessed at irreconcilable differences between Jia’s team and the local government over the future direction of PYIFF.

PYIFF presented awards for the competition section on Friday (Oct. 16). But website Douwei News reported that news of awards for Li Dongmei’s “Mama,” as best film in the “Hidden Dragons” section for first and second Chinese-language features, had been removed from the festival’s Weibo social media site without explanation.