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How Feng Xiaogang’s “Youth” Navigated Censorship and Delays to Find a Global Audience

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Feng Xiaogang’s film Youth 《芳华》 was one of China’s top 10 highest grossing films of 2017. Yet just days before its planned release, the film was pulled from cinema schedules. Some commentators cried censorship, others suspected a hype-inducing PR move. But what really happened? Following the film’s release on DVD and Blu-Ray last month, this is the story of Youth’s perplexing removal and its eventual release, which led to unexpected box office success internationally.

Youth is a coming-of-age story of new recruits in Cultural Troupes of the People’s Liberation Army set against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution. When the Sino-Vietnamese War hits, adolescent in-fighting is replaced with bloody violence and the traumatic effects of emotional and physical warfare haunt the film’s young protagonists.

The movie divided critics, some panning it as a vacuous love letter to a cushy adolescence, others praising it as an accessible, gritty depiction of war. But Youth was almost never released at all.

Following its world premiere in early September last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, Youth’s Chinese distributor Huayi Brothers and American distributor China Lion advertised a public release for the end of that same month. But just days before opening, the film unexpectedly lost its release date.

The Weibo account for Feng’s production company stated that, “after consultation with the Film Bureau and related parties, we agree to accept the suggestion to change the screening schedule.”

Feng posted from his personal account later that day, saying, “My mood is somewhat solemn […] Some people have said our delisting is hype […] I’d like to say that this is not true”.

Some commentators quickly reported that Feng had been forced to change dates by the Chinese censorship body. But what in the content of the film could have caused this?

The Global Times speculated that touching “sensitive topics like the Vietnam War and [containing] scenes of blood and violence” may have contributed to the film’s problems. However, as retired journalism and communications Professor Zhan Jiang noted in the New York Times, “there shouldn’t be any major problems as it had already passed censorship”.

Youth is based on the real-life experiences of director Feng and screenwriter Yan Geling – a renowned novelist who’s seen many of her literary works adapted for the screen. Feng has stated he wished to “amplify the favourable impression of the Cultural Troupe” with his film and has spoken fondly of his experiences serving as a young adult which “satisfied all my wishes at that time”. It seems unlikely, then, that the story caused the film’s delay.

If the censors had forced director Feng’s hand, could the reason have been personal? In 2013, director Feng called some requirements of the censors “ridiculous”. However, Feng has always been careful to operate within the red-lined boundaries and had successfully released a film as recently as 2016 in the shape of the Fan Bingbing-fronted I Am Not Madame Bovary.

Seeking to explain why an apparently inoffensive film by a fairly careful filmmaker might be denied a cinematic run in its home country, speculation turned to the context of the release. The National Congress of the Communist Party of China – a political event staged every five years – was scheduled for that October. Given that veterans of the Sino-Vietnamese War, a group featured in Youth, have previously protested the Congress, it’s thought that officials simply did not wish to risk agitating sentiment, thus delayed the release of the film.

“The fear of protest before the Congress may well be the biggest concern,” Professor Stanley Rosen wrote in Deadline. “It is highly likely that this decision would have come from someone very high up […] since it had already been approved”. It seems most likely, contrary to the alarmist representation of China’s film censors that some Western media carried, that neither the content nor the creator were at fault, but simply that the sensitive subject matter and time of year were thought to be ill-fitting.

Youth was eventually released on 15 December; that the film was allowed into cinemas at all adds to the argument that only the release date was troublesome. The version screened at Toronto was 10 minutes longer than the publically released cut; while conspiracy theorists might point to this as evidence of censorship, director Feng has clarified this was a creative decision to “sharpen the film’s rhythm”, reducing the already long film down to a still considerable 2 hours 16 minutes.

Between the perplexing removal of the film in September and the eventual release in December, the interests of audience and film industry professionals alike was piqued: Youth gained a UK distributor, Cine Asia, who released the film on 15 December alongside China Lion in the USA and Huayi Brothers in China.

At the Chinese box office, Youth scored $224.5m USD — significantly more than I Am Not Madame Bovary, which managed just $70m despite starring China’s most popular actress. China Lion also found success in the States, raking in $1.8m — another strong outing, particularly considering the disruption audiences faced owing to the cancelled September ticketing.

The film also saw remarkable success in the UK. For a film of its kind in the smaller UK market and considering the short time available to publicise the film before it hit screens there, the eventual five week run and box office take of £60,000 GBP ($81,000 USD), having opened on 12 screens in the most popular mainstream cinema chains — Odeon and Vue — is a testament to the attention that had gathered in the wake of the rearrangement. This demonstration of interest by UK audiences led Cine Asia to be the first to release Youth on Blu-Ray, DVD and digital download platforms in May, and to tour the film around the UK.

Though we can only speculate as to why Youth was initially removed, its “rebirth” provides several interesting insights into China’s film industry.

Firstly, if the removal was an attempt to avoid dwelling on the Cultural Revolution, then this had the opposite effect. The film not only recapped the emotionally-charged memories of an older generation of Chinese, it also introduced their grandchildren to events which they might otherwise have had been disinterested in.

Secondly, puzzlement and swirling censorship rumors can be just as appealing as a well-made trailer or marketing stunt. Undoubtedly, removing the film from the release schedule increased domestic and international interest, which rocketed the box office beyond expectations when Youth was eventually released.

Thirdly, Chinese filmmakers who want to explore their country’s past or deliberate its future may have to keep considerations in mind which do not bear down upon filmmakers in other markets. From unsavoury topics to simple bad timing, such as in the case of Youth, the film environment in China remains a tightly regulated market.

Feng Xiaogang

But ultimately, there is a fourth significant insight that Youth’s travails provide. The unexpectedly large interest from audiences in China and the two largest Western territories (the UK and USA), not to mention a slew of awards across the globe, demonstrates that good filmmaking from China has the potential to be appreciated anywhere in the world.

Full disclosure: Matthew Hurst works for Cine Asia, who distributed Youth in the UK.

Photos courtesy of Trinity Film.

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Matthew Hurst
    Matthew Hurst manages distribution projects for Cine Asia, bringing blockbusters such as Wolf Warrior II, Detective Chinatown 2, Youth, and many other titles to UK cinema audiences. Based in London, his extensive film industry experience also includes helping deliver Chinese Visual Festival, Queer Asia Film Festival, the Oscars European party and more. He studied Mandarin at SOAS University of London and holds an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from the University of Manchester.

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