Guests at China’s flagship film festival this week were surprised to find its opening film had been pulled at the last minute and replaced with a screening of Midnight Cowboy, highlighting the film industry’s growing difficulties with Beijing’s draconian censors.
The film’s social media account on Weibo cited “technical reasons” for the decision, but the phrase is often used as a euphemism for censorship and two people briefed on the matter say Beijing objected to the film’s heroic portrayal of the Kuomintang (KMT) — the nationalists who lost a bitter civil war with the Communist party.
The 800 tells a tale about Chinese soldiers and volunteers battling Japanese invaders in Shanghai in 1937 and the plot centers around the KMT, who fought the bulk of China’s war against Japan.
The film would have been seen as a particular risk to the Communist party this year because it is celebrating its 70th anniversary in October of its victory in the civil war, in which KMT forces were vanquished to Taiwan. Censors have been out in force across China’s media this year as the country navigates a number of sensitive anniversaries including the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacres.
“It’s a shot across the bow from the regulators,” said a Chinese film producer who asked not to be named. “The film industry cannot be run like this,” said Chinese director Jia Zhangke in a social media post following the cancellation.
The $80m film’s withdrawal at the weekend has cast a shadow over China’s highest profile film festival, which in the past has attracted celebrities such as Hollywood actors Nicolas Cage and Bradley Cooper, at a time when domestic filmmakers are suffering from a funding crunch.
It follows the withdrawal of Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s film One Second, set in the bloody decade of the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong in 1966, that was also pulled at the last minute from the Berlin Film Festival in February for what organisers also said were “technical reasons”.
China’s top film regulator was merged with the ruling Communist party’s propaganda department last year, a move that several film industry executives said had resulted in a tightening of China’s already restrictive film censorship.
“Military topics have become more sensitive,” said Zhang Xianmin, an independent film producer, adding that larger-budget films are receiving greater scrutiny. “They are grabbing the big, and letting go of the small.”
The China Red Culture Research Association, a group of retired military officials and writers associated with state-run media, held a meeting last week to criticise The 800.
The film “uses fragments of history to cover up the essence of history. It has seriously violated the historical facts of the Nationalist Party’s [or KMT’s] resistance”, according to a report of the meeting published on Red Songs Net, a website associated with elderly cadres.
“Comrades at the meeting agreed that it is very inappropriate to use The 800 as a tribute to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China,” it added.
Another casualty of the crackdown is a proposed sequel to China’s all-time top-grossing domestic film, Wolf Warrior 2, about a Chinese mercenary whose advertising tagline was “whoever offends China will be hunted down wherever they are”.
In addition to military topics, government officials are worried by content that could be perceived as excessively patriotic, which could unnerve foreign audiences and damage China’s reputation abroad, according to three industry executives. A sequel, Wolf Warrior 3, was announced in 2017 but cancelled by officials according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter. “The government doesn’t want films which make China appear aggressive,” the person said.
The 800’s reported budget is large for a Chinese film, making its success crucial to the Huayi Brothers, one of China’s largest film studios. Huayi reported a loss of more than Rmb1bn ($145m) last year, and its shares fell 10 per cent on news of the cancellation.
It is one of many film companies in China that have suffered from the combination of a Beijing crackdown on tax evasion launched last year and a drive to shrink the vast shadow banking sector that has been a major source of film financing in the past.
“There is a serious decline in the number of films being approved this year, and capital markets have mostly abandoned us,” said Wang Changtian, a prominent Chinese film producer, on the sidelines of the festival.
The decline in production is hitting box-office receipts. Chinese cinemas took in $3.6bn from this January to June, down 11 per cent compared to the same period last year, according to ticketing company Maoyan, the first such decline since 2011.
Chinese filmmakers have also been required to gain permission from Beijing to screen films at overseas festivals since 2017, when a law regulating the industry was passed, cutting off an key avenue for filmmakers to find audiences for controversial works.