Famous Chinese film director’s desert labour camp movie pulled

Beijing: A new film from celebrated Chinese director Zhang Yimou that tells the story of an escapee from a labour camp has mysteriously been pulled from the Berlin Film Festival.

It was set in China's western desert.

Chinese director Zhang Yimou holds his award for Best Director at the 55th Golden Horse Awards in Taipei, Taiwan. The latest film from Zhang has been dropped from the Berlin International Film Festival for “technical reasons.” Credit:AP

Zhang's film One Second was due to have its international premiere on Friday.

Instead an old blockbuster action movie by Zhang will be shown in its place.

The film's publicity agent Michael Arnon told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, "unfortunately we don't have any other information" than the brief statement published by the festival – that the film has been withdrawn "due to technical reasons".

Sensitive topic for China: Uyghur detentions in the Xinjiang region. Credit:The Age/SMH

Under a shakeup of government departments, the Chinese ministry of propaganda took direct control of film regulation and censorship a year ago. It has been speculated that delays in red tape may have stopped the film from gaining the permissions needed to be screened overseas.

But the setting of the film may have also proved sensitive, as China faces rising international criticism over its policy of sending hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims to re-education centres in China's western desert towns.

Publicity material released for the film at the Berlin festival described the plot as: "a convict is sent to a labour camp in desolate north western China".

The promotional video for One Second shows a man running through the sand dunes. It was filmed in the desert town of Dunhuang in Gansu province last year, where Zhang had previously shot Hero and The Great Wall starring Matt Damon.

But the province neighbours the troubled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where Muslims have been sent to re-education camps over the past 18 months.

Some Muslim detainees have recently been transferred from Xinjiang to prisons in Gansu, according to the US-funded Radio Free Asia.

Chinese publicity for the film instead described a remote farm setting during the Cultural Revolution.

The film tells a story echoing Zhang's own life experiences as a movie fan during the Cultural Revolution, and the power of cinema to transcend physical hardships, and had been highly anticipated within China.

Chinese newspapers including the Global Times ran prominent stories on Wednesday reporting "Chinese movie fans expressed huge disappointment with the removal of famed director Zhang Yimou's film" from the festival competition.

Films dealing with the tumultuous period of the Cultural Revolution have been released in China before, including Zhang's own 2014 hit Coming Home.

One Second's social media account announced a fortnight earlier the film would be released in Chinese cinemas, so its mysterious inability to be shown this week came as a surprise.

Variety magazine wrote last month that One Second was "Zhang's personal love letter to cinema" and a return to his auteur roots after a string of big budget movies.

Zhang is one of the celebrated "Fifth Generation" filmmakers who studied at the Beijing Film Academy in 1978 when it reopened after the end of the Cultural Revolution.

He quickly won international fame for his early films, with the 1987 Red Sorghum starring Gong Li winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin international film festival in 1988.

He went on to direct many of the best-known Chinese films of the next two decades including Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad and The Road Home.

His first action blockbuster was Hero in 2002. Zhang was the artistic director for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

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