Xining is located in a river valley on the eastern side of the Tibetan Plateau. Due to its proximity to Tibet and Xinjiang, the city has a strong multi-ethnic, multi-religious culture of Tibetan Buddhism as well as Hui Muslim. Although Xining has never been a film production base or a city with a strong exhibition industry, every July film industry practitioners, young filmmakers and film fans from all over China come here for the First Film Festival. According to Seio Nakajima, the First Film Festival, established in 2006, was originally a college film festival in the Communication University of China.1 From 2011, the film festival moved to Xining, probably because its geographical features are similar to the location of Sundance and the state of Utah: mountains, salt lakes and a religious culture. In addition, as film festival programs have to be approved by the local authorities, the festival has the political legitimacy from the provincial government of Qinghai, where Xining is located. As the “Our Story” section on the official website says, it “is committed to the discovery and promotion of emerging filmmakers and their early works.”2 Since the festival’s establishment, many emerging Chinese filmmakers that have received attention at film festivals around the world have been honoured here before going global. As shown in the slogan “Back to First, Back to Future” on the huge advertisement at the arrival corridor of the Xining Airport, this film festival delights in communicating to all visitors that this is the future of Chinese cinema.
This year, we attended the First Film Festival as public education guests. Unluckily, the festival caught up with the nationwide natural disaster of heavy rainfall and typhoon, which led to massive flight cancellations and delay. The delta strain of COVID-19 was rampant in many parts of China. The trip to Xining was also shrouded in the shadow of the Chinese film industry’s difficulties under the epidemic. However, the natural disasters and economic woes could not stop young audience’s enthusiasm for cinema. The Festival, labelled a “youth film festival” in its Chinese title, was filled with the hustle and bustle of young people from the start. The main venue was arranged in a new business area constructed under the urbanisation of Xining. Unlike the old town of Xining, here there are five-star hotels with international brands, new shopping malls, fashionable street bazaars, and bars for all-night partying. The portrait photos of stars and jury members were posted outside of the mall and on both sides of the road. Surrounded by skyscrapers, the plaza is occupied by a huge silver screen, reflecting the LED light emitting from the surrounding building’s facade. Every night, the plaza hosts celebrity meet-and-greets, live performances of popular bands, and open-air film premieres. The Festival provides an enclave for Chinese art cinema, a place far from the film production centres in East China, and a buffer to help release the pressure that Chinese filmmakers have accumulated for so long.
In Xining, we talked with filmmakers whose films were nominated in the main competition selection.3 Something common to the films was a sense of cinematic realism in representing ordinary Chinese families, especially intergenerational relationships within a family. This can especially be seen in the Documentary Competition, for us the highlight of this year’s competition, and led by two masters from the independent documentary scene, Fan Jian and Zhou Hao.
The movement of independent Chinese documentary started in the early 1990s. One of the earliest representative works was Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers (1990) by Wu Wenguang, who was one of the jury members for First’s main competition. Discussing past works in independent Chinese documentary, scholars have often referred to the use of the handheld camera to reproduce the personal, localised experience of Chinese society, imparting an on-location (xianchang) aesthetic.4 Such films have seldom passed censorship as they often represent the unembellished small towns and villages and portray sensitive political topics.
Fan Jian’s new work After the Rain is the sequel to The Next Life (2011). In the previous film, Fan recorded a couple who lost their only daughter in the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake. In showing how this couple had their second child, the director reveals that the mental damage caused by the One Child Policy to a family is as powerful as that of a natural disaster. Rain is the nickname of their deceased child. The production of After the Rain occurred in 2018, the tenth anniversary of the Wenchuan Earthquake, and Rain’s passing. In this sequel, their second child Chuanchuan is grown up. The couple’s life has gradually returned to the way it was. However, the images of the grave-sweeping activities and the couple’s memories of their daughter’s life reflects the emotional aftershock the family still suffers from. Fan told us “The second child is always a shadow of the deceased child for this couple.” The Chinese title 两个星球 (meaning “two planets”) not only refers to the complicated relationship between this child and his parents, but also the boundary between life and death. The imagery of water flowing appears throughout the film, including shots of a river and a mesmerising shot of flowing water blurring a photo of the deceased daughter. The flow of water seems to symbolise the flow of time. When memories become a burden of life, the family can only continue to live with it and the passing of time.
Another documentary veteran Zhou Hao’s new work All In does not focus as much on family as the other films examined in this report. However, Zhou documented two invisible figures who suffer from psychological problems due to unpleasant experiences growing up. The first figure is a pantomime performer who uses physical expression to relieve his trauma, as he is a victim of sexual assault. The second figure is a psychological counsellor who has schizophrenia because of the death of her father and husband. Continuing his style of straightforward questioning of his target subjects in his previous works Using (2007) and The Chinese Mayor (2015), Zhou chooses to get involved in the lives of these two people as a friend, and record moments of their self-torturing, painful life. In the middle of the film, as Zhou commented in the post-screening Q&A, he tries to push the boundaries of documentary, from objectively documenting the subject to documenting the “documenting itself”. From time to time, the two main characters need Zhou’s help through their chats using social media. These chats are recreated one by one in the documentary. The subjects and the crew seemingly become fictional families and the camera turns to how this family live and communicate with each other. What is somewhat controversial is the director’s treatment of the subjects when they feel nervous about the intrusion of camera and have emotional difficulty accepting the close contact with Zhou. However, the documentary also brings an unprecedented sense of immediacy to see how these invisible characters try hard to escape their self-suffering condition.
This year, the festival was subject to the challenge of censorship. There were four documentary films cancelled before their screenings. First officially announced that their cancellation was due to “technical reasons”. However, in China, “technical reasons” have become the common rhetoric for films as they encounter censorship problems. Ultimately the jury exceptionally declared that the Best Documentary Award should be vacant. At the awards ceremony, jury members Wu Wenguang and Ma Yingli stated “when the prize is divorced from viewing and from the audience, it also loses its evaluative validity and meaning.” The cancellation of the award expresses a firm attitude towards censorship.
The Narrative Competition features also focused on familial portraits, with personal experience and distinct regional characteristics. Interestingly, many films of note were made by first-time male filmmakers who presented the lives of female protagonists. Gao Qisheng’s River of Salvation is about the relationships and emotional curves of a sibling residing in central China’s Hubei province. The film is mostly narrated in the local dialect and in long takes without any camera movement. Faced with her little brother who has been cheated on in a relationship and a work environment shrouded by the male gaze of her boss, the female protagonist Rongjie, a foot massage therapist, finally accepts her present life with little brother and her guilt from killing a man in the past. Similarly, there is a female-centred narrative and long-take aesthetic in Wang Xide’s A Chat, but the scene shifts to a small city in the Yangtze River Delta region. The film focuses on the relationship of a woman, Gu Qing, and her niece, Sun Yue, who both work in the city, and their grandmother, who resides in the countryside. In the beginning, Sun Yue has moved to the city in order to meet up more regularly with her boyfriend. The film then follows up with Sun Yue commencing her work in Gu Qing’s tailor shop, which was opened by Gu to cover up the misery of the death of her daughter. With black and white cinematography throughout, the close-up shots highlight the haptic experience – the feel of sewn clothes and the taste of cooked food – to convey the warmth and care the women share with each other. At the end of the film both characters finally experience self-acceptance and solidarity.
These female-centred narratives signal that women’s empowerment has become an important topic in Chinese society. Now that, with its aging society, China is moving away from the One Child Policy and into the age when Chinese people are allowed to have up to three children, women’s reproductive rights and economic freedoms are facing obstacles. In this context, male directors are more introspective around their own gender roles. Female characters are shown to be more assertive. This seemingly can be proved in director Li Songming’s Love Found Love Lost, based on Li’s personal experience. The protagonist is having health problems and a bad time in his career. He is pessimistic and losing his passion for life. Meanwhile, his mother and girlfriend endure and help him. After he returns to the old home in the countryside, he accepts himself under his grandmother’s care. As Li recounted at the Jihe Bookstore event, he found himself far less capable of loving others than the women around him. Through filmmaking, he wanted to give himself an opportunity for self-analysis and to express his respect for women. Oftentimes throughout the festival program, character arcs would follow a return to family after encountering personal hardship, and finally leading to a sense of inclusion and self-acceptance. Going on First’s selection, it seems to be a common strategy for emerging Chinese directors to adapt their personal stories into cinema.
First’s position in Chinese art cinema is not merely to explore new directions in film aesthetics and narratives. On the one hand, it is the most preferred premiere event in China for Chinese-language films already screened at film festivals abroad, such as Zheng Lu Xinyuan’s The Cloud in Her Room, Rotterdam 2020’s Tiger Award winner, and Hong Kong director Jun Li’s Drifting, selected for this year’s Rotterdam and Hong Kong festivals. On the other, as part of First’s focus on emerging directors, it supports young filmmakers in producing their first feature film by inviting internationally renowned directors as mentors. Béla Tarr, Tsai Ming-liang and Mohsen Makhmalbaf have all come to Xining to act as mentors in the festival’s Training Camp program in the past. Indeed in this year’s program, Chao Fan’s One Man Funeral, about a forest ranger who organises his father’s funeral solitarily, reminds us of his mentor Béla Tarr’s style. It starts with a tracking shot tracing the ranger’s path with a bucket and shovel, similar to the camera work in The Turin Horse (2011). More interestingly, the entire film simulates a dog’s point of view to observe the protagonist’s actions. Chao Fan uses the animal perspective, long takes and B&W images to recreate the procedure of a primitive funeral ceremony: dressing the corpse, digging a grave, and burning the remains. Beyond this ultimate aesthetic experience, the film remains a reflection of traditional Chinese familial rituals and the simplest intergenerational attachments through representing the death of a father. This film was awarded the Spirit of Freedom Award.
The two biggest prizes – Best Picture and Best Director – were awarded to The White Cow and its director Zhang Zhongchen. Inspired by Zhang’s memories of his late childhood friend, The White Cow focuses on the congenitally deaf Fang Yuan and his daily work as a security guard, set against the traumatic memories of his family, particularly his father, who has a psychiatric disorder. Presented as a flashback in the film, after Fang Yuan’s sister accidentally dies, the whole family breaks apart, leaving him alone with only a white cow for company. The film doesn’t explain why a cow follows Fang throughout the entire film. This cow is detached from the complex human world in which Fang and his family are engaged. As the director said, he tries to use the cow’s aging as the marker of time to edit the film. In this way, the film seemingly narrates a human story based on a cow’s perception of time. More broadly, it depicts the detachment and ambiguity existing within an intergenerational relationship. As Fang is deaf, there isn’t a lot of dialogue, especially in the family scenes. The camera also visually accentuates the distance between the father and the son to highlight the former’s incomprehensible state of mind and the latter’s incapability of expression. The distanced camera has the effect of keeping the viewer detached from any communication or connection between the characters, in order to present a wholly disconnected family lacking any mutual understanding.
Zhang’s success illustrates the kind of cinematic possibilities that the festival seeks out. Before embarking on his career as a filmmaker, he worked as an air conditioner assembler and a security guard. At the awards ceremony, he said he could not live without the film, indicating how such a simple love of cinema so strongly contributed to his telling of a story long-held within himself. Fifteen years on, the First Film Festival proves it still inspires young Chinese filmmakers to express themselves through images. We just hope that the First can continue to bring freshness to Chinese, as well as global, art cinema.
Xining First International Film Festival
25th July – 2nd August 2021
Festival website: https://www.firstfilm.org.cn/en/
- Seio Nakajima, “Official Chinese film awards and film festivals: History, configuration and transnational legitimation”, Journal of Chinese Cinemas 13, no.3, pp. 236-237. ↩
- “Our Story”, First International Film Festival website, accessed on 20th August 2021. ↩
- We appreciate that two social media platforms, Apte and Unicorn Screening, offered us the chance to talk with several directors. Some of the director quotes in this report are taken from the event “Apte x Unicorn Screening: Echoes of the Past and the Future”, held on 30th July in the Xining Jihe Bookstore. We are grateful to Chen Chen and Lin Yixiang for organising this event, as well as to the filmmakers Fan Jian, Chao Fan, Zhang Zhongchen, Li Songming, and art designer Liu Lian, for taking part. ↩
- For more on independent Chinese documentary see: Luke Robinson, Independent Chinese Documentary: From the Studio to the Street, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2013. ↩