The abrupt withdrawal from the Berlin Film Festival of renowned director Zhang Yimou’s new film, set in the Cultural Revolution, has sparked outrage and speculation in China over what may have triggered the move. One Second depicts a man who escapes a prison farm in northwestern China in the 1970s – because he desperately wants to see a film – and an orphan he meets along the way. Zhang, who was sent for re-education during China’s sociopolitical movement from 1966 until 1976 – known as the Cultural Revolution – has said that he wanted to pay tribute to the cinema of those troubled times in his latest work. The film’s producers announced on Monday that for “technical reasons” the movie could not be shown at the 10-day festival, which began on Thursday. Film by China’s Zhang Yimou withdrawn from Berlin festival competition days before its world premiere Industry insiders confirmed the film had acquired an initial release permit from Beijing but said regulators might have changed their minds and asked for further cuts because of the sensitivity of the subject. According to the festival’s press office, the movie, which was scheduled for its world premiere on Friday, was pulled from the competition “due to technical difficulties encountered during post-production”. The last time Zhang, who has won numerous accolades including the Golden Bear and Golden Lion awards, had trouble with the film regulators was decades ago. In 1994, his epic To Live was banned in China, even though it won awards in Cannes that year. He was fully “rehabilitated” by the Communist Party in 2008 when he was appointed director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games. The news of the film’s withdrawal attracted more than 160 million views on Weibo – China’s version of Twitter – with many people expressing shock that even Zhang, one of China’s most influential filmmakers, would face censorship hurdles after committing to an international festival release. Numerous online commenters attributed the move to government pressure. “Just see what kind of story it tells and you know why it happened,” one user commented. “Admitting the Cultural Revolution is a mistake but banning people from showing the mistake via an artwork and even prohibiting it from participating in international competitions … what kind of practice is this?” asked another internet user. China’s top leadership has acknowledged that the decade-long period of political and social chaos started by late chairman Mao Zedong was a disaster. Countless politicians, intellectuals and civilians were driven to their deaths and cultural relics and artefacts were destroyed. Historians say that somewhere between 500,000 and 2 million people lost their lives as a result of the Cultural Revolution, but it remains a highly sensitive subject in Chinese society. A general manager from a Beijing-based film distributor, who did not want to be identified, said the movie had obtained a “dragon seal”, an official number that acts as a release permit issued by the film regulator. But, to be shown in cinemas, it still needed a final permit document. “In practice, it’s very common that a film which has the dragon seal fails to acquire the final document as scheduled, such as Youth ,” he said, referring to a movie by another acclaimed Chinese director Feng Xiaogang which was also set during the Cultural Revolution and met with a similar fate. Youth , which chronicled the lives of a group of adolescents in a military art troupe during the period, was to have been released during the National Day holidays in 2017 but was delayed by two months because of objections from the censors. Recently, China’s wildly popular epic dramas have encountered official resistance following criticism in state media about their content. Several channels responded by pulling dramas like Story of Yanxi Palace and Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace . Too lavish, too nasty: Chinese state media goes to war against Yanxi Palace and other period dramas A source from a Guangzhou-based film production company said government control over epic dramas tended to be tighter than other genres, but that it was not uncommon for a movie to go through several rounds of censorship if it was about sensitive historical subjects. Beijing last year tightened its ideological grip by shifting regulation on all media, including film censorship, from the State Council to the party’s propaganda department. The agency previously regulating the press, publication, radio, film and television under the State Council has been streamlined into the National Radio and Television Administration. The Shadow Play , a film by Lou Ye shot in 2016, is another film that has been delayed and is now scheduled for release in April. The film was shown in the Berlin festival’s Panorama section and tells the story of a policeman who witnesses the death of an official in a coastal Chinese town and embarks on an investigation to find the truth. When asked about the delay, Lou told mainland media the film had failed to get clearance from the authorities.