There are certain film festivals whose films and business politics always inspire great discussion. There are others where the warmth of community beats all else. For some hospitality and competency are their hallmarks. And for a few the most memorable things about them are the ugly totes given to guests, but best admired at other festivals. Rarely is a festival blessed with all these qualities. On the other hand, an event like the Shanghai International Film Festival is remarkable for its ambition. Few can accuse the Chinese of lacking the will to chase global standards these days, but as recent events in China have shown, such a blessing, if not harnessed with discipline, can prove to be a curse as well.

Founded in 1993, Shanghai ran biannually till 2001, when it upgraded to annual status (except for 2003’s cancelled edition due to the SARS pandemic). Although it openly trumps its ‘A-category’ competitive status accredited by a French regulatory body, organisers are only too aware that the political clout associated with this ranking is quite out of reach. Still, the festival is an important cultural event for Shanghai, particularly when the chance to see foreign films in Mainland theatres is low. Its existence also asserts some symbolism for this comeback kid of a city. A historical player of wealth and power who has seen many highs and lows, Shanghai is known to be savvy to the bone, and the values associated with a blockbuster film festival rank agreeably with the appetite for foreign movies among the city’s moneyed hoards.

A look at the festival’s infrastructure reveals its scale. Over 200 titles played across 6 sections on 30 screens in 24 venues over 9 days. With an average of 5 daily screenings, the spread was ample. Coexisting alongside was the buffet of industry activities that also contributed to its top ranking: namely, its 3-day film market and a host of business, filmmaking and intellectual forums. Also part of the bargain: the festival’s competitive film sections comprising one for international features and another with a regional focus on new directing talents from Asia. Despite this largesse, logistical wrinkles were obvious: films were messily lined up and needed better sorting; advertised films in publications were in fact missing from the schedules; venues were spread too wide across the city, with many located far beyond downtown. Worse, Shanghai was blighted with punishing weather all week — because June is its wettest month.

In his 2007 and 2009 reports from Shanghai, Chris Berry noted that programming wasn’t one of the festival’s strengths simply because organisers had their hands tied not only with distribution issues but also with China’s strict censorship and film quota laws. As a result, random tributes and retrospectives fronted a good portion of the program, with Bille August, Krzysztof Kieślowski and Zheng Junli starring in the Tribute to the Masters section. The same space allowed some directors who were jurors on various competitions this year to show some of their stuff, both old and new: between them, Barry Levinson, Tran Anh Hung and Iwai Shunji showed seven films. Capping it all was a package of several 1940s and 1950s Hollywood Film Noir titles: Hawks, Houston, Vidor, Wilder et al., a choice that likewise felt more opportunistic than strategic.

For observers of Mainland cinema, Shanghai’s View China section offers only state sanctioned films — ones best identified by opening credits showing an animated golden filmstrip morphing into a dragon seal, played to a drum roll and woodwind flourish. Since China produces hundreds of films annually, this year’s pick of 35 represents just a window of opportunity to admire the range of local genres and talents. Memorable pictures included: Ye Cao Mei (The Wild Strawberries), Chen Bing’s sensitive drama set in a 1970s Red Army garrison, about a dangerous romance that unfolds between a late hero’s feted widow and her lover; Dou Shi Tong Hua (Fairytales), Liang Ming’s humanist parable about a disabled youth who is ripped from his utopian world of fantasy after crossing paths with a ruthless mogul; and Shen Shui Yu Tang (Deep Pond), Jia Lin’s striking horror flick about an amateur fisher who swaggers into a rural fishing pond and commits the grave error of pissing off a fellow angler. But absent was Jian Dang Wei Ye (Beginning of the Great Revival), Han Sanping’s and Huang Jianxin’s second historical epic in three years — this time honouring the Communist Party of China’s 90th anniversary. Brimming with Sinosphere talent and released nationwide days into the festival, this blockbuster would have been the logical choice for a headlining event ahead of the actual anniversary in July.

The program’s residue was clustered in the Global Village section, with country-specific attention on Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Spain and Thailand. Across the board, safe, mainstream crowd pleasers dominated. Thailand figured significantly, not just in its ten hit titles selected but also in a government-supported delegation of market-bound film companies to appeal to Thai pop culture’s following in the Mainland. Because many Thai genres digestible at home aren’t palatable offshore, it wasn’t surprising that the only Thai film that sold out in advance also had broad appeal. Co-directed by Wasin Pokpong and Puttipong Promsaka Na Sakolnakorn, the rom-com, Sing Lek Lek Tee Reak Wa… Rak (A Crazy Little Thing Called Love) tells of an awkward high school girl who works to get her crush to notice her by needlessly glamming herself to perfection (credit goes to the makeup team for her dubious makeover). Famous stars involved aside, the film’s humility proved winning.

Special mention also goes to the gutsy inclusion of two in Yuthlert Sippapak’s planned trilogy about weekend hitmen: Mue Puen Dao Pra Sao (Saturday Killer) and Mah Kae Antarai (Friday Killer), with Sunday Killer in the works. Related by only one gimmicky cross-referenced scene, this is a pair of goofy political comedies coloured with rude jokes to skewer the gravitas of the gunslinging action genre. Released in Thailand late last year, the funnier Saturday Killer introduces comedian Chusak Eiamsuk as pudgy marksman Tee Rifle, whose problem of ‘shooting too soon’ is aggravated when he falls for the daughter of a former target out for vengeance. Next for release is the more gripping Friday Killer, starring fellow comedian Thep Po-ngam as scruffy deadeye Pay Uzi, who decides to connect with his policewoman daughter after being freed from prison, but a chance attempt to save her lover from rape backfires when his intentions are mistaken for harm. Adding to the old man’s woes is a subplot involving a wealthy politician who wants him silenced for good.

The influence of Japanese pop culture on the Mainland also ensured great receptions for some titles. The festival was able to premiere Sabu’s enjoyable Usagi Doroppu (Bunny Drop), based on Yunita Umi’s redicomi, in which Matsuyama Ken’ichi plays a young bachelor saddled with single parenthood after he naïvely adopts his late grandfather’s unwanted daughter (his 6 year-old aunt). Much more endearing was Kobayashi Shotaro’s Mainichi Kasan (Kaasan’s Mom’s Life), based on mangaka Saibara Rieko’s autobiographical manga about a divorced mother who draws comics to support her two kids, but is also drawn to looking after her alcoholic ex-husband, who is still close to the family. (There’s interesting chemistry between leads Koizumi Kyoko and Masatoshi Nagase, who were ironically once married.) Going in a different direction altogether was Hashimoto Naoki’s bizarrely plotted Saitai (Birth Right). Although it’s best to go into this one cold, this much can be said: this is a Japanese horror film about a grudge.

Then again, the festival’s perceived programming limitations can betray audience expectation. If organisers have taken heat for indulging unchallenging fare, then the case of Lee Yoon-ki’s Saranghanda, Saranghaji Ahnneunda (Come Rain, Come Shine) is instructive. One of the few aesthetic pictures in the program, it follows a young married couple in the hours before their separation takes effect. When one of them is unable to leave home because of bad weather, the pair is forced to extend their time together. Slow-moving and moody, with no dramatic turns and minimal dialogue, body language and narrative thus become central to understanding Lee’s characters. There are evidently more pretentious films about estrangement out there, but the packed house at this late evening screening was merciless. As the credits rolled following an inconclusive curtain, echoes of laughter rose across the auditorium. “That’s it?” it first seemed to imply. But soon the lilting scorn removed all doubt that this really meant “WTF?”

Shanghai International Film Festival
11-19 June 2011
Festival website: http://www.siff.com