China’s sensitive National Day holiday period is safely past, but it’s difficult to discern from the lineup of upcoming movie releases whether authorities plan to continue their heavy censorship or relax it to give the box office a healthy end-of-year boost.
Some films that censors previously clamped down on are finally seeing the light of day, but another intended to laud the ruling Communist Party has been canceled. Quentin Tarantino’s latest offering has seen its China release put on ice, but other Hollywood blockbusters have been greenlit.
“Better Days,” from Hong Kong director Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang, probably takes the crown for this year’s most embattled title, having been taken down twice by censors. The youth drama about high school bullying featuring popular star Zhou Dongyu and TFBoys pop group idol Jackson Yee finally hits theaters Friday.
The release was announced in a single sentence put out on the Weibo social media platform Tuesday by the film’s makers, who thanked the public for waiting. But hitting theaters at such short notice after announcing a release date is highly unusual, and gives the team little time for pre-sales or promotion.
“Better Days” was yanked at the last minute for “post-production reasons” from its premiere in the Berlin Film Festival’s Generation 14Plus section in February. Its scheduled China release in late June was also canceled just three days before screenings were to start. The team cited its “completion status” and “pre-release estimates” of performance as reasons at the time, but Variety learned that censors had taken issue with scenes of violent bullying.
China currently has no film rating system, and its authorities have in recent years said that they would step up policing content that could have adverse affects on minors.
Tsang declined Friday to discuss the situation. His previous film, 2016’s “Soul Mate,” also starred Zhou in a breakout role that won her and her co-star that year’s Golden Horse Award for best leading actress. It grossed $23.6 million (RMB167 million) in China.
While “Better Days” is now finally getting an outing, the Wanda-backed patriotic war film “Liberation,” which was also supposed to release Friday, has canceled its debut. The last big title among the movies made specifically to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in 1949, it now has no listed release date, and appears to have removed its production credits from the major Chinese ticketing and review platforms. The trailer, however, still lists Wanda, Emperor Motion Pictures, Alibaba, Sunac and Phoenix Legend Films as production companies. The film is directed by Fifth Generation helmer Li Shaohong.
In early October, the Pingyao International Film Festival announced that “Liberation” would be its opening title. But it was pulled days later.
The festival’s co-founder and artistic director, Marco Muller, told Variety that the situation was a “case of market censorship,” rather than political or government censorship. Though the film had already successfully obtained the two government documents needed to screen publicly by the time Pingyao made its announcement, its distributor “was not confident that a slightly unfinished version could be exhibited because of the importance we gave the film,” he said.
“I underestimated the power of the big groups that now control what is going to happen to the film once it is completed,” Muller said.
“I may have made a mistake offering Li Shaohong the opening slot, because it meant it’d be getting a lot of media attention, to the point that they said no, the special effects are not done the way we wanted, and we still have two more weeks to go,” Muller added.
In happier news, the crime thriller “Summer of Changsha,” which debuted in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in May, has been given a Nov. 1 theatrical release date after making two big sex scene-related cuts.
The film came under fire from authorities for screening on the Croisette despite not having the required “dragon seal” of official approval. Its producers told Variety at the time that censors had also taken issue with the religious overtones of the film.
Its director, actor-turned-helmer Zu Feng, and creative team were forced to skip its Cannes debut, while producers feared that those involved in the project would receive bans from working in the industry. Speaking at Pingyao, Zu said: “We have no choice but to respect these things when they come up. Of course you’ll feel regrets.”
Meanwhile, Roland Emmerich’s upcoming World War II blockbuster “Midway” has been green-lit to hit Chinese theaters day-and-date with its U.S. Nov. 8 release. The development will be welcomed by Chinese investors Bona Film Group, who recently received the bad news that Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which it also backed, would not be released as scheduled Friday. The film’s fate in China remains in limbo after Beijing ordered further cuts, reportedly due to a complaint it received from Bruce Lee’s daughter over the martial artist’s depiction.