The excitement up and down the Croisette at Cannes 2022 has been palpable as the global film industry comes together again to celebrate cinema after two hard years of the coronavirus pandemic. But one of the biggest players in the business of film remains conspicuously missing: China.

The most immediate cause of the Chinese industry’s near total absence, of course, is the country’s outlier approach to the pandemic. With Shanghai, Beijing and more than a dozen other major Chinese cities weathering varying degrees of lockdown as Xi Jinping’s government holds fast to its “dynamic zero-COVID” strategy, the number of Chinese buyers and sellers at the festival has dwindled from scores several years ago to just the rare few in 2022.

Beijing industry insiders, though, say a less visible but all-too-familiar factor is also at work: punitive politics.

Midway through Cannes’ program last year, the festival back channeled to the international media that a discrete, last-minute addition had been made to the lineup. Filmmaker Kiwi Chow’s Revolution of Our Times, a hard-hitting documentary chronicling Hong Kong’s mass pro-democracy protests in 2019 and the brutal police crackdown that followed, was given a single screening in the Palais’ Salle du Soixantième. Cannes didn’t explain the under-the-radar nature of the film’s unveiling, but it was widely interpreted as an effort to protect the Chinese industry figures in attendance from being pressured into withdrawing from the event. The future repercussions that might follow from Cannes’ providing a platform to an issue that Beijing considers of the utmost political sensitivity were unclear — although, as one veteran Chinese buyer puts it, asking not to be named because of the topic’s incendiary nature: “They will not forget about this anytime soon.”

In the aftermath of the protest doc screening, Chinese buyers have told THR that it has been made clear to them by officialdom that any film that screens in Cannes’ official selection will not be granted censorship approval if it is acquired and submitted by a local distributor for release. Meanwhile, not a single Chinese feature is screening in the festival’s 2022 official selection or sidebars (just a few Chinese shorts are on offer this year).

In the lead-up to the festival, the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar was known to be holding a slot for Chinese director Liu Jian’s animated feature A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, featuring a voice performance by Chinese auteur and Cannes regular Jia Zhangke. The film was expected to be unveiled as a last-minute surprise addition – but it never made it to France. The official line from the film’s producers is that it was unable to be finished due to the partial COVID lockdowns in Beijing. But sources in contact with people involved in the project tell THR that getting the necessary government permissions to screen in Cannes would have been a long shot at best, even if it were ready (claims of trouble finishing projects, or unspecified “technical issues,” have been used regularly as euphemisms for censorship problems in the past).

One of the exceedingly few Chinese film figures in Cannes this year also happens to be a major star — actress Tang Wei (Lust Caution, Finding Mr. Right). She stars in South Korean maestro Park Chan-wook’s romantic police drama Decision to Leave, one of the most anticipated titles of this year’s competition. Sources close to the film say she is planning to attend the Palais screening despite the displeasure with all things Cannes among Beijing officialdom (not to mention the risky optics of making a glitzy red carpet turn under the Cote d’Azur sunshine while much of China is under onerous lockdown). But Tang is no newcomer to censure: Early in her career, she endured a lengthy official ban from filmmaking after regulators objected to her performance in Ang Lee’s sexually explicit World War II drama Lust, Caution. Tang later rehabilitated her career in China, but she married Korean director Kim Tae-yong in 2014 and now primarily resides in Seoul. Adds one of the few Chinese producers in Cannes this year: “Tang Wei still has family and big business interests in China, but she has less to lose than some.”

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