This year marks the second iteration of a remarkable endeavor in the Shanxi province of China. In the city of Pingyao, whose relatively restored and preserved inner city, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the country’s most intact medieval enclaves, is a film festival founded by the most important Chinese art film director of the last twenty years, Jia Zhangke. In this emblematic and symbolic location, artistic director Marco Mueller, along with Jia, who was born in the Shanxi town of Fenyang, are running what is described with bold aspiration as a “boutique festival for the people.” With a crackdown since 2014’s shuttering of the Beijing Independent Film Festival making it difficult to run an independence-focused festival in China, the Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival (PYIFF) appears as a much-needed intervention into the country’s cinema culture, as well as one fraught with challenges and compromises.
Pingyao was originally envisioned as a part of a project involving Jia Zhangke to create a network of cinemas across China that provided new exhibition venues for art movies. Such a venture was imagined to be spearheaded by a festival that would provide the initial focus for the press in order to garner support, attention, and prestige to help carry films through this network. While those larger plans have fallen through for now, Pingyao’s festival was nevertheless launched last year in a large gesture proclaiming the attention first and foremost, with presumed hopes for improved distribution and exhibition to come.
Festivals to greater and lesser degrees create bubbles of experience where attendees can circulate between ticket counters, different screening venues, and meeting spaces. The more dispersed these necessary daily spaces are, the less a festival feels like an immersive microcosm uniting community and experience; thus, Tribeca in New York, spread across downtown Manhattan, or the Viennale, with disparate single-screen venues dotted around the city center, both lose the feeling of being in the midst of a festival the moment you leave the cinema—you plunge immediately back into the city. But centered festivals are usually a greater pleasure, concentrating as they do people and events into a proximity and interchange that creates an ecosystem, albeit one that can feel isolated from daily life. This is certainly the case of PYIFF, which takes place entirely in a refurbished tractor engine factory compound that puts all the festival facilities not only adjacent to one another, but literally sequestered in a kind of walled event space, intended to be used year-round for art exhibitions (recently there was a one devoted to photography) as well as a regular cinema.
This discreet space exists within Pingyao’s Ancient City, an urban center surrounded by its own walls and gates dating back to the 14th century. The symbolism is strong and intentional: a young festival focused predominantly on youthful cinema—since two major sections emphasize debut and second features—located literally within one of China’s oldest sites; placing an event of contemporary artistic sophistication within an emblem of historic urbanity; the transformation of an outdated industrial site into one of cultural glorification; attempting to ensure the success of the new venture by securing it within and associating it with one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country (with over a million visitors a year); and Shanxi’s most famous contemporary artist establishing a home in his province devoted to the medium of his art. (There are other symbolic echoes of course, not the least of which is that Pingyao was the place where modern Chinese banking was born, and the festival vocally hopes to court the production industry.) Outside the Ancient City a new “thematic hotel cluster” has been erected this year and between the two is an enormous living-theater spectacular about the history of Pingyao. In this context one can see PYIFF as one part of a larger venture to expand upon Pingyao’s scope and importance since the 1997 UNESCO designation, with director Jia Zhangke bringing the cache of living artistry and international art celebrity to the more traditional attractions of the city.
And this is indeed Jia Zhangke’s festival—or so it seems. His latest film, Ash Is Purest White, made with his biggest budget to date and also his biggest local success, is currently in Chinese cinemas. In the festival compound could be found a restaurant whose name was the Chinese title of the film and whose staff all had Ash Is the Purest White t-shirts. These could be purchased at the festival gift shop, which not only had a remarkable amount of PYIFF swag but an even more notable amount of Jia-themed paraphernalia, from multiple t-shirts with his image and large scarfs with the film name to sweatshirts with his family name, and more. Towards the end of the festival many guests were shuttled north of the city to Fenyang, the director’s hometown, in order to, first, tour a liquor distillery that was a festival sponsor, and then view another re-built cultural center, also an ex-factory compound, which is intended to highlight cultural products and food from across China. Jia’s precise relationship to this venture, as well as his relationship, if there is one, to the distillery, was hard for an English-only speaker to suss out—Jia was also recently chosen to be a delegate to congress for Shanxi—but the tour concluded with a sprawling dinner at a restaurant owned by the director and named after his previous film, Mountains May Depart, and which was decorated with the film’s various awards and pictures of the filmmaker.
Jia was ubiquitous at the festival, running press conferences with other directors, introducing films, moderating master classes, hosting dinners, and introducing the work-in-progress lab. He is quite clearly one of PYIFF’s hardest workers and not only a figurehead who was often mobbed by gaggles of young Chinese cinephiles (which he frequently was). All this cultural presence was in keeping with PYIFF’s stylization—already in its second year it is an impressively scaled, designed, and branded festival. Sponsored, too: call me naive, but I had assumed that a Chinese festival would escape the relentless corporate presence that similar events in conventionally capitalist countries would have, but no, with a dating app, car company, and the local liquor distillery providing highly visible support, according to Jia the festival in fact is now majority funded not by the government but by business partners. And PYFF certainly makes the most of it, being both logistically well-run but more visibly featuring ubiquitous and enveloping designs for tickets, posters, and signage that befits a festival much more mature. One comes away with the sense that PYIFF is incredibly image conscious and is more than up for the challenge of making a film festival seem "with it": nearly every event saw a series of photographers on hand to make sure that each question and answer after a screening was photographed and filmed, occasionally giving the sensation that the event was there for them to record and not the audience to watch. It’s a festival that clearly desires to project importance.
Yet it’s not just style, it’s part of the show, the performance of being a film festival. All festivals to a certain extent need to proclaim their assurance and prestige in order to assert authority, as well as attract and retain publicity and financial support. Beyond the already unusual fact of Pingyao being founded by an art film director, the festival has also aggressively claimed cinephilic cache to grant itself authenticity and suggest sincerity: its large outdoor cinema is named after Jia’s masterpiece Platform (2000), the second largest cinema after Fei Mu’s 1948 classic Spring in a Small Town; one set of awards (for Chinese-language cinema) are also named after Fei Mu, while another is named after Roberto Rossellini. And of course it’s not just the “Pingyao International Film Festival,” but even the title of Ang Lee’s huge crossover hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) is integrated into the event name. The forwardness of this all is a bit breathtaking, at once wonderful (finally, a festival that gets it!) and a bit presumptuous, if welcome. No doubt such gestures of cinephilia are supposed to help balance the other side of the show, how PYIFF visibly makes an effort to match such iconic festivals around the world with high populations of uniformed guards, official transportation, and other abundant theatrics of moneyed importance, much of it standing around or laying dormant in its unnecessary excess. Various types of police were to be seen patrolling some days and not others, likewise metal detectors were set up and taken down seemingly at random—a constant security reminder reminiscent of Cannes after the Nice attack, where we now find machine-gun toting, armored vest-wearing policemen patrolling the Riviera. This serves as well as another historic echo, since Pingyao’s history is involved in the development of the the bodyguard business, since so much money and commerce flowed through the city that it encouraged the creation of fighting escort services.
How much these aspects were intended to impress Pingyao locals and how much to impress Beijing industry members or international guests is in fact a broader question that could be asked of a great deal of PYIFF: Whom is this festival for? Mueller described his aim as being like the Telluride festival for international films—implying a tight selection of the year’s best art cinema—and Sundance for Chinese films, and thus a spotlight on local independent industry. Certainly part of Jia and Mueller’s goal in staging the festival away from Beijing and Shanghai is allowing them to present international films and other events that might not survive the more intensive scrutiny in such cultural centers. It is hard to imagine, for example, Lav Diaz’s scathing Season of the Devil, a drama of the repression of rural Philippines by a government security apparatus, playing officially in those cities—though it should be noted this film wasn’t precisely part of the festival lineup in Pingyao, but rather was presented as part of an educative masterclass, a notable bit of semantics that seems essential to achieve particular screenings in China. Still, it and all the rest of the films playing at PYIFF this year are officially sanctioned by the government to be shown at the festival, and all the Chinese films except those presented at the work-in-progress lab have been passed by censors and bore the official stamp of approval.
In regards to the Chinese films, this means that the festival is in a paradoxical bind that is emblematic of its complex character: On the one hand, Jia wants to champion the more independent and arty side of Chinese filmmaking, providing a platform to focus attention on smaller movies that need the prestige and press garnered by a festival. On the other hand, as an official event, its programmers are hamstrung to show only approved films, which no doubt diminishes the pool from which they can curate the program, having to avoid films that either have been rejected or never bothered to get approval. While the festival did show several prominent films from the indie/arty side of things, like Zhang Ming’s The Pluto Moment and Xue Bai’s The Crossing, which won the Fei Mu Best Film and Actress prizes, it is very doubtful that the two most urgent Chinese films this year, Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still and documentarian Wang Bing’s Dead Souls could have played at Pingyao.
Though Chinese films were spread across several of the festival’s sections, the majority were made up of two programs, one focusing on first and second features, and the other on local Shanxi productions. It’s an regrettable truism of festivals that either desire or have to spotlight their host nation’s cinema that national cinema sections are uniformly weaker than other programs. Usually (but not always) if, say, a German film is good enough, it won’t be shown in the Perspectives Deutsches Kino section of the Berlin International Film Festival, but in competition there or at another festival, or programmed in an otherwise more prestigious placement. The Chinese premieres at Pingyao in general unfortunately held true to this expectation, but nevertheless were consistently of interest, especially since the exposure of international audiences to such Chinese movies—neither big mainstream productions nor hard-art festival cinema—is a rare experience.
Indeed, the films were hardly uniform in approach or setting. In the Shanxi program could be found two remarkably different productions. Patrolman Baoyin, made by the Shanxi director Yang Jin, is in fact a story set in Inner Mongolia. It is a propagandistic but charming fictional telling of a real-life, award-winning policeman whose beat is the largest in China, covering over 1,000 square kilometers of bare landscape and dispersed population. An almost conflict-free film, it mostly portrays Baoyin’s job not as one of law-keeping or crime-solving but rather of a mobile and expansive—literally, across the huge landscape—helpfulness, friendliness, and selflessness. In one of the film’s few touches of complication, it is suggested that the officer is so altruistic that he cannot truly live a fulfilled life; like a John Ford hero, in his service to the community he must also remain apart from it. Baoyin doesn’t really need to keep the peace—nearly everything in his domain is peaceful—and instead he embodies both an exemplary citizen and the ideal self-image of a compassionate and gently involved government. Despite a single violent crime (interestingly if expectedly against a city woman moving to Baoyin’s remote town) providing a narrative through-line in this relaxed and episodic picture, the film exudes easy, quasi-exotic charm as it showcases the mild rural lifestyle in a far-flung locale.
Meanwhile, director Huang Xiaoming emphasized his Shanxi setting in Petals Flutter, the tale of a local beauty from a handicapped, sheep-rearing family being tempted away from her village by her ambitions and by her childhood sweetheart, framed by touches of Shanxi history, monuments, and opera to situate its simplicity in a local and mythic continuity. While some of the story developments feel forced, Huang admirably attempts an arty technique mixing non-professional actors with tracking shots and long takes to achieve a raw and uneven yet impressive weight and tempo for his archetypal story. The juxtaposition of the natural awkwardness of the girl’s family, who are in fact real relatives, with the more artificially conventional acting of the daughter—whose prim posture, unmissable red jacket, and wonderful singing voice makes for a striking figure in the rural landscape—is a forceful and touching evocation of a timeless mixture of filial affection and generational divide.
In the New Generation China section Huo Meng’s lackadaisical and sentimental grandfather-grandson Henan road trip film Crossing the Border - Zhao Guan was the big prize winner, picking up the Fei Mu prizes for Best Director and Best Actor for the Yang Taiyi as the grandfather, who carries the film with his embodiment of friendliness and generosity despite being confronted with a disinterested son and several other elderly members of his generation, each scarred and dying. Yang Pingdao’s My Dear Friend is also a journey of generations, wherein two combative old friends decide to accompany the pregnant girlfriend of a grandson to not only find the young man but also to try find answers to questions from their past. As the threesome drives through the foggy mountains of Guangdong, the present and past start weaving together, and we discover the two men as children, how they met, the young girl that perhaps came between them, and the mysterious origins of their journey in old age. Even if the relationship between the men is unconvincing, the swirling of timelines is a lovely idea and suggests that with a firmer hand on the concept, it could be a very strong picture. A firm hand is most definitely what Li Jiaxi has on Don’t Walk Away, a film set in the Shanxi city of Taiyuan that she has adapted from her own novel, directed, and stars in as a thirty-year-old artist and high school teacher who is having multiple simultaneous crises: She distrusts her frictionless marriage to a TV star, she can’t sell her art, a young male student is obsessed with her (and she revels in the attention), her father is slowly dying in home care, and she’s fiercely alcoholic. If this is all a bit much, and certainly each element of this melodrama feels under-realized, these complaints are won over by how absolutely rare it is to see a film whose story is told through the subjective perspective of a woman living such an internally complicated and over-wrought existence. It is impossible not to feel for the mess of this woman’s life, whether self-inflicted or not, and the film boldly makes no distance between the subjective anxiety of that mess and the audience’s experience.
The selection of the international titles at the festival prompt more questions as to what Pingyao is after. Garnering many non-Chinese world premieres at such a new and relatively remote festival would be too much to expect; focusing on small art films, the programmers have pulled many films from this year’s Directors’ Fortnight, as well as titles from Locarno and Venice’s Orizzonti sidebar, which may give a sense of the general scale of the films presented, with Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, Paul Dano’s Wildlife, and Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro being the most high-profile Chinese premieres. Yet of the only two world premieres shown from outside China, one was a great coup: Vetrimaaran’s Vada Chennai, a thrillingly convoluted hoodlum saga from the southern Indian state of Tamilnadu. What starts as a prison drama about warring gangsters transforms into a twisting and turning tale of masculine loyalties and the progressive politics of a lower class neighborhood torn apart by rivalries and the promise of profit. Tamil mega-star Dhanush plays a introverted neighborhood carrom prodigy who is accidentally sent to prison and must ping-pong between gangs to survive. Eventually, he becomes infused by neighborhood loyalty and pride and begins advocating for improved conditions and fair treatment by the government—policy positions that, in the small-scale relations of his village, of course translates to raucous and brutal action sequences. Frequently revising its story and its large cast’s hidden and conflicting agendas by introducing elaborate flashbacks that re-contextualize motivation and deepen the drama, Vetrimaaran’s film is an enthralling entry in what is planned to be a trilogy of films devoted to the state capital of Chennai—a rare sequelization that suggests increased complexity and not merely profit-seeking.
Another very strong entry presented at Pingyao was also from India, but rather than from the commercial side of cinema, Ivan Ayr’s debut Soni, which won the festival’s Roberto Rossellini prize for Best Film, is in the art film tradition of social realism. It scrupulously tells of a hot-tempered policewoman, separated from her boyfriend and living a tense, stripped down, career-focused life, and whose obedience to protocol quickly dissolves at the appearance of any kind of aggressive gender harassment. This continually gets her into trouble with her superior, a married woman officer of around the same age, and thus Ayr charts the two women’s experiences in their personal as well as professional lives having to not just to deal with a deeply misogynist society, but police it as well. With a precise and straight-forward long take style reminiscent of the Romanian New Wave, and featuring a captivatingly on-edge performance by Geetika Vidya Ohlyan in the title role, Soni unobtrusively evokes a nervous paranoia where abuse could come from anywhere and official suppression or personal violence are never distant threats.
Though several Chinese critics spoken to suggested otherwise, it was nevertheless difficult to not view some of the international selection prominently as a way of exposing Chinese audiences to films that could comment in different ways on their country on subjects that would never be approved by the censors as domestic productions. Mueller suggested as much in an interview about his programming, saying that he “tried to find for our selection films that would say to any young Chinese viewer, ‘this film is talking about you.’” Happy as Lazzaro, for example, is a fable about the exploitation of a feudal-like peasantry which reveals itself to be living a sham propagated by rich landlords; its final act jumps the peasants to an unhappy present living on a modern city. Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s dreamy debut Manta Ray observes the compassionate integration of a Rohingya refugee into a Thai man’s home. Beatriz Seigner’s excellent and sorrowful immersion into FARC-related trauma and recuperation, Los silencios, and Ognjen Glavonić’s The Load, about a man working at an ominously clandestine trucking job during the Bosnian War, are similarly about the secrets and pains of conflicts that too often are invisible to outsiders. The star-studded French period drama One Nation, One King charts with nearly staccato exposition the development of the French Revolution, from the king condescending to symbolically wash the poor’s feet to the National Convention debating the meaning and possibility of jailing and executing their regent, to that same king’s head being cut and hoisted above a crowd of commoners. It is a film that lays out in broad strokes–with an unfortunately lame subplot about a normal, emblematic family of the times—the development of and debate over revolution, the people’s liberty and right to revolt, what it means and what its implications are. Ayka, Sergey Dvortsevoy’s compassionate evocation of a Kyrgyz immigrant flailing around a wintry Moscow trying to survive, was shown in Pingyao in its finished state, unlike the apparently rushed-to-completion version shown at the end of the Cannes Film Festival in May. This film, like others in the program including Lukas Dhont’s Girl, about a young man transitioning to be a woman while also training at a ruthlessly difficult dance school, tell stories of people who could not be the subject of a sanctioned Chinese drama. The list could go on, as the majority of the international titles, aside from being for the most part some of the best films of the year in their own right, also could be doubly read in the context of Pingyao as surrogate films, envisioning or speaking what can not officially be visualized or said from a Chinese film. As such, Pingyao is very successful indeed in accomplishing what many film festivals long to do: curate a collective snapshot of the world that will help moviegoers understand not just the outside world better, but their own world as well.
In only its second year this very young festival projects a great deal of confidence and ambition. The limitations which hold it back for now are not of its own making, for its venue, resources, and vision are all primed for success. Rather, it is the unavoidable political context of PYIFF planting its flag for cinema in China that at once defines what it hopes to do as a cultural enterprise, but what it cannot yet do, indeed must fight to survive and do. The existence of the festival is a hope for, and work towards, the longevity of international art cinema in China, and vibrant future for Chinese independent cinema.