China Censorship Crackdown Forces Shanghai Film Festival to Cancel Opening Screening

The Eight Hundred Still 2 - H 2019
Huayi Brothers Media

The official explanation for the shocking last-minute change was "technical reasons," but industry insiders say the scheduled festival opener, Huayi Brothers' $80 million war epic 'The Eight Hundred,' received sudden censorship complaints from Beijing.

The 22nd Shanghai International Film Festival, one of China's most esteemed cultural events, has canceled its opening screening of WWII epic The Eight Hundred, directed by Guan Hu and produced by leading Chinese film studio Huayi Brothers Media Group.

The decision began circulating among the assembled international film community in Shanghai on Friday, just one day before the hotly anticipated film was scheduled to make its world premiere at the government-endorsed event's opening ceremony. 

Sources close to the festival confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter that The Eight Hundred had withdrawn from the event. The official reason given to the festival by state regulators was that the film had to pulled for "technical reasons." No elaboration was offered. 

Talk within Chinese industry circles in Shanghai immediately turned to speculation that the film had run into censorship issues at Beijing's Central Propaganda Authority. Still, the last-minute nature of the cancelation was highly unusual, and the episode has cast an ominous and depressive mood over the festival's opening.

The screening of the festival's second opening film, Chinese drama Beautiful Voyage, is expected to go ahead as planned. Festival organizers announced late Friday on social media that a restored 4K version of Hollywood classic Midnight Cowboy would play in The Eight Hundred's place on Saturday.

Although the details and exact rationale remain unclear, the order to suspend The Eight Hundred's screening represents yet another uptick in the Chinese government's increasingly repressive handling of popular entertainment and culture.

The Shanghai imbroglio mirrors the shocking censorship of Zhang Yimou's latest film at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

The celebrated filmmaker had been set to premiere his latest passion project, the period drama One Second, in Berlin's main competition, where he previously won the Golden Bear at the start of his career. The early buzz surrounding One Second suggested that the work was a return to form for Zhang — some who had seen it in Beijing even referred to the film as a masterpiece and a lock for major awards — but the film was abruptly ordered withdrawn from the festival just days before its premiere.

Authorities again cited "technical reasons," but sources close to the filmmaker said the film's setting during China's politically sensitive Cultural Revolution era were to blame. The project has been mired in government ordered recuts ever since, and no plans for a release have been announced (for a deeper look at what may become of Zhang's unseen potential masterpiece, see here).  

Hopes were similarly sky-high among Chinese film fans and industry players for The Eight Hundred ahead of its planned Shanghai debut. Many within the industry were even hoping the film might do for the war movie in China what local blockbuster The Wandering Earth ($780 million) did for the sci-fi genre earlier this year — set a new standard for production quality while bringing a burst of energy to the local box office. The film had been scheduled for a major nationwide release on July 5 — but its fate now appears in limbo. 

A spokesperson for Huayi Brothers declined to comment on the situation on Friday. 

The first Chinese film shot entirely on Imax cameras, The Eight Hundred had a production budget in excess of $80 million — which sits at the very upper end in China, where the industry remains non-unionized and production costs run much lower than in Hollywood. Among the select Beijing industry insiders who had seen early cuts of the film, it had already won admiring descriptions as "China's answer to Dunkirk."

Production of The Eight Hundred was underway before the release of Christopher Nolan's impressionistic WWII film, but the Huayi Brothers project is understood to indeed bear some similarities to Dunkirk — both in its realistic approach to action and because its story focuses on a heroic sacrifice and retreat rather than a decisive victory.

The film is based on a pivotal battle in 1937 during the Sino-Japanese war: the historic siege and defense of the Si Hang Warehouse in Shanghai. The brutal encounter marked the last stand of the Chinese forces in the Battle of Shanghai and ended with the Japanese occupation of China's most cosmopolitan city. About 400 fighters, an unlikely mix of soldiers, deserters and civilians who, as the story turned to legend, became known as the “Eight Hundred Heroes," held out against waves of Japanese forces for four days and four nights in order to cover for China's principal forces, which retreated west to protect the country's heartland during the next phase of battle.

The film features a large ensemble cast, including Ou Hao, Wang Qianyuan, Jiang Wu, Zhang Yi, Du Chun, Wei Chen, Tang Yixin, Li Chen, Liang Jing, Ethan Ruan, Liu Xiaoqing, Yao Chen, Zheng Kai and Huang Xiaoming. 

Some within the Chinese industry were speculating Friday that The Eight Hundred may have run into trouble precisely because it highlights a WWII episode in which the Chinese lost to Imperial Japanese forces rather than triumphed. 

China has been undergoing considerable political and cultural tightening over the past year under President Xi Jinping, the most authoritative and repressive Chinese leader since Mao. The Communist Party’s Propaganda department took control of regulating the entertainment industry last year in a structural shake-up that many observers viewed as a potentially ominous harbinger for the status of freedom of expression in the country. Those fears are beginning to be borne out in the film business in 2019.