The Shanghai International Film Festival has made an abrupt and surprising change to its program, pulling Huayi Brothers’ big-budget Chinese war drama The Eight Hundred from its lineup on the eve of the event’s kick-off. The $80M epic was due to open the proceedings tomorrow and has been expected to be the 800 lb gorilla at the Middle Kingdom summer box office. Officially, the festival says the reason for the last-minute cancellation is “technical problems,” although there is speculation surrounding censorship concerns, and whether the film maintains a July 5 release date. A source on the ground in China says the atmosphere at the festival is “intense.”
China has nixed screenings of its films at high profile festivals before, recently pulling Zhang Yimou’s One Second from Berlin. It has also cancelled the bows of foreign titles at local fests, but yanking one of its own movies from such a key local red carpet is unusual and comes at a time of stricter controls on content.
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Somewhat perplexingly, The Eight Hundred on the face of it appears to be the sort of patriotic movie that the government likes and which tends to score with audiences (think Wolf Warrior 2, The Wandering Earth). Directed by Hu Guan, it’s set during the 1937 Battle of Shanghai when a group of Chinese soldiers fought to defend the Sihang warehouse as waves of Japanese forces advanced.
The film has sold well with CMC set to distribute in North America. It is unclear as yet if the July 5 China release date will hold — if it does not, that would be a blow to the box office in what is typically a blackout month reserved for local pics. The summer season is currently in a state of flux, however, as I outlined yesterday (here).
While there’s been industry-wide hand-wringing over new censorship rules, they are primarily designed for Chinese films, TV and other entertainment. President Xi Jinping has spoken about the need to tighten ideological control domestically so that everyone is on the same page of the “core socialist values” — and particularly ahead of October 1’s 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.
Yet, gritty films like Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake and Black Coal, Thin Ice, which show the downside of things in China, still get approved by the Central Propaganda Department and make it to Berlin and Cannes. However, as USC professor and China expert Stanley Rosen recently told me, “Censorship can be unpredictable for films on the margins, but all it takes is for one senior official — as in the case of Zhang Yimou’s One Second — to veto a release.”