Chinese movie fans say censors are tightening their grip as The Hidden Sword falls off release schedule

Phoebe Zhang

Chinese martial arts film The Hidden Sword has become the fourth movie to be cancelled this summer after its cinema release on Friday was pulled for “market reasons”, the movie's official Weibo account said.

The Hidden Sword was written and directed by Xu Haofeng and tells the story of an officer who led Chinese soldiers, armed only with swords, to victory over Japanese attackers on the Great Wall in the 1930s and the fate of the martial arts legacy he created.

The movie was completed in 2017 and received the “dragon seal” from China's official film censors, approving its theatrical release. Since then, the question of its cinema release date has dogged the production and become a hot topic with film fans.

Some of those fans speculated that The Hidden Sword has become a hostage of delaying tactics by the censors as China marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1.

Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang’s “Better Days” was pulled from a festival in Berlin in February and missed a June cinema release date. Photo: Handout

“Issues with the transmission medium, technical issues, market issues – these are the three mountains,” one internet user said on Weibo. This is coded language typically used by the film industry to cover government censorship notices.

In May, Tencent Video – the official streaming service for the HBO epic Game of Thrones in China delayed airing the season finale because of “issues with [the] transmission medium”. Many fans suspected violent content was the reason for the delay and the episode is yet to be shown.

“It’s a sensitive time,” Yik Chan Chin, a media and communications lecturer at Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool university, said. “China-US relations aren’t good, and elections are going on in Taiwan as well. Domestic policies in China change as the times change.”

Chinese film censors cancel two domestic movies, giving Hong Kong releases a boost

Chin acknowledged that in China censorship tightened during significant occasions and that the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic was one of those.

Censorship of films has always existed, she said, there was only a question of degree.

Word about The Hidden Sword followed last month’s cancellation of The Eight Hundred, a World War II epic touted as China's Dunkirk.

Based on a chapter in the 1937 Battle of Shanghai, the movie is about 400 Chinese Nationalist soldiers who defended the city’s Sihang Warehouse against an invading Japanese army in October and November that year.

The release of Tian Yusheng’s road movie “The Last Wish” was delayed this week. Photo: Handout

It was pulled from its world premiere at the 22nd Shanghai International Film Festival on June 15 on short notice because of “technical reasons” and its July 5 theatrical release was cancelled.

This month, Global Times reported that director Tian Yusheng’s The Last Wish, the story of a terminally ill teenager and his two best friends, would not be released on July 18 as planned.

Director Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang’s Better Days was dropped from the Berlin Film Festival roster in February and has not seen the light of day in Chinese cinemas. A June 27 release date came and went.

Chinese censorship is stifling country’s film industry

Chin said that while she was not familiar with the reasons behind The Hidden Sword cancellation, she thought The Eight Hundred was pulled by censors.

“It's hurtful to the industry, but at the same time the organisers [of the Shanghai film festival] did not anticipate this well enough to avoid harm,” she said.

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