The Chinese film market strengthens at a breakneck pace, hurling to become the world’s largest. The evolution process of the domestic film market entails myriads of partial operations, such as consolidating the film industry, building viable film infrastructure (the year 2016 witnessed an explosion of screens, as an average of 26 new screens appeared daily), and having strong partners and financial backing. The creative and financial capital accumulates in the film industry and fuels the cinematic renaissance over mainland China. In global ranking, the Chinese film production is among the top three, ranking behind India and U.S.A.
However, as with most things, China’s rise to dominating the film market has its casualties: Independent filmmakers. The buck of arthouse films’ inability to be officially circulated stops with the state apparatus, not the film industry, notably the board of censors or the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television of the People’s Republic of China—as the official title goes. Thus, independent filmmakers have to find outlets outside the country, functioning as dissident or underground filmmakers, or let their films be passed around as bootlegs since their oeuvres do not conform to the propaganda of the ruling political party.
As the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, heralded a “dawn of a new era” at the Communist Party Congress between 18 and 24 October, 2017; he declared that China inches “closer to center stage” and would soon become “a new option for other countries.” Talks of a new China just four days before the grand opening of the new film festival ushered in the hope that a “new era” might as well be imminent in the independent waters of the Chinese cinema. The most famous contemporary Chinese independent filmmaker, Jia Zhangke, along with film festival veteran, Marco Müller, ceremonially inaugurated Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival (PYIFF) on October 28, 2017. The PYIFF was founded to introduce, present, and promote independent cinema, both domestic and international, on Chinese turf.
One of the main objectives of PYIFF is the general concept of the filmmaker’s festival. “By filmmaker’s film festival, I mean a place where filmmakers can feel at home. I do not think that the mandate of Pingyao Film Festival should ever be to rival Busan or to impact the whole of East Asia,” explains Marco Müller, after reiterating that the aim was to launch the first “boutique” film festival in China. It wants to serve industry professionals by introducing and supporting emerging generation of domestic filmmakers. This agenda is achieved by curating a lineup of films, domestic and foreign, that can have vital post-festival life in local distribution—be it in theaters or on VOD platforms—and, last but not least, by offering challenging works of cinema to cinephiles and the curious public.
Marco Müller, who speaks Mandarin fluently, has a long resume of activities within the Chinese film industry: he worked for the Beijing Film Festival, Silk Road Film Festival, and Macao Film Festival, which he helped to build only to leave shortly before the official kick-off. “I kept talking to my good friend, Jia Zhangke, about his dream to create a festival in his home province in the city, which, for him, has been the cinematic city of his key works. I decided to visit Pingyao, and I saw that creating a festival in this kind of contained environment could finally be the right angle to create a filmmaker´s festival in this country,” he revealed.
PATRON SAINT FROM FENYANG
The festival was set up in Pingyao—a city renowned for its fortification, besides its rich history that stretches back 2,700 years, and the moniker, “The Wall Street of the East,” for being the capital center. It only takes a driving time of an hour between Pingyao and the hometown of Jia Zhangke, Fenyang, where he is currently turning the old industrial complex into a new arts center. In this complex, he used to organize a showcase of student films. It is very likely that a new film school might emerge in the upcoming years.
Jia Zhangke is the patron saint of the cinema around those parts of Shanxi province, invested in various activities cultivating local film industry. He is revered to the extent that his filmmaking style serves as a paragon; as the archetype that is, in some cases, zealously emulated. Moreover, he is committed to the cinema on all levels—not just as a writer-director, but also as a producer through which he helps new talents via his production company, Xstream Pictures. Jia Zhangke additionally operates as a distributor, and the two latter roles created a synergy that eventually gave rise to the Pingyao Film Festival, which has similar ambitions of cultivating cinema and supporting emerging talents, albeit on a much larger scale.
The effort that was put into the establishment of a new festival preceded an ambition to strengthen the position of arthouse cinema and make it accessible to a broader demographic, as well as making a domestic market for it. The vision materialized through the foundation of an arthouse circuit National Arthouse Film Alliance of which Fabula Entertainment—Jia’s production outfit, which is based in Shanghai—is a member. “It makes a big difference,” said Marco Müller regarding the National Arthouse Film Alliance. “[T]he alliance could reach out to 45 million individuals. Even at the global level, this turnout number would be the biggest mass audience for arthouse films, but there would be multiplicators for films we want to protect and defend,” he concluded, as he explained the significance of the Alliance.
The ambition of PYIFF is to become instrumental in domestic distribution and film markets (including those efforts outside the Alliance) as well as serving as a launch pad that seeks an afterlife for selected films. Furthermore, PYIFF aspires to become an organic part of the arthouse market ecosystem, which was built around the National Arthouse Film Alliance. The industry part of the festival is expected to inflate with upcoming editions to embrace the next generation of film talents along with already established film professionals—producers, financiers, sales agents, and distributors.
“Most of the films that can actually be seen by the public are the big productions churned out by big companies. We would like to host this edition of Pingyao International Film Festival so as to have a platform for independent films despite the commercialized context, thereby the public can pay attention to the most dynamic sector of filmmaking,” says Jia Zhangke of the film festival’s raison d'être, citing the audience’s demand for independent/arthouse cinema. For instance, his 2015 film, Mountains May Depart, recorded 1.2 million admissions in local theaters and clocked 10 million online views.
CATERING TO DOMESTIC TASTES
“The festival had to be called Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon because we want to prove that we merge different kinds of experiences, films, and genres,” says the artistic director. The programming framework of the inaugural edition started as voracious, screening a massive production of an action patriotic film, Sky Hunter.
According to Müller, Sky Hunter is “very spectacular but very special auteur entertainment,” and “a good example of unorthodox entertainment cinema.” The blockbuster was directed by Li Chen and starring his partner, who is also PYIFF’s ambassador, Fan Bingbing and co-produced by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.
The festival provided a window into local productions such as the didactic coming-of-age comedy, However, by Cici Li (in a sidebar titled New Generation that celebrates upcoming domestic talents). The film (which was shot in the capital of Shanxi province, Taiyuan, with the target audience being young adults and their parents) follows the progress of four schoolmates as they grow from their high school hijinks and dreams into respectable, law-abiding citizens who contribute to the well-being of their society.
Since each of the films in Pingyao’s lineup had to be approved and certified by the board of censors, the stories tended to be unambiguous in terms of the moral and thus predictable. The filmmakers needed to be creative in other departments in order to make films that would bring about the audience’s interest. Li Xiaofeng’s Ash falls into the category of obvious morality although stylishly disguised. According to the story, a secret pact made in the past concerning homicides committed by two central characters, who had earlier bonded over Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection, comes back to torment at least one of them. Xiaofeng attempts a mystery narrative by slowly dosing the plot points in the non-linear storyline of the two diverse individuals whose lives cross at one point and by subverting the crime formula. As the director of photography, Joewi Verhoeven lenses the dramatic and bromantic moments in a noirish tint, the director shatters the class gap between a steelworker and a reputable doctor in acts of mutually co-orchestrated revenge and similarities of their fates in a study of revenge and guilt.
In a similar vein, young debuting director Sun Liang, embarked on a feature-length guilt trip in Kill the Shadow. The young and confused protagonist wanders a barren land and a rural town, clutching an unusual wad of money while being chased by the authorities. While Kill the Shadow packs another morality tale, however, the story merely serves as a pretext for genre alchemy. Thus, by combining genre codes of heist, thriller, and crime wrapped in the staple of independent Chinese dramas, above all social realism, Liang's effort comes to resemble a modern-day take on acid western. Likewise, an equal fervor to hybridize different elements demonstrates, in form and style, how the director marries the mundanity of social realism to paranoid expressionism in a surrealistically scrambled plot.
Furthermore, among the stream of blockbusters and independent movies are films that juggle mainstream appeal with an arthouse approach. For example, Please Remember Me, directed by Peng Xiaolian, starts out on the formulaic note of a small town starlet who resolves to embrace more prominent acting roles in a bigger city. Along the way, she meets a childhood friend, and sparks start igniting in the romantic melodrama. However, a second plane emerges in a storyline of a childhood friend making a documentary about a real-life star from bygone era, Zhao Dan. The preservation of Zhao Dan’s legacy and life unspool against the gentrification of the district in which the protagonist temporarily resides. Throughout the film’s running time, Xiaolian goes back and forth from meta-film cinema to romance triggering lively reactions from the domestic public.
One of the objectives of the festival was to become a platform for domestic production and distributors and thus initiate a healthy after-life beyond the borders of the festival. Nonetheless, Marco Müller did not avoid non-Chinese films. Navigating, based on his previous experiences, the latest crop from Chinese and international (festival) films, he tried to assemble a selection to which local distributors and audience would react.
In the international mix destined for Eastern recipients appeared a family drama about a hard-working and dedicated mother titled Suleiman Mountain, which was directed by Elisaveta Shrivova; a rage against the aseptic lifestyle and establishment resembling brain-dead corporation, Life Guidance, directed by Ruth Mader; or a mysterious thriller about a cult, The Endless by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson—Benson also starred in the lead roles in a nod to Lovecraftian weird fiction and Richard Kelly’s obsession with time loops. Arnaud Desplechin’s mystificative meta-fiction Ismael's Ghosts played in front of the locals with a tiny difference when compared to its international version. Seven seconds of Desplechin´s film had to be re-framed to remove a scene that shows the female pubic hair—a scene considered offensive by the board of censors. Müller considered that the edit, rather than a ban, was a victory, adding that the censors appreciated the film’s quality despite the nudity it portrayed.
YEAR ZERO - NEW GROUND
The festival’s organizers acknowledged the event’s Year Zero status by using it as the edition´s name, expectant that it would be the first milestone in independent cinema’s quest to enter the official structures in the domestic film infrastructure. Müller confirmed that they would like to embrace “a boutique” concept for the festival. “We would like to host this edition of Pingyao International Film Festival so as to have a platform for independent films despite the commercialized context so that the public can pay attention to the most dynamic sector of filmmaking,” said the founder, Jia Zhangke.
PYIFF is the first privately run Chinese film festival approved by the authorities. The festival is organized “by a company that operates in a marketed-based manner, which is a relatively new model. To ensure the healthy and sustainable development of this film festival, there is a need for company-based operations so that there can be an effective and efficient construction of the facilities and the programming,” reveals Jia.
The fervor, determination, and capital invested in the project mirror in the fact that a site previously occupied by a former diesel engine factory situated in the city’s center, right behind the ancient walls, was turned into the film festival’s ground in nearly six months. The complex comprises a big open air theater, used for the opening and closing of ceremonies, a festival palace, several brand-new theater rooms with halls, and a meeting space rendered in an industrial style.
While the purpose and use of the complex throughout the year, precisely when it isn’t hosting the festival, remained unclear, the organizers vowed to return in twelve months with operative upgrades to better engage the film community in the province along with film professionals: “[W]e have also reached out to Chinese and international distribution companies, but this is only the inaugural edition, so we have not yet set-up a significant platform in terms of collaboration with the industry. But Pingyao Film Festival is going to be an important platform in swapping films,” said Jia Zhangke, obviously determined to cultivate Pingyao as the next important hub for independent production.