The Beijing International Film Festival pulled Academy Award-winning gay romance "Call Me By Your Name" from its program, the movie's distributor said on Monday. The move reflects China's checkered relationship with LGBTQ themes in the creative arts.
The film, which won an Oscar earlier this month for best adapted screenplay, was withdrawn from the April festival, Sony Pictures Entertainment confirmed, declining to comment on the reason.
Homosexuality is not illegal in China, but activists say conservative attitudes in some sections of society have led to occasional government clamp-downs.
In July last year, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender conference in the city of Chengdu was called off after the venue canceled the booking citing conflicting events. Lesbian dating app Rela was also shut down last May.
A blacklist of banned audiovisual online content last year also controversially included homosexuality, underlining a long-standing attitude in China toward same-sex relations despite often thriving gay scenes in major cities.
Tony Lin, a documentary filmmaker currently shooting in China, told NBC News there’s a huge LGBTQ community in the country, but it doesn’t receive any above-board representation because of tightening government restrictions.
“The community is still largely invisible and subject to all kinds of misunderstanding,” Lin said. “It’s also ironic. The LGBTQ-based economy is booming in China with the rise of the dating app Blue’d and many forms of pink economy, yet there’s little mentioning of the population in mass media whatsoever.” The "pink economy," which refers to business geared toward the LGBTQ community, is reportedly worth $300 billion a year in China alone.
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Despite government clamp-downs, Lin said moviegoers in China have found ways to see films like “Call Me By Your Name," but he said authorities in the country have in recent years increasingly cracked down on such content.
“LGBTQ issues along with feminist topics and ethnic diversity are viewed as ‘Western values’ and subject to scrutiny,” added Lin, whose documentary short about the lives of older gay men in Hong Kong, “A City of Two Tales,” won the Audience’s Choice Award at the Shanghai Pride Film Festival in 2015.
The pulling of "Call Me By Your Name" comes as China tightens its grip on media content. Parliament this month voted to scrap term limits for President Xi Jinping and hand control over film, news and publishing to the Communist Party's publicity department.
"Call Me By Your Name" follows the summer romance in Italy between a 17-year-old boy and an older graduate student. It was pulled after the screening proposal submitted was not approved by regulators, a person with knowledge of the matter said.
Yanzi Peng is the director of LGBT Rights Advocacy China, a group advocating for the community in the region. He called the censorship of the film “unacceptable.”
“But there’s no surprise that a gay movie was censored,” Peng told NBC News. “We can never watch gay-themed movies on the screen in China, no matter how excellent they are.”
Peng referenced the regulation from China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Film and Television (SARFT) last year that explicitly banned gay content, saying Chinese producers could no longer make television shows depicting “abnormal sexual relations or sexual behavior” including “homosexuality” or “perversion.”
SARFT holds the annual film festival in Beijing where "Call Me By Your Name" was pulled. “Moonlight,” another Academy Award-winning American film with gay themes, was not screened in the popular film festival last year. The regulation of such content has inspired a lawsuit from LGBTQ advocates in China.
“I think screening ‘Call Me By Your Name’ is very important,” Peng said. “The touching and beautiful story will absolutely inspire empathy in straight people and in anyone. They can understand our love is universal.”
In the U.S., Zeke Stokes, the vice president of programs at GLAAD, an LGBTQ media advocacy group, echoed Peng’s sentiments in a statement to NBC News.
“It is disheartening to learn that audiences are being deprived of this moving story, simply because a few people don’t believe that love between LGBTQ people is worthy of representation,” Stokes said.
“Film is one of the U.S.’s biggest cultural exports, and as Hollywood steps up and creates more critically acclaimed and commercially successful LGBTQ-inclusive movies, this kind of censorship must become a thing of the past,” he concluded.
In an initial screening list dated March 16, the organizer of the Beijing festival had listed "Call Me By Your Name" along with other foreign films like "Lean on Pete" and art parody "The Square." The organizer has since declined to comment on the reasoning for the film being pulled, and China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television could not be reached for comment.
China has long censored violence or sexual content in film releases. Films with gay themes have met with a mixed reaction with some banned, though others have been given the go-ahead.
"There is no clear policy on this issue, so we are always confused," said Xin Ying, executive director of the Beijing LGBT Center, adding that following the recent reshuffle of the media regulators it was getting even harder to get clear direction.