Top Chinese Director Zhang Yimou Withdraws Film From Berlin Festival

2019-02-13
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Chinese director Zhang Yimou attends a photocall for the film "Ying" (Shadow) during the 75th Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Sept. 6, 2018.
Chinese director Zhang Yimou attends a photocall for the film "Ying" (Shadow) during the 75th Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Sept. 6, 2018.
AFP

Acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou has withdrawn his entry to the Berlin International Film Festival, amid an ever-tightening climate of censorship under the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.

Zhang's latest movie, "One Second," was originally scheduled for screening on Friday, according to an announcement on the festival's official website.

"Due to technical difficulties encountered during post-production, Yi miao zhong (One Second) by Zhang Yimou unfortunately cannot be presented on Feb. 15," the announcement said.

However, the movie's Sina Weibo account announced on Feb. 1 that it would be shown in China, the Global Times newspaper, sister paper to Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, reported.

"Many Chinese netizens were disappointed with its removal, but looking forward to its release in China," the paper said.

A Chinese director surnamed He said he wasn't surprised that "One Second" had been withdrawn.

"They were probably put under official pressure," He said. "Only movies that get the Dragon seal of approval are allowed to be shown at international film festivals, which means movies that have been approved by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT)."

"I heard that the SARFT to withdrew the Dragon seal after issuing it, after issuing a permit for public screening, because it is about the Cultural Revolution," he said.

"They don't care how famous you are," He said. "You can have directed the Olympics opening ceremony [as Zhang did in 2008), but the moment you touch on something sensitive, they'll crush you just the same."

The film is set during the political turmoil and violence of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and tells the story of a movie fan and his relationship with a homeless young woman who steals a reel of film from a public screening that holds particular significance for him.

Harking back to the visual language of Yellow Earth, on which Zhang was director of photography, the movie draws self-consciously on Zhang's experiences of being sent to an impoverished part of rural China as a young man during the Cultural Revolution.

Censorship suspected

"He is familiar with the life and traditions in the country’s remote areas, and with the enthusiasm that rural dwellers have for cinema, which comes as welcome respite from everyday life," according to the film's introductory page on the Berlinale website.

"The filmmaker pays homage to his medium and celebrates the cinema as a communal experience which goes beyond the film itself."

Beijing-based artist and poet Wang Zang said Chinese censorship is the most likely reason behind the film's sudden disappearance from public view, but that it could be the result of self-censorship.

"This definitely has to do with censorship," Wang said. "Independent directors have been fined in the past, and forbidden from making films again if they screen without official permission. They have also lost access to the mainland market."

"Zhang Yimou is at liberty to enter his film in competitions, but he decides whether or not to do that based on his own interests," he said. "But this shows that Chinese censorship is much tougher than in the past."

Overseas-based writer Bei Ling said the party's propaganda ministry is unlikely to have made a direct censorship order on its own initiative.

"It is more likely to have come from the level of the Politburo, or even from within the Politburo standing committee," Bei said.

"It's significant that the Berlin Film Festival is screening one of Zhang's earlier films -- Hero -- instead, which is very complimentary about China as a country."

"One Second" is the second Chinese-language film to be pulled from the Berlin festival this month.

"Better Days," a film by Hong Kong director Derek Tsang about disaffected youth and a mysterious death, was also withdrawn after "problems with post-production."

But sources told Variety that the film -- which, as a joint production, came under Chinese jurisdiction -- had failed to get the necessary permits from Beijing.

Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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