Beijing Film Festival Drops 'Call Me by Your Name' As China Tightens Grip on Media

Call Me By Your Name Still 6 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

No explanation was given for the sudden removal of the Oscar-winning film from the event's lineup, but industry insiders point to the government's consistent stance of intolerance toward gay content.

Luca Guadagnino’s Oscar-winning gay romance Call Me by Your Name has been dropped from the Beijing International Film Festival's official program, a source at the government-backed event told The Hollywood Reporter on Monday.

"It was on our original lineup, but it has since been removed," said a festival employee who asked not to be named because of the issue's sensitivity. 

When asked for the reason for the change, the source added: "The Beijing festival has always followed the guidelines of those at the top."

The decision comes amid a marked tightening of control by the Chinese Communist Party across all areas of government, including regulation of media and entertainment content. Last week, Beijing revealed that oversight of the film and TV industries will soon fall under the direct purview of the party’s Department of Propaganda — a shakeup that local industry players interpreted as an ominous sign for their country's already steeply curtailed freedoms of expression.

Reuters was the first to report the news of Call Me by Your Name's removal, citing a source at the film's distributor, Sony Pictures Entertainment. 

The programming change comes just three weeks before the Beijing Film Festival is due to open April 15. Established in 2011 by the Beijing municipal government, the event has always been a stodgy, state-run affair. But organizers also strove to pad out at least a portion of the programming with the usual sort of edgy art house fare that film festival-goers expect.

According to to the original festival lineup, unveiled March 16, Call Me by Your Name was set to screen in a small section dedicated to festival highlights from the preceding year. Still showing in the sidebar are Berlin Silver Bear for best director winner The Other Side of Hope, by Aki Kaurismaki, and Ruben Ostlund's The Square, winner of the 2017 Palme d'Or in Cannes. 

Homosexuality is not illegal in China, and the country's largest cities boast vibrant gay scenes. But Beijing's official stance toward depictions of homosexuality in the media is repressive, if inconsistently enforced. Gay-themed content has been officially banned from television in the country for years, and a controversial set of guidelines introduced last year barred gay stories from streaming services. The widely discussed "gay moment" in Disney's live-action Beauty and the Beast was allowed to run uncensored in Chinese cinemas last year, but no film featuring an openly gay protagonist has ever been granted a release (Brokeback Mountain was blocked out back in 2006, despite Ang Lee's star status in the country).  

"We can never watch gay-themed movies on the screen in China, no matter how excellent they are," Yanzi Peng, founder of LGBT Rights Advocacy of China, told THR on Monday. "It's so disappointing that art is not independent from the censorship. Screening Call Me by Your Name would be very important here — its touching, beautiful story can inspire empathy in anyone. Whether straight or not. The movie shows that love is universal."

Set in Northern Italy in 1983, Call Me by Your Name chronicles the romantic relationship between Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet), a 17-year-old living in Italy, and his father's 24-year-old American assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer). Written by James Ivory, the film won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay at the Academy Awards this month.

A popular draw for Hollywood power players looking to cultivate business in the burgeoning Chinese industry, past editions of the Beijing International Film Festival have drawn attendance from Natalie Portman, James Cameron, Luc Besson, Darren Aronofsky, Kathleen Kennedy, Jim Gianopulos and others.

The biggest VIP attendees expected so far this year are the filmmakers on the official competition jury: Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai, Rob Cohen, director of The Fast and the Furious, and Swedish filmmaker Ostlund. Additional Hollywood and foreign guests are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.