It is customary in China’s film festival environment for there to be is almost no information on the upcoming edition of a festival until the last two, three weeks before the event is scheduled to start. The negotiations with local government and private investors over funds take time, but the biggest issue is one faced by official governmentally backed film festivals because each film in the program must be approved by the central Film Bureau in Beijing and the review drags until the very last minute.1 Moreover, the team employed to run those festivals changes frequently, which sometimes leads to delays, lack of professionalisation and interrupted transmission of local management know-how. This year’s Hainan Island International Film Festival, held in the seaside city of Sanya, announced its dates – from December 15 to 23 – only eight days before the festival was scheduled to begin. The festival celebrated its 5th edition. While, thus far, it hasn’t formed a bond with a regular cinephile crowd, it certainly retains a place in the calendars of Chinese film journalists and media workers who are generously hosted by the festival in one of Sanya’s five-star hotels. The perspective of getting away from freezing Beijing (last December the temperatures fell to -15 degrees) to the Southernmost city in China to holiday in all-inclusive resorts is irresistible amidst a climate of undereating and sleep deprivation that marks festival-going at the Berlinale, Cannes or Venice Film Festival. However, such holidays – idyllic though they sound – somehow go south and the 5th Hainan Island festival was no exception. 

The first edition of Hainan Island took place in December 2018. Hosted by China Media Group and People’s Government of Hainan Province, the festival is part of a larger governmental project – Hainan Free Trade Port, which aims to gradually transform the island into a major destination for tourism and foreign investment to redistribute power away from politically tumultuous Hong Kong. Since 1 May 2018, Hainan has adopted a 30-day visa-free policy for the citizens of 59 countries; it allows the festival to easily invite international guests. The first edition was attended by Johnny Depp, Juliette Binoche, Mads Mikkelsen and India’s superstar Aamir Khan; the second hosted Isabelle Huppert and Asghar Farhadi, while Nuri Bilge Ceylan served as the head of the jury of the post-pandemic 2023 edition. The organisers wish to transform Sanya into Chinese Cannes and financial support from local government and investors seemed to make it a feasible idea. The festival attracted some of the most renowned film curators based in the region. Roger Garcia – co-founder and long-time director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival – shaped the festival’s program in 2019 and 2020, and Marco Müller – sinologist and former director of the Venice Film Festival – was its artistic director in 2022. However, both soon decided to break off contact with the festival. At the beginning of 2023, the reputation of the Hainan Island was tarnished when Chinese producer Qian Yini revealed on Wechat (Chinese social media app) that the festival still has not paid the production-support prize of RMB1.5 million (about $212,000) for his project Reng nide mao (Drop Your Cat) won back in 2020 at the pitching forum.2 Since the organising team changes every year, no one takes responsibility for the problems of previous editions. The filmmakers in China used to be dazzled by Hainan Island because the prize money offered as part of work-in-progress sessions was the highest among those available at domestic film festivals. Following the news, gossip spread among the film community about Hainan Island’s misappropriation of funds, chaotic organisation, nepotism and an overstretched budget plan. 

Hainan Island International Film Festival Awards Ceremony

Participation in Hainan Island is a hermetic process. I got invited to join the winter migration of film journalists from Beijing to Sanya only because I met one of the organisers at a party during Pingyao. The Hainan Island website was defunct for a long time, and it was only made public under the new address in late November.3 It does not appear in the Google search engine, only in Baidu. Application for press accreditation without a personal invitation, or without at least knowing someone working in the guest department, most likely would have been ignored. The festival does not have its own booking system and tickets for press and guests are allocated based on an Excel form. The work is coordinated via groups on Wechat which results in losing the relevant information under the avalanche of other messages. The solid festival identity and appealing branding hides the chaos underneath. 

The main goal of the funding bodies is to use the cultural event to support the development of local tourism. Hainan Island does not require a domestic premiere status to select a film4 and the screenings themselves are not the centre of attention. However, the program of the 5th edition was a solid overview of titles screened in Venice, Cannes or Rotterdam, enabling Chinese cinephiles and film journalists to stay in check with recent developments in global art cinema. Marco Müller’s taste in cinema still lingers in the Hainan Island program and the festival managed to secure the Chinese premiere of Ai shi yi ba qiang (Love is a Gun, 2023, Lee Hong-Chi) which won the Lion of the Future – “Luigi De Laurentiis Award” for Best Debut Film in Venice last year. In the film, Taiwanese actor-turned-director Lee Hong-chi tells the tale of a young ex-convict trying to reconnect with his girlfriend and find a white-collar job while old friends from the mafia come knocking at his door. Love is a Gun is a trip back to 1990s Taiwan Cinema and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Nanguo zaijian, nanguo (Goodbye South, Goodbye, 1996) or Hsu Hsiao-ming’s Siàu-liān–ê, an lah! (The Dust of Angels, 1992). Lee Hong-Chi highlights the tension between the city and the countryside as well as the difficulty of changing one’s fate in a classist Taiwanese society. Although Love is a Gun is another rendition of a well-known plotline, the moments in which the character is alone on screen do remain memorable. 

Like Winds, Like Weeds

The study of solitude and persistence returned in Cangshan (Like Winds, Like Weeds, 2023, Zhang Fan) previously screened in China at the 17th FIRST IFF in Xining and 10th Silk Road International Film Festival. A drama about a middle-aged woman taking care of her senile mother and teenage son in Shanghai while pursuing self-realisation is yet another female-centred story of migrant working class like the one in recent Berlinale-premiered Kong fangjian li de nvren (Some Rain Must Fall, Qiu Yang). Like Winds, Like Weeds is not as grim and pessimistic but the slow pacing of the narrative punctuated by moments of daily violence and stinging disappointments leaves a bitter and heavy aftertaste. The main character decides to return to her provincial hometown near Shanghai, which symbolically changed its name, paralleling her process of slowly returning to herself – her identity having been transformed by long years of making ends meet in the coastal metropolis. Both Love is a Gun and Like Winds, Like Weeds show how Chinese-language cinemas are entangled in their own legacy and bounded by narratives that have proven to resonate with the international as well as the domestic audience in the past. 

Love My Way

Similarly, Xihuan gaoxing ai (Love, My Way, 2023, Liu Bing) looks like it would have been the contemporary of Li Shaohong’s Shengsi jie (Stolen Life, 2005). Both films ascertain that there is no happy ending for working-class youth chasing after romantic love. The main character in Love My Way jumps from one relationship to another, becoming gradually disenchanted with different types of men. She avidly reads Madame Bovary and identifies with the eponymous character. Flaubert never married but had a confident stance on the matter. Liu Bing, a 47-year-old male filmmaker, also has his own firm, naturalist and fatalistic view on contemporary young Chinese women, especially their bodies and desires. Revisiting well-known plotlines about female hysteria and women living in a fantasy world – the crux of the matter being gender inequality and deep dissatisfaction with romantic relationships with men, is unnerving when, once again, we are shown that there is no alternative path and no chance for female characters to move beyond their traumas. Liu Bing turns to grey palettes and kitchen sink realism which makes me wonder if Chinese art films are narratively and visually at a standstill, and have been for the past two decades. 

Snow Leopard

The closing film of the festival, Xue Bao (Snow Leopard, 2023, Pema Tseden), brought conflicting feelings but it remains my most vivid memory from Sanya. It was the Chinese premiere, attended by crew members and with director Jigme Trinley representing his father Pema Tseden, who died on 8 May 2023, from heart failure. The film was supposed to open the festival, but it was shifted to the closing ceremony one day before the festival began. It still awaits a domestic theatrical release date. The starting point of Snow Leopard is simple: a dispute between a shepherd who wants to kill a snow leopard for attacking his herd of sheep and representatives of an animal protection organization who try to prevent him from further exterminating the endangered species. A regional television crew arrives at the scene to cover the story. The seemingly straightforward conflict expands into a complex reflection on identity, institutions and laws, contemporary masculinity and the process of modernization. Over the past 10 years, Pema Tseden has managed to carve out a niche for Tibetan-language films beyond the category of “ethnic minority cinema” – known as shaoshu minzu dianying, and to which Tibetan films are historically relegated in China. Unfortunately, the national premiere of Snow Leopard was chaotic. Due to the lack of a ticketing system, people entered the screening room in groups several times after the film started. The volume was set too high and even after asking the organisers to adjust it, it remained with my messages on Wechat unanswered. Post-screening discussions were not moderated by curators or film critics, but media workers picked at random.5 As such, watching the Q&A was heart-breaking. Following the screening, the host asked general questions while the film crew wished to honour the memory and the legacy of Pema Tseden. The mournful atmosphere contrasted with the organisers’ drive to promote the festival. 

The eight days spent in Sanya were marked by such a feeling of discord. The main aim of Hainan is to accumulate financial capital rather than symbolic capital, whereas a film festival achieves its goal first in gaining symbolic power, which in turn brings all other forms of capital. Sanya is a site of top-down dislocation. The local government and investors are interested in promoting Hainan as a shooting location for big budget productions instead of developing local filmmaking and supporting local stories.6 Real estate companies insist on constructing buildings that resemble the ones in Thailand or Indonesia to turn the city into a dream-like beach resort somewhere in Southeast Asia, as if Hainan did not have its own specific history and cultural heritage. In the meantime, we can only wait for Hainan-born and bred filmmakers, who might one day conquer the festival circuit, giving voice and image to local stories.7 Hopefully, Hainan Island could be a place to bring them to the global art cinema’s attention, but for now, the festival is still under construction.

Hainan Island International Film Festival
16 – 22 December


  1. The films are sent in batches without any differentiation on sections therefore a festival is unable to publish any part of the program in advance.
  2. Mathew Scott, “China’s Hainan Film Festival Accused of Not Paying Prize Money to Past Winners”, The Hollywood Reporter (19 December 2023).
  3. Hainan Island International Film Festival website.
  4. Rang shijie kanjian wo (Invisible Summit, 2023, Fan Lixin) – pathos-packed documentary film about a blind mountaineer climbing Mount Everest – was still in regular theatres across China at the time the festival showcased it.
  5. For example, a fellow accredited media worker – a vlogger who sells expensive jewellery online and is fluent in English and Mandarin – was asked last minute to host Q&A sessions of two foreign films in the festival program.
  6. So far, the island did not have a strong representation on screen. The most famous Hainan-set film is the adaptation of model ballet Hongse niangzi jun (The Red Detachment of Women, 1970, Pan Wenzhan and Fu Jie) which screened in the official program of the 1971 Venice Film Festival after it went on to tour exhibitions in Western Europe and Northern America as the PRC established diplomatic relations with the countries in those regions.
  7. Laszlo Montgomery, “The History of Hainan”, The China History Podcast (December 2021).