BEIJING - A major Chinese directors' association declined to name a best picture or best director at its annual awards ceremony, an unprecedented move that triggered debate over whether it was intended as a protest against censorship.
Feng Xiaogang, a prominent filmmaker who chaired the nine-member jury for the China Film Directors' Guild Awards, announced the panel's unanimous decision on live television Wednesday night.
The awards "should not be about our own enjoyment and satisfaction", Feng said at the ceremony, according to multiple reports in Chinese-language media.
"What Chinese cinema needs isn't comfort," he added. "Rather, it should set a standard that everyone must strive for, which they can only attain by standing on tiptoe and reaching with all their might." Feng, one of China's most commercially-successful directors, focused his remarks on the state of the Chinese film industry and did not explicitly criticise Communist Party authorities.
But the panel's move was interpreted by some as a protest against Beijing's decision last year to block the release of "A Touch of Sin", a film by acclaimed director Jia Zhangke.
Jia's film, which comments on violence and social inequity in China, was awarded Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival last spring but has yet to be screened in his homeland despite a promised November 2013 release.
Chinese authorities maintain a tight grip on political speech and frequently block or delay the release of films deemed to touch on sensitive issues.
Another movie by an acclaimed Chinese director, Diao Yinan's "Black Coal, Thin Ice", was virtually unknown to Chinese audiences when it won the Berlin Festival's Golden Bear award in February.
The film, which tells the tale of a washed-up ex-cop investigating a series of grisly murders, was finally released in China in March after months of uncertainty.
"A Touch of Sin" had initially been submitted for consideration for the directors' guild awards but was withdrawn late last month, according to a microblog posting by Jia's production company, Xstream Pictures.
"Since we aren't able to provide the China Film Directors' Guild with a DVD or online copy of 'A Touch of Sin', we have applied for the film to be withdrawn from consideration for the awards ceremony," Xstream wrote on its Sina Weibo account.
Wang Xiaoshuai, a director who served on the awards jury, brushed off suggestions that the move was a protest against the blocking of Jia's film.
"Feng Xiaogang's explanation is the most important reason," Wang told AFP in a phone interview. "There were no other factors, and the jury was not subjected to any outside interference."
"The main consideration was that over the past decade, Chinese filmmakers' pursuit of success at the box office has influenced their artistry," he said. "So, we thought that in this way, we could sound an alarm bell for the Chinese film industry." Even so, speculation abounded Thursday among Chinese film fans.
"The vacant spots are for Jia Zhangke and 'A Touch of Sin'," wrote one Sina Weibo user.
But others criticised the move, saying Feng was too harsh in his assessment of the Chinese film industry.
Jia acknowledged the guild's decision in a short Sina Weibo post that included the list of the award winners - as well as the vacancies for best film and director.
"Congratulations to the winners," he wrote. "Onward."