South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” this year’s Palme d’Or winner, was canceled from screening Sunday as the closing film for China’s FIRST Film Festival for “technical reasons,” making it the fifth festival film to run into trouble with Chinese censors this year.
“Parasite” is a violent, dark comedy about class conflict and greed that tells the story of a destitute family’s growing involvement with a very wealthy one. The first title from South Korea to nab the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, it had been scheduled as the closing film for the 10-day festival in Xining, Qinghai province, which seeks to support new talent by focusing on Chinese directors’ first and second films.
Festival organizers put out a statement on their official social media account the night before, saying: “The closing screening of ‘Parasite’ originally scheduled for July 28 has been canceled for technical reasons.” They offered their “sincere apologies for the inconvenience” without providing further details.
China has had tense diplomatic relations with South Korea for the past couple of years, since the Korean government agreed to the installation of a U.S.-owned anti-missile system. That was followed by a de facto ban on the import of Korean film and TV shows. No Korean films have had a theatrical release in China for two years, and most Chinese film festivals have avoided selecting Korean titles.
The phrase “technical reasons” has become a widely recognized euphemism for censorship problems, particularly over the last six months. The spate of recent last-minute cancellations began at the Berlin Film Festival in February, where China yanked Zhang Yimou’s hotly anticipated Cultural Revolution-era film, “One Second,” and Hong Kong director Derek Tsang’s youth drama, “Better Days.”
At Cannes in May, the team behind the art-house title “Summer of Changsha” ran into trouble for screening the film in the Un Certain Regard selection without the necessary “dragon seal” of government approval. In June, Huayi Brothers’ patriotic war epic “The Eight Hundred” was pulled from its premiere as the opening film of the Shanghai International Film Festival. Its nationwide theatrical release was also cancelled.
A rash of other Chinese films have also been pulled from the summer box office lineup, including comedy “The Last Wish” and martial arts flick “The Hidden Sword.” As Chinese censors kick into overdrive to pave the way for October’s 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, even a distasteful adjective used in a film title has become grounds for moving it to another, less sensitive time.
Chinese audiences are getting fed up.
“If you could solve this ‘technical problem,’ you’ll get a Nobel Prize,” quipped one commenter on the Twitter-like Weibo platform, while another griped: “By 2021, our technology will be even more backward.”
Another asked: “Why can’t you just directly say it’s because of content reasons? Trying to cover it up like this just makes people feel ridiculous and sad.”
Intriguingly, one of the most popular comments below a top news item about the cancellation expressed sympathy for protesters in Hong Kong, where residents are in the midst of the territory’s largest-ever mass protests against closer ties with the mainland. The demonstrations were sparked by a controversial extradition bill that would subject people there to China’s opaque Communist Party-controlled court system.
“I understand Hong Kong,” read one comment liked nearly a thousand times, although balanced information about the protests has been entirely scrubbed from the highly censored Chinese Internet. Below, others agreed. “I used to fight with my Hong Kong friend when he stood on high and ridiculed mainlanders, mostly just to save face. But now thinking about how we can’t even see an award-winning film from an Asian director, we deserve those taunts!”