Actor Chen Jianbin spent the last decade working on his directorial debut, "A Fool," a tale of a farmer who tries to help a mentally challenged man return home and ends up facing a group of crooks. The criminals create unexpected dilemmas for the farmer while he's trying to do his good deeds, raising a question: Who is really the fool?
The movie was slated to hit Chinese cinemas this spring, and Chen's excitement was clear. "See you at the cinema on May 1st!" he wrote recently via his account on Sina Weibo, China's microblogging platform.
But now, Chen's film is in serious limbo – thanks to the arrest last week of actor Wang Xuebing on allegations of drug use.
China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television issued a missive in September saying that celebrities who use drugs or hire prostitutes should be banned from TV and film screens. Entertainers, the censorship agency said, ought to "spread positive energy" and "create a positive environment" on media platforms.
The statement wasn't an outright ban, but it's prompted several filmmakers to significantly alter their works after stars have ended up in legal hot water, and production companies and distributors are exercising an abundance of caution.
Although such a situation is difficult to imagine in Hollywood, there's been a profound chilling effect in China.
There are no easy ways to comply with the directive. One option is to completely cut the role played by the "tainted" actor. Take "Tiny Times 4" – the final installment in the successful chick-flick film series -- as an example: all scenes including actor Kai Ko were excised after he was arrested on charges of smoking marijuana, according to state-run China Radio International. But it still remains unclear when the "clean" version of "Tiny Times 4" will be shown. The original film was supposed to be in theaters this February, but it has yet to materialize in theaters.
In some cases, cuts simply won't work, and so a different actor has been hired to replace the scandal-tainted star, and reshoots are done. In the film "Monster Hunt," which also featured Ko, he was completely replaced. All scenes involving Ko are currently being reshot right now and the film is expected to be shown this summer.
Two hours after Wang's arrest was announced by Beijing's Public Security Bureau on March 10, the production company behind "A Fool," Shandong Jiabo Culture Development Co. Ltd., released a statement on its official Sina Weibo account, indicating the film's fate was suddenly iffy.
"We hope the good work can be viewed by the public. Right now, the production team of 'A Fool' is actively discussing possible solutions," it said, cryptically. The film's planned release date, May 1, is a national holiday and a prime movie-going time.
Simply cutting Wang from the film, or replacing him, seems difficult if not impossible. He played a major supporting role, and the interactions between Wang and the lead character -- played by Chen -- are key to the plot. Production concluded months ago, and reshooting scenes with snow would be particularly difficult.
And Chen believes Wang's performance is irreplaceable artistically, according to his interview with state-owned newspaper Legal Daily. Wang made sacrifices for the role, even shaving his eyebrows.
Chen did not respond to messages seeking further comments.
Since news of Wang's arrest broke, Chen has indicated to the reporter from Legal Daily that he's been hard-pressed to accept the situation. He can't sleep or eat, he said, and has been hoping "there could be a miracle."
A representative of the production company, reached by phone, said Shandong Jiabo Culture Development Co. was "actively seeking solutions but there are not more updates on the issue."
"A Fool" had already received some strong buzz, including five nominations at Taiwan's 2014 Golden Horse cinema awards. Chen was named both best new director and best leading actor. The judges praised it, saying the movie "inserts the complexity of the world between joy and sorrow and serves as a monster-revealing mirror, that no one can hide from."
Other films have been shelved in wake of the anti-drug directive. "A Monk in a Floating World" was thrown into limbo after the arrest of Jackie Chan's son Jaycee Chan on a drug offense, and "Uncle Victory," starring Huang Haibo, was similarly affected by his detention on suspicion of hiring prostitutes.
Some movie-lovers have reacted with sarcasm. One Sina Weibo user commented: "Maybe the director should only sign the contract with actors after reading their urine test report."
But others see the current climate as detrimental to film culture. "The actors seem to be doing fine after a while, yet good films can't be viewed by the public. Whose loss is that?"
On the film's official Weibo account Friday, producers posted a special edition poster. It depicts Chen, the main actress, another performer and a shadow representing a fourth person, Wang. The poster subtly conveys multiple messages of contrition and hope – hope that Wang can recover from the scandal and that the film can eventually be shown.
On the same day, actor and director Xu Zheng put up a sympathetic post on his official Weibo account to support "A Fool."
"Films come from collective intelligence. The ban shouldn't be applied to shows created before the illegal action was discovered as investors can't foresee such actions of participants. Otherwise, it is too unfair on the production company and investors."