China's Censors Pull Revered Director's Film Days Before Release, Outraging Industry

Feng Xiaogang

Marketing efforts and ticket presales for Feng Xiaogang's 'Youth' were already well advanced when authorities suddenly blocked its release, offering no explanation.

Youth, the 17th film from renowned Chinese filmmaker Feng Xiaogang, had been billed as a possible commercial and critical return to form. But a sudden heavy-handed censorship decision may have just laid such hope to waste.

A sweeping period drama set during the upheavals of 1970s China, the film was well received at its world premiere during the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, with critics praising its balance between Feng's auteurist and crowd-pleasing impulses — traits that once earned him the nickname of "China's Spielberg." Commercial prospects for Beijing studio Huayi Brothers, the film's lead producer (which could use a hit), were also thought to be strong, as the film was set to open Sept. 29, just prior to a lengthy national holiday period in China.

But any well-laid comeback plans were thrown into turmoil Sunday, when word emerged that China's censors had ordered the film pulled from release. The sudden, unexplained decision sparked a wave of soul-searching, anger and derision across Chinese social media, with fans and film professionals alike lamenting that such tactics are still a feature of their industry, which now constitutes the world's second-largest movie market.

"I'm so angry about this unheard of disrespect for a great director," said one staffer from a leading local studio on WeChat.

"This is a backwards move for our social development," added a prominent indie producer.

China's media regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, offered no explanation for the decision, but local media were quick to speculate about what parts of the film might have rankled regulators.

Youth chronicles the fates of a group of idealistic young people who join a People's Liberation Army dance troupe at the end of the Cultural Revolution, and it follows their lives through China's military conflict with Vietnam up until the 1990s. Many observers guessed that the glancing treatment of the Cultural Revolution or Vietnamese conflict — despite the movie's mostly nationalistic tone — could be the culprits, as both episodes are among the many that Beijing regards as politically sensitive. 

A looming, high-stakes political event — the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, kicking off Oct. 18 — also is thought to have played a part. This highly symbolic occasion, during which the Chinese Communist Party unveils leadership changes and new policy priorities, occurs once every five years and tends to provoke a society-wide clampdown on free expression and anything that could be perceived as dissent or a threat to stability. 

By the end of Sunday, most local media coverage of Youth's plight was itself scrubbed from the Internet by Beijing's censors. 

Feng's production company issued a statement the same day confirming that the movie would be postponed because of "discussions with the Film Bureau (a division within SAPPRFT) and other relevant parties."

"After negotiating with the Film Bureau, we intend to accept the suggestions from every party and to change the release date," the statement added, suggesting that cuts or edits could be made to the film.

Huayi Brothers' president Wang Zhonglei also apologized to fans, saying on Weibo: "To all cinema and media industry friends, our promotional team, and most importantly the audience, I'm very sorry that Youth won't be released during the National Day holiday."

Many industry figures were especially angered by the last-minute nature of the block. "Everyone hates this kind of last-minute pull-out," a cinema chain manager in Beijing told THR. "We have already presold so many tickets and lots of money was wasted on marketing — it's extremely damaging."

Beijing authorities have been known to make abrupt and unexplained changes to censorship decisions in the past. In 2013, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained was pulled from cinemas just minutes before its local wide release, with officials citing vague "technical reasons." Three minutes of cuts were made to the movie and it eventually opened several weeks later. But by then, many moviegoers already had turned to illegal piracy to watch the uncensored version, and the film opened theatrically with a flop.

One of China's most consistent hit-makers over the past 20 years, Feng got his start in commercial comedies before branching out into disaster films, dramas and socially conscious art house projects. Aftershock, his 2010 film about China's 1976 Tangshan earthquake, set a then all-time box-office record for a Chinese title, earning $101 million. His 2016 black satire about bureaucratic ineptitude, I Am Not Madame Bovary, faltered at the box office but picked up several international honors, including best film at the Asian Film Awards.