Respected Chinese filmmaker Feng Xiaogang’s Youth, a coming-of-age drama about young people making peace with the past, was due for release in the Middle Kingdom this weekend, in time for the lucrative National Day holiday. The movie recently screened at the Toronto Film Festival, but on Sunday it emerged that its China theatrical run had been nixed, for now, as a result of “discussions with the film administration bureau and other relevant parties,” according to a statement from Feng’s production house.

Chinese authorities have yet to publicly address the cancellation of the period movie that’s a tribute to veterans of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, but it’s thought Youth fell victim to the timing of the upcoming National Congress of the Communist Party which begins on October 18 and will usher in changes at the top of the ranks.

USC Professor Stanley Rosen, who specializes in China, tells Deadline, “The fear of protest before the Congress may well be the biggest concern.”

The 1979 border war was Deng Xiaoping’s response to Vietnam’s invasion and occupation of Cambodia in 1978 which overthrew the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge. Vietnamese troops, however, remained in Cambodia until 1989 and the incursion has not been seen as a Chinese victory by outside observers. Some veterans have staged protests in Beijing in past years, demanding compensation and unhappy with the way they have been treated in the years since the conflict.

“It is highly likely that this decision would have come from someone very high up in the political chain of command since it had already been approved by the censorship system, which suggests that it was a decision made by a political leader and not by the film authorities,” Rosen opines.

Although Feng’s I Am Not Madame Bovary saw its distribution schedule abruptly changed from the National Day holiday to November last year, the Youth move is seen as unusual given it had already passed the notoriously sensitive censors, screened officially in Toronto and was part of a promotional tour within China where tickets had been pre-sold. But, says Rosen, “All it takes is one highly-placed leader to object and overrule the decision made through the normal procedures of approval.” The censorship board includes members of the military.

Rosen notes that with reviews appearing on U.S. websites, “It must have been clear that this last minute decision would lead to a firestorm of criticism and ridicule, which would be widely reported in both China and the west. Although you can censor the web and remove commentary about this within China, obviously you can’t do this outside China.”

Mtime has reported that a preview screening of Youth for over 300 theater managers was recently held in Qingdao and was met with warm response. Feng has explicitly said that he wants to honor veterans and that young people should see the film to realize the sacrifices that have been made by the older generation. 

The New York Times reports that Feng spoke at a “tearful” press conference in Shanghai on Sunday, where he said, “Due to reasons that leave me no choice, the nationwide roadshow for Youth can only go this far. We have to say farewell to everyone before it even started, and I feel helpless. I apologize to all the filmgoers who’d pre-bought tickets… I tell you sincerely that right now I’m feeling somewhat distraught. We wanted this film to hit the screens more than anyone.”

Per the Toronto fest’s description, Youth chronicles the joys and travails of a provincial military-arts troupe — soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army whose duty it is to promote culture, revolutionary values, music and dance. At the center of the story is He Xiaoping (Miao Miao) a talented dancer from Beijing with a painful family history. Due to her innocence and social status, she quickly becomes a scapegoat and laughing stock amongst her peers. As time passes and the group gradually splinters apart, however, her life takes unexpected turns and she emerges a true heroine.

While there have been some earlier films that dealt with the topic, it has been “off limits for a long time,” says Rosen. “In fact, one former film, Wu Ziniu’s The Dove Tree, was banned after Deng Xiaoping saw a preview and said it was making propaganda for the Vietnamese.”

The China expert also wonders about the ongoing situation with North Korea. “Given China’s incursion into Vietnam, and at least some talk about the possibility that China might have to occupy North Korea if the situation spirals out of control, I can conceive of some high official being worried about that interpretation, as far-fetched as it may seem.”