BEIJING • One of China's most popular directors, Feng Xiaogang, was determined to triumph at the box office with the release of his new film, Youth, during the country's weeklong National Day holiday.
In the run-up to the film's expected release later this week, he and his actors had been touring China, promoting the romantic drama set against the Cultural Revolution and China's brief, harrowing war against Vietnam.
But then, his premiere was abruptly cancelled.
Chinese film buffs say Youth appears to have fallen victim to official jitters before a Communist Party congress next month, which is expected to give President Xi Jinping five more years in power.
Feng said on Sunday that the film's release had been indefinitely postponed, meaning the premiere will not coincide with the October holiday, one of the most popular weeks at Chinese cinemas.
"Due to reasons that leave me no choice, the nationwide roadshow for Youth can only go this far," he said at a tearful news conference in Shanghai. "We have to say farewell to everyone before it even started and I feel helpless.
"I apologise to all the filmgoers who have bought tickets," he said. "I apologise most of all to them. I've let them down."
Neither he nor Huayi Brothers Media, the film's main backer and distributor, has explained why the film's release was cancelled. Huayi Brothers declined to comment.
But Mr Zhan Jiang, a retired professor of journalism and communications at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said he thought it was "definitely" done for political reasons, a view shared by critics and fans who pointed to the party congress starting in Beijing on Oct 18.
"It's difficult to say what's problematic about the film and there shouldn't be any major problems as it had already passed censorship," he said. "But October is a special time, first because National Day is highly political and, even more important this year, there's the 19th party congress."
About 2,300 delegates, most of them officials, will gather next month in the capital. Historically, the party is wary of promulgating anything that is critical, controversial or downbeat before the event.
Users of Weibo, a popular microblogging site, suggested that Feng had delayed the release as a publicity stunt or in fear of a poor showing at the box office.
But he said he had no choice.
"There are rumours, but no solid facts, about what happened," film critic Zhang Xianmin said about the postponed release. "It's possible that this was all about boosting the market for the film, but there could also be substantial censorship problems. Commercially, it doesn't seem to make sense to postpone. Delaying distribution will certainly have a cost."
Cultural officials have not commented on the delay of the release.
Many Chinese people, especially in Beijing, become inured to the restrictions and security that surround big official meetings. Yet Feng and others who worked on Youth appeared surprised by the sudden cancellation after cinemas had already started selling tickets.
"I tell you sincerely that right now I'm feeling somewhat distraught," he said at the news conference. "We wanted this film to hit the screens more than anyone."
He said a new release date would be announced later.
This is not the first time he has seen a release date abruptly changed. Last year, his film I Am Not Madame Bovary was released in November, to disappointing box-office results, after its National Day holiday release was also postponed, although commercial reasons may have figured then.
Film critic Liang Pengfei wrote on Chinese news site Observer that the losses caused by suddenly postponing Youth's release "can be estimated to run to tens of millions" in yuan.
Feng, 59, is a popular director who has learnt to work within, and sometimes adroitly nudge against, China's heavy boundaries of censorship. He often sets his stories during dramatic historical events, such as China's massive Tangshan earthquake of 1976 and a famine in the 1940s. Yet he also steers away from overt political messages, preferring to dwell on personal drama.
Youth had already passed the scrutiny of Chinese censors and was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival this month. But the memories and themes it evoked may have prompted senior officials to reverse approval for its release during this sensitive political season.
Based on a novel of the same name, Youth tells the story of He Xiaoping, a young woman in a People's Liberation Army dance troupe, who ends up dragged into China's brief war with Vietnam in 1979. Before she joined the troupe, her father was condemned as an enemy of the party and sent to a labour camp.
Under Mr Xi, historians and writers have come under increased pressure to steer away from discussing the Cultural Revolution. The 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution passed last year in near-total official silence and unofficial commemoration was discouraged.