The Search (2009)13-21 June 2009

I first reported on Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF) for Senses of Cinema in 2007, for its tenth anniversary. I said then that it was a large and ambitious A-list festival with a main competition, red carpets, global stars, various minor competitions, a market and a film financing event (“pitch and catch”), as well as a large and very active forum that brings Chinese and foreign industry leaders together and offers a rare chance for others to hear them speak. Yet, its A-list status and the very particular circumstances of operating a festival in China offer unusual challenges, and in 2007 this made it the place to go for everything except the films. In 2009, this is still largely the case. Amongst the films, there was an exception that proves the rule: The Search by Tibetan director Pema Tseden (a.k.a. Wanma Caidan). More about that later. And meanwhile, the festival’s continued growth, while a success in itself, is producing new challenges all of its own.

What are the unusual challenges that continue to beset Shanghai? Films appearing in A-list competitions must be premieres outside their country of origin. Shanghai is a newcomer compared to Cannes, Berlin and all the others. Even more difficult, it takes place just after Cannes, the festival that all the hot films aim for. Therefore, its main competition struggles to attract strong entries. This year, the Best Film award went to Danish-Swedish co-production Original (dir. Antonio Tublen and Alexander Brøndsted), a film about mental illness. Sverrir Gudnason picked up Best Actor for the lead role. Best Actress went to Simone Tang for her role in a Danish coming-of-age psychodrama called Kærestesorger (Aching Hearts, dir. Nils Malmros). Julius Sevcík from the Czech Republic won Best Director for Normal, a murder mystery set in the 1930s. I’m sure all were worthy contenders. But I doubt they are going to set the world on fire.

Second, although technically free of censorship, the festival has to be aware of both political sensitivities and the expectations of the public and the authorities in a country where nudity and sex in the cinema are extremely constrained. This makes selection of foreign films idiosyncratic, to say the least. For the local audiences, made dependent by import quotas on pirate DVDs and downloads to see all but a handful of new foreign films every year, the festival remains a rare opportunity to see a wider range of foreign films on the big screen, no matter how particular the selection. Most evening sessions of foreign films sold out. But relatively few of the foreign visitors attended those screenings.

Instead, they did meetings, attended the market, and went to the forum events. 12 seminars, roundtables and master classes made this a bigger forum than ever, and every session was packed out. To mark the 50th anniversary of the French New Wave, SIFF not only got the (then) editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, Jean-Michel Frodon, to speak. But they also ramped up the star wattage with by asking directors like Jia Zhangke and Wei Te-sheng, whose Hái-kak chhit-ho (Cape No.7) broke all box office records in Taiwan this year, to speak about the impact of the “new wave” concept in Chinese-language cinema cultures. At the industry end of the scale, the forums included a co-production seminar with an array of speakers including Tong Gang, Director-General of the Film Bureau, and Han Sanping, Chair of the China Film Group Corporation. For many foreign visitors, the rare chance to listen to people like these had more pulling power than the films at SIFF.

Just like Shanghai itself, Shanghai International Film Festival is in love with power, prestige and glamour. All the major Chinese stars were there: Zhang Ziyi, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh and many others well known within the People’s Republic. On the international front, Halle Berry and Clive Owen were rolled out for the opening night along with the red carpet. Danny Boyle chaired the jury, which also included Andie MacDowell, and Quincy Jones and Isabelle Huppert turned up to collect Lifetime Achievement awards.

Oxhide II (2009)However, the festival is also clearly aware that there is more to cinema than box office figures and stars. One of the interesting additional functions of all the sidebar events from the forum to the pitch and catch sessions is to provide spaces where the independents can appear and participate. Chinese films that have not been through the government censorship system – and that means all Chinese independent films – cannot be shown at the festival. But the filmmakers can be there. For example, Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide II had just been honoured with a place in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes this year. There is nothing politically or sexually controversial about the film. So, you might expect to see it at Shanghai. But Oxhide II is a Chinese indie unsubmitted for censorship and therefore excluded from the festival.

Like the original Oxhide (2005), Oxhide II is a no-budget minimalist miracle. Filmed in long-take mode in her family’s tiny Beijing flat, it stars Liu and her parents, following them through the conversation that occurs during the New Year custom of rolling, boiling and eating dumplings. Just as Christmas lunch might tell you a lot about the many Western cultures, we get an insight not only into Liu’s family dynamics but also surviving the pressures of ordinary city life and the new market economy in China today. In the inevitable absence of the film, Liu herself appeared at a female filmmakers’ roundtable. It was sponsored by a women’s lifestyle website, and featured a bevy of glamorous and dolled up women filmmakers. Amongst them, Liu stood out almost as much as the moderator, the famous male filmmaker and former independent, Jia Zhangke. Her no make-up image and no-frills ethos of filmmaking struck a refreshing note and sent a strong message to the many ordinary young women in the audience.

However, most exciting and unexpected was the possibly unprecedented discovery of an important new film at SIFF. This was The Search, the long awaited second film from Tibetan director of multi-award winner Lhing vjags kyi ma ni rdo vbum (The Silent Holy Stones) Pema Tseden (a.k.a. Wanma Caidan). The rough cut was ready last year, and devoid of anything evidently problematic. But, nonetheless, it seems getting it through the censors at the Film Bureau took longer than expected.

The Search won the Jury Grand Prix at Shanghai. It is the exactly the kind of uncommercial and low budget film that would normally be made as an independent film in China. But any film by an ethnically Tibetan director in the People’s Republic is “sensitive”, as the Chinese like to say. Therefore, it would be impossible for Pema Tseden to avoid going through the official channels and the official censorship process. It is in this sense that The Search is the exception that proves the rule about the absence of “discovery films” at SIFF: other films like this are likely to be made as indies and therefore not to screen at SIFF.

The Search is something of an hommage to Kiarostami. In the manner of Zendegi va digar hich (And Life Goes On) and Zire darakhatan zeyton (Through the Olive Trees), the film follows a director casting for his next movie. The process licenses a road tour of the country. Finding the actors is less important than giving us a picture of everyday life in Iran, or, in this case, Tibet. Indeed, the chance to see Tibet through a contemporary resident Tibetan’s eyes is a big part of the film’s appeal. The imagery is often stunning, but never picture postcard-like. Of course, controversial content is avoided, but we see corners of everyday life rarely seen on film. The difficulty of depicting Chinese-Tibetan interactions is avoided entirely, and therefore the film takes part entirely amongst the Tibetans, in Tibetan language.

Chinese-Tibetan interactions can be avoided because the roles the director is trying to fill are of traditional Tibetan opera figures. Drimé Kunden is a prince who gives away everything, even his own wife, children, and finally his eyes. He is a symbol of Buddhist compassion in Tibetan opera culture. The part of his wife is filled rapidly, and the director takes the actress on the road with him as he tries to find a suitable singing partner for her. In the end the search is fruitless, yet the audience has been given so much. And what might the inability to put together a couple able or willing to play Drimé Kunden and his wife in today’s Tibet say? That today’s Tibet is lacking something? That modern Tibet has moved on? Or both?

The Search (2009)For quite a few days after its premiere, The Search was the talk of SIFF. Most foreigners at the festival both liked the film and predicted it would be a big festival hit around the world over the coming year, given not only its cinematic appeal but also the strong international interest in Tibet. Nonetheless, a few dismissed it, on the grounds that festival cinema is not “real” cinema. These are the few foreign critics who faithfully attend the Chinese film screenings at SIFF, under the delusion that the mainstream Chinese films in the festival represent “real Chinese cinema” and what ordinary Chinese audiences like.

In fact, few of the Chinese films in SIFF will attract large Chinese audiences, never mind foreign ones. Any film with genuine appeal will be saved for competition and exposure in stronger festivals, or its own high profile premiere. For example, this year at SIFF, Ma lan hua (The Magic Aster) was trumpeted as the breakthrough film for China’s animation industry. It is not. The characters and plot are suited to the under-7s, but the feature length is too long for them, and the animation itself is TV quality rather than suitable for theatrical release. The new film from Ning Cai, whose Ji feng zhon de ma (Season of the Horse) won attention in 2005, was highly anticipated. But Parza Teg is a badly acted hash of demeaning stereotypes about the indigenous Ewenki people of the Northeast. No one should be fooled into thinking these are the highlights of China’s burgeoning commercial industry, which had over 400 productions last year. However, perhaps setting its sights on becoming a launch pad for the hottest new Chinese releases might be a realistic goal for SIFF in the future.

Also important in the future is going to be finding a way to deal with its growing size. In the past, concentrating the festival on the Crowne Plaza Hotel and the Film Centre next door has been a very effective strategy. It both created a buzz and made it convenient for people to meet. This year, the sheer size of the event led to dispersion of the festival across the city. The market was in its own special site, and I did not meet anyone who had been able to attend both the market and the festival, although many had wanted to. I think I was the only foreign guest to trek out for the screenings and award announcements for the International Student Film Competition. That was a pity, because with over 600 entries from all over the world, it really is a world-class event, without a single dud among the finalists. How the festival will overcome the danger of dispersion remains to be seen, but rumours have started about a possible special venue being built for the future.

The same growth that is leading to dispersion also always puts the festival organisation under strain. Each year, some problems get solved, but new ones appear. This year, the volunteers were not only plentiful, as they have always been, but much more effective. A three-year veteran confirmed to me that this year there was more training and clearer instructions than ever before. However, programming remains hit and miss not only in terms of selection but also in execution. Why screen a special retrospective of Chinese films that only foreigners would go to, but then select prints without subtitles? Why list films alphabetically by country in the catalogue index, but then randomly under each country? The devil remains in the detail, but SIFF has the energy, the resources, and the determination to keep moving ahead.

Shanghai International Film Festival website: http://www.siff.com