After the zero-Covid policy lockdown pushed the previous edition of Pingyao International Film Festival to January 2023, Jia Zhangke and the festival team faced the challenge of organising two festivals in one year. Whereas the 6th PIFF was announced at the last minute and did not attract a large audience, upon returning to its usual autumnal slate, the small ancient city in Central China found itself besieged between 11-19 October by cinephiles from all corners of the country. Already during the opening night, it became clear that the current infrastructure – the Pingyao Festival Palace is located in a redeveloped diesel engine factory – is not big enough to house the film-thirsty young public. Platform – a large open-air theatre named after Jia Zhangke’s Pingyao-set sophomore film – was full each evening, not to mention the main indoor cinema Spring in a Small Town, which is a tribute to Chinese filmmaker Fei Mu’s 1948 classic work. Even press screenings required standing in line for at least one hour to get into a 70-seat theatre. 

There was something special about the whole ambience of the festival. It is not only due to the extreme liveliness, but also the weather. Usually cold and windy in October, Pingyao was bathed in the warmth of the sun which gave the impression of a post-pandemic everlasting summer in the times of climate apocalypse. This weather-induced otherworldly atmosphere of calmness before the storm resonated with the opening film – Hebian de cuowu (Only the River Flows). In his third feature, Wei Shujun adapts the 1988 short story by one of the most acclaimed Chinese writers Yu Hua. The seemingly simple plot focuses on a series of murders by the river in 1990s southern China. However, as the detective falls deeper and deeper into paranoia, the story becomes a reflection on the nature of subjectively perceived reality. The filmmaker adds details and subplots to the literary original while being faithful to its spirit – the feeling of the world being upside down. If Wei takes a crime story into a new direction, far away from its tiring genre clichés, then debuting director Hao Feihuan’s Chenmo bilu (Record Without Words) does just the opposite. Also set in 1990s southern China, the film centres on a young man aspiring to become a policeman. He is put in charge of finding out who is behind a series of dog killings and, as the case turns out to be surprisingly linked to his father’s death, the story sinks into exploration of the protagonist’s daddy issues. The storytelling is disrupted by random shots and uneven pacing which suggests that the film might have gone through many re-edits. It went through many industry pitching forums and, due to scenes involving violence, the feedback from the Film Bureau might have suggested cuts to acquire the public screening licence. 

A Romantic Fragment

Sharing the focus on the search for the father, Choy Ji’s subtle and lyrical Renhai tongyou (Borrowed Time) is on the other side of the spectrum of filmmaking sensibility. Guided by her estranged father’s letters from the late 1990s, the protagonist walks through the streets and fruit markets of Hong Kong as she tries to reconnect with him before getting married. Simultaneously, she reflects upon her teenage memory of a boy who saved her from the police while they were buying bootleg CDs. The quest takes on metaphorical dimensions showing the ghostly nature of Hong Kong filled with memories and spectres of the past, turning Borrowed Time into one of the most compelling cinematic images of the city in recent Chinese-language cinemas. 

PIFF is not only a barometer of the state of Chinese arthouse filmmaking but also the current tastes of domestic audiences. Neither Record Without Words nor Borrowed Time stirred any heated responses from cinephiles. However, another story based in the south of China certainly did. The premiere screening of Langman de duanzhang (A Romantic Fragment, Yang Pingdao) – the story of a road trip taken by a lovesick young man, his ex-girlfriend and her middle-aged fiancé – was followed by a full-on fight between audience members over the representation of women in the film. During the Q&A, a young woman in the audience started criticising one scene that alludes to the couple having sex in a tent, arguing that it lacked consent and led to exploitation of the female character as well as the actress portraying her. Opposing as well as supporting voices, male and female, soon rose from the audience. The two camps became verbally abusive, fighting between each other while the film crew stood in front of the screen and kept calling for a truce. A Romantic Fragment became a topic of articles and analysis in which film critics and cinephiles chose sides or tried to understand the motivation behind the audience reaction which went far beyond the one directed against the female representation in Qu ma chang (Go Photoshooting, Nan Xin) at this year’s FIRST International Film Festival in Xining, China. 

Both A Romantic Fragment and Go Photoshooting were directed by men, but women filmmakers were not spared in the debate. Li Ran brought her debut film, Shengji yishi de aiqing (Till Love Do Us Part, 2022), to the 7th PIFF more than a year after its world premiere at the 2022 Warsaw Film Festival. After the screening, she faced both male and female cinephiles questioning the motivation behind the protagonist’s choice to explore her sexuality and pursue interests in Europe instead of staying in her stable long-term relationship with a wealthy but abusive partner in Beijing. The Chinese post-2000s audience seems to be troubled by issues of morality and social responsibility much more than the individualistic post-1980s and post-1990s generations. It translates into the friction between the filmmakers’ and the viewers’ different points of view and values. The film itself certainly taps into a shared experience of middle-class Millennials all around the world. The main character of Till Love Do Us Part, Shu Qiao, is a university lecturer who goes to Prague on a scholarly exchange. A chance meeting with a Chinese man working as a theatre and performance artist pushes her to re-evaluate her life. I did not have any expectations before watching the film, but it proved to be my favourite from the new ones I have seen at the festival. The transnational and transgressive experiences of the protagonist are shown through small details that lead to personal breakthroughs. The editing makes the storytelling subtle and ambiguous but full of empathy for the characters. Liang Cuishan portraying Shu Qiao strikes a balance between fragility and strength, accenting the small fluctuations of emotions and giving insight into the protagonist’s inner world. Till Love Do Us Part is a rare co-production between China and the Czech Republic. Prague, seen through the eyes of a Chinese 30-something intellectual, seems like a secret garden in which the weight of history – the Habsburgian splendour, communist roughness and contemporary multiculturality – punctuates the cinematic space. 

Till Love Do Us Part

Whereas Beijing does not feature much in Till Love Do Us Part, it is certainly the focus of Dongsi shitiao (Dance Still, Qin Muqiu, Zhan Hanqi). This quirky comedy about hanging out in the hutong alleyways in central Beijing became the main crowd pleaser of the festival. The film is built around conversations between two characters with similar temperaments but contrasting physiques. The tall, skinny Dongsi and the moustached, shorter Shitiao is the classic tandem known from situational comedies. The men meet in line to buy local snacks and bond over wearing the same type of pants. Observing them chilling out throughout different seasons of the year, wearing different fashionable clothes in each scene quickly boosts levels of dopamine in the bloodstreams of viewers who have a sweet spot for everyday aestheticism. Debuting filmmakers, Qin Muqiu and Zhan Hanqi, go deep into the microcosm of Beijing hutongs as seen from the perspective of the post-1980s, post-1990s generation of Chinese cultural workers. Playfully naming the characters after a small neighbourhood in the southeast of the city centre – Dongsi Shitiao – the film is simultaneously local and global. You could meet Dongsi and Shitiao on the streets of Berlin, the city often mentioned in Dance Still

A dry sense of humour is a recurring element of the cinematic images of Northern China which featured in the PIFF program as often as those of the South. Set in Harbin, the capital of the Northernmost province of Heilongjiang, Yiriyou (Day Tripper) follows a group of characters over the span of one day as they navigate between obstacles such as bullies at school or a wardrobe being stuck in the middle of the entrance door while moving house. The Chinese title of the film literally means a ‘one-day trip’ which is the expression for an arthouse film that screens in domestic cinemas only for one day and falls off the programming due to low box office. The filmmaker Chen Yanqi does not hide his enchantment with minimalism, awkwardness and offbeat romanticism in the spirit of Aki Kaurismäki or, even closer, Li Hongqi. 

Harbin is a multicultural city where 19th century Western European, Russian and Chinese architecture closely co-exist. Modernised in the late 1890s by Polish engineer – and consequently the first president of the city – Adam Szydłowski following the construction of the railway funded by the Russian empire, the streets of Harbin bear a mark of internationalism akin to old Austro-Hungarian cities. Therefore, as a person coming from the South-eastern part of Poland which, in the 19th century, used to be the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, I keep wondering why none of the Chinese filmmakers have explored that side of Harbin. If the co-productions between China and Czech Republic work out, maybe one day Polish producers might take interest.

Day Tripper

In many contemporary Chinese-language films the style outgrows the content. It does not have the gravity and reflection upon the state of contemporary China that Ser ser salhi (City of Wind, Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir) – the winner of PIFF’s Roberto Rossellini Award for Best Director in the international competition – has regarding Mongolia. Such a trend characterised the 1980s Chinese cinema which reflected the heated debates about national identity taking place at the time. PIFF returns to the mid-1980s with this year’s recipient of the East-West Achievement Award, the 5th generation filmmaker Huang Jianxin. In Cuowei (Dislocation, 1986) he imagines a modern, bureaucratic world in technicolour and speculates about the ways of escaping from it. The protagonist is an engineer working in a managerial position in government structures. He creates a clone to replace him during the tedious and overly long official meetings so he would finally have time to do his own research. However, the clone starts to have his own opinions about the world and his place in it. Although the film is rooted in the mid-1980s zeitgeist, its critique of the institutional system strongly resonates with contemporary problems in academia and many other related fields in China as well as many other parts of the world. 

During the masterclass Huang discussed the influence of AI and short video platforms such as TikTok on cinema. In the 1990s, Huang created some of the most compelling portrayals of post-1989 Chinese intelligentsia while, nowadays, he is known as the director of some of the most famous main-melody (zhuxuanlv 主旋律) propaganda films such as Jianguo daye (The Founding of a Republic, 2009). His career went through many changes, but he does not see any conflict between mainstream and arthouse filmmaking. He simply sees art cinema as monotheistic religion, with the filmmaker resembling a priest, while mainstream is polytheism in which filmmakers follow genre conventions. Recent Chinese films are characterised by the blurring of the boundary since, in China, nothing really stays constant and all diversity in the end turns into unity. 

PYIFF 2023

The festival undergoes changes, not only regarding infrastructure and programming. Marco Muller – Artistic Director between 2017 and 2020 and now Artistic Consultant – is leaving the team for good. The restructuring started after Jia Zhangke unexpectedly announced withdrawal from the festival in 2020 and handed over the organisation to the local government. The reasons were multiple: the need for more time to work on his new film – an essay centring on the daily products and popular culture between 1949 and the 1990s; programming the festival under the conditions of an unknown length of time waiting for the censorship review process also took a toll on Jia’s health; but the main problem might have been financial. The festival received subsidies from the local government between 2017 and 2019, but its main sponsor was Jia’s own company. The pandemic posed a threat to private businesses and, since 2021, P IFF is backed financially by the municipal government of Jinzhong City. 

We will see what the future holds for PIFF. During an interview on the last day of the festival, borderline tired Jia Zhangke said that building another cinema within the Pingyao Festival Palace compound is in the plans for next year. Each venue is named after an iconic Chinese arthouse film, and I keep thinking about which one will be chosen for the new screening hall. My bet is on Ren xiaoyao (Unknown Pleasures, Jia Zhangke, 2002) or Huang tudi (Yellow Earth, Chen Kaige, 1984). I would love to see the new cinema for myself and return next year not only to see the latest Chinese and international art films but also, once again, to spend hours in the cinephilic bookshop where the soundtrack from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Ōshima Nagisa, 1983) plays on repeat.

Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival
11 – 18 October 2023

About The Author

Maja Korbecka is a PhD candidate at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her research focuses include Sinophone cinemas, film festival studies and Southeast Asian cinemas. She is also interested in film curatorship and different forms of film criticism such as audiovisual essays and podcasts.

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