One of the things that made Feng Xiaogang so successful in China was that unlike other filmmakers of his generation – such as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou – he rarely waded into politics.
Feng first struck gold in 1997 with a comedy called Dream Factory. The film went on to be a big hit during the Lunar New Year holiday, becoming the country’s first hesuipian (a term for ‘New Year comedies’) and took in $5 million, about six times what it cost to make.
Since then, he has enjoyed tremendous box office success by striking a fine balance between popular comedy and social satires (such as Personal Tailor, which released in 2013). He has also treated more serious topics like the story of the Tangshan earthquake in 1976 in Aftershock (giving it a contemporary angle, as he linked it to the equally deadly Sichuan earthquake of 2008). But in that film Feng never once mentioned any of the corruption that led to the construction of substandard schools in Sichuan and which worsened the death toll.
Is Feng now taking a new approach? Call it a mid-life crisis, but those familiar with the filmmaker say that he has changed. “Feng has become more obstinate. Judging from the interviews he gave recently, he admits that for the first decade in his career, he was merely going with the flow. But for the last 10 years, he has been swimming against the tide. To put it simply, his motivation is no longer to make money,” says Yule Ziben Lun, an entertainment industry blog.
Even Feng confesses that he isn’t content with being the country’s most commercially successful director. During an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, the filmmaker told reporters: “Unlike most other directors – who tend to go from artistic to commercial – I am moving from mainstream to more artistic.”
His last feature I Am Not Madame Bovary (2016) was an attempt at changing his style. It’s a contemporary tale of a peasant woman who feels wronged by the justice system, and who attempts to appeal through the lower courts, then city mayors and finally in Beijing itself. However, the country’s censors were not too keen on the satire, which cast a critical eye on the nation’s bureaucracy. The film was sent back to the edit suite for revisions. As a result, it was pushed back from the lucrative National Day holiday period last year to a mid-November release, with disappointing box office results.
History looks to be repeating itself. Feng’s widely anticipated new film Youth was scheduled to premiere today, just ahead of this October’s National Holiday period (along with the Lunar New Year it is one of China’s busiest cinema-going seasons – hence why it’s termed ‘Golden Week’ in the industry).
Given the director’s track record, Youth was being marketed as the biggest box office event of the holiday. Adapted from a novel written by Yan Geling (who was also the scriptwriter for the film), the story is a coming-of-age drama about a group of young people that join a military dance troupe during the Cultural Revolution and Sino-Vietnamese War. At the centre of the story is He Xiaoping, a talented dancer from Beijing whose father was condemned as an enemy of the state and sent to a labour camp. Due to her social status, she becomes a scapegoat and laughing stock among her peers (who included actress Yang Caiyu). But soon, the war turns all their lives upside down.
For Feng, the making of Youth was both a cinematic and personal challenge. Even though the film seemingly has less commercial appeal than his past outings, the director told Tencent Entertainment that it is a story he has been wanting to tell for more than 40 years. Feng, who served in the army as a young man, says the movie is a tribute to all the veterans who gave up their dreams for the country.
“Yan Geling and I were both from the same era: we were both soldiers. She was in dance and I was in the art troupe. Even after four decades, all the beautiful memories are still in my heart and I really wanted to bring them to the screen so that everyone can see how we have experienced the change of time and even survived a war,” Feng told reporters before a screening.
But just days before the premiere, the censors yanked the film from the Golden Week schedule, without offering an explanation. In a brief statement online on Sunday, Feng’s production house simply stated that the release date would be postponed as a result of “discussions with the film administration bureau and other relevant parties”.
How long it will be delayed is uncertain: “The new release date will be made public later on.”
In a sign that even Feng was perplexed by the move, the director broke down in tears during a pre-screening in Shanghai on Sunday, right after it was announced that the nationwide release had been postponed indefinitely.
“This meeting today will certainly be the most memorable for me. Due to reasons that leave me no choice, the roadshow for Youth can only go this far. So this is the last time Youth will meet the audiences,” Feng said, choking up. “We have to say farewell to everyone before it even started, and I feel helpless.”
Before Youth was pulled from the schedule, a total of 14 new films were set for release at cinemas between September 28 and October 1, including the PLA-backed military action film Sky Hunter (see WiC380) as well as the Jackie Chan led and Sino-US co-produced thriller The Foreigner, that also stars Pierce Brosnan.
Feng later shot down speculation that his distributors were worried about the field being too competitive and had thus delayed the film’s release. “There is a lot of online rumour that Youth was withdrawn from screening because pre-sale tickets were bad and some people say we are afraid of the competition…. Faced with all these rumours I have remained silent. But I am standing here at this moment to say that I am truly helpless because these speculations are not true,” the director told reporters.
Indeed, pulling the film during the holiday period makes little commercial sense because Youth had already presold 40,000 shows around the country. Analysts reckon that the postponement will cost the producers Rmb20 million ($3 million) in compensation and other economic losses.
Industry insiders say the film is more likely a casualty of the upcoming Party Congress (see this week’s And Finally for another casualty). The highly symbolic political event, which takes place once every five years (for more see WiC380), is a sensitive period during which authorities avoid controversy.
“It is highly likely that this decision would have come from someone very high up in the political chain of command since it had already been approved by the censorship system, which suggests that it was a decision made by a political leader and not by the film authorities,” Professor Stanley Rosen, who specialises in Chinese politics and society, told Deadline.
Others have surmised that the film touches on sensitive subject matter – namely, the Sino-Vietnamese war, a subject rarely mentioned in films and TV dramas. For many veterans, the memory of the 1979 offensive is painful as the PLA’s incursion into north Vietnam did not go as planned, with the army suffering heavy losses (casualty figures are disputed by both sides).
“It’s probably something to do with the war,” one commentator wrote on WeChat. “It’s not in keeping with the gentle warmth of this harmonious society.”
Still, some critics were surprised that the film received the green light in the first place. After all, the Cultural Revolution also remains a relatively taboo subject in China. One reviewer at Variety who saw the film at the Toronto Film Festival called Feng’s portrayal of the event “heartbreaking” and said that his “examination of the period… will appear as critical of government”.
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