Earlier this year, legendary Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s newest film, One Second, was set to screen at the Berlin Film Festival, but mere days before that could happen, the movie was pulled. The official explanation for the withdrawal was ‘technical difficulties’, a phrase that has become all too common in relation to potentially controversial Chinese films that do not meet the approval of the country’s government.
Another hotly anticipated Chinese film, Better Days, was pulled from Berlin’s line-up this year. That film’s official Weibo account later said of the decision, ‘We are very sorry to tell everyone that because of post-production reasons, the film ‘Better Days’ will not be able to attend the 69th Berlin Film Festival in time. We thank the Berlin Festival for its recognition and understanding, and everyone for their support.’ Now, it seems that the film won’t even be released in its homeland. This week, the film’s Weibo account apologized for the cancellation of its release, a mere three days before it was supposed to hit theatres, saying, ‘After considering the level of completion of ‘Better Days’ and our market pre-assessments, and following consultations between the production and distribution parties, the film will not be released on June 27. A new release date will be announced at a later time.’
But the drama doesn’t stop there. Last week, the Shanghai Film Festival cancelled the screening of its opening movie, the patriotic war drama The Eight Hundred. The film comes from an established studio, Huayi Bros. (also responsible in part for American movies like Peppermint and The Happytime Murders) and had a reported budget of around $80 million in large part thanks to its status as the first Chinese film to have been substantially shot with IMAX cameras. The reason given for the film’s removal from the festival? ‘Technical reasons.’
Based on real-life history, the film centers on a 1937 battle in Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese War, wherein some 400 Chinese fighters staged an unlikely defence against the larger numbers of the Japanese army. The Eight Hundred allegedly faced last minute scrutiny from the government because of how it depicts the Chinese Nationalists as the greater heroes of the battle, not Mao Zedong’s Communist Party. The Hollywood Reporter article on the story quotes Wang Lihua, a former general in the People’s Liberation Army, as having reportedly said, ‘[This film] glorifies the fighting of the Nationalist Party, which seriously violates history. This deviates from historical materialism and should not be encouraged.’ They also said that Chinese president Xi Jingping’s cabinet has greatly tightened its control over the entertainment industry this year in anticipation of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in October.
As noted by Variety, the excuse of ‘technical reasons’ for a film’s removal from the release schedule or prestigious festivals is often a euphemism for censorship issues. In 2016, the country passed a law that bans film content deemed harmful to the ‘dignity, honour and interests’ of the country. The laws’ aim is to ‘spread core socialist values’ and prevent cultural depictions that ‘defame the people’s excellent cultural traditions’, among other requirements.
At a time when the American box office has seen its power drastically wane, the clout of international grosses has become more important than ever to Hollywood. Sure, you can make your blockbuster a major hit with domestic numbers alone, but that’s an increasing rarity, as evidenced by the seriously sloppy numbers of this Summer. Over the past six or seven years, Hollywood has invested heavily in appeasing the dramatically growing box office potential of countries like Russia and China, but particularly the latter. In 2012 the country became the second-largest market in the world by box office receipts. Its overall grosses in 2016 exceeded $6.5 billion and was widely predicted to become the biggest theatrical market by this year. All of this means that American studios, producers, and directors are hesitant to rock the boat of the Chinese entertainment industry, even as they deal with suspect box office numbers, government meddling, and highly insidious treatment of their actors, as seen with the recent disappearance and reappearance of Fan Bingbing.
So what’s Hollywood’s attitude towards this growing problem of censorship and creative stifling in a country whose financial potential has become their saviour of sorts? Well, Deadline took pains to note the ‘potential upside for Hollywood’ in this carnage, as their own films suddenly face a lot less local competition at the box office. Given the way China structures its release schedule, with limited windows for international releases and greater focus given to homegrown films, this is probably true on some cold corporate level.
Hollywood has pumped a lot of money into China and vice versa, but there have been recent alarm bells rung over how effective this relationship has truly been. So much is invested into this new but dominant idea that a lucrative Chinese box office is the only way major American releases can be successful, forcing them to increase their budget to ludicrous levels. However, as we’ve seen with many recent releases, those numbers don’t add up. Toy Story 4, for example, got trounced at the Chinese box office by Spirited Away.
But come on, that’s not really the pressing concern here, is it? This is an issue of government censorship in a market that America has enshrined in untouchable greatness for the sake of record breaking profit. One would hope that major studio heads and producers would see this egregious act of silencing and oppose it, but there’s too much money on the table and as we’ve seen from the past couple of decades of the industry, playing softball with the Chinese government is now par for the course. In 1997, Disney released Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, a drama about the life of the current Dalai Lama. When China’s leaders objected to this, they banned Disney films and pulled various cartoons from TV networks. The next year, Disney began their apology tour to the nation, just in time for the release of Mulan, another Disney film receiving a big-budget live-action remake.
It’s unknown whether any of these recently pulled films will see the light of day. The Eight Hundred has been picked up for release in various international regions, so you may get to see it before its intended audience.
Header Image Source: YouTube // Huayi Brothers