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Shanxi Film Festival Aims to Boost Mainland Uptake of Arthouse Cinema

Now in its third year, the Pingyao International Film Festival's focus on lower-budget arthouse cinema from China and around the world makes it somewhat unique among the mainland's ever-growing number of movie marketplaces.

Photo: The Fever: Award-winning melancholy meets magic realism from Brazil.
The Fever: Award-winning melancholy meets magic realism from Brazil.
Photo: The Fever: Award-winning melancholy meets magic realism from Brazil.
The Fever: Award-winning melancholy meets magic realism from Brazil.

Taking place within the well-preserved ancient walled city of Pingyao, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Pingyao International Film Festival (PYIFF) has one of the most picturesque settings of any such event in China. Launched in 2017 by Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke and former Venice Film Festival chief Marco Mueller, it also has a unique mission – to introduce greater diversity to the China film market by giving visibility to both Chinese and international arthouse films.

One of China's most internationally famous directors, Jia, whose films regularly play at the Cannes Film Festival, returned to his home province of Shanxi to launch the festival, attracting support from both the provincial government and the local business community. Partnering with Wang Huaiyu, a local architect, he set about constructing the Pingyao Festival Palace just off the high street on a former factory site. This has given the now-completed venue a post-industrial vibe, one that is quite a contrast to the ancient temples and red lanterns that characterise much of the rest of the city.

Looking back on the construction period, Mueller – the former head of the Rome, Locarno and Beijing Film Festivals – said: "We supplied the architects with the plans for all the theatres in Cannes and Locarno's Piazza Grande and they really rose to the challenge."

The completed complex includes a 1,450-seat outdoor arena, five further theatres with combined seating for 816, seminar rooms, restaurants, bars and an exhibition space. While Pingyao has many high-quality hotels dotted around its ancient thoroughfares – some dating back 600 years or more to the time of the Ming and Qing dynasties – more contemporary-minded festivalgoers can opt to stay within the modern hotel cluster set just outside the city walls.

With its third edition successfully wrapped, PYIFF now screens about 50 arthouse or "specialist" films every year from China and overseas, while handing out two sets of awards – the Roberto Rossellini Awards, given to first and second-time feature directors from anywhere in the world, and the Fei Mu Awards, which are restricted to debut or second Chinese-language features. This year's Roberto Rossellini winners included Brazilian filmmaker Maya Da-Rin's The Fever (Best Film), Cesar Diaz's Guatemala-set Our Mothers (Best Director) and Chinese director Liang Ming's Wisdom Tooth (Jury Award). Singaporean director Anthony Chen's Wet Season, meanwhile, topped both the Best Film and Best Actress (Yeo Yann Yann) categories in the Fei Mu Awards.

Despite not being the easiest place in China to reach, the festival still draws huge crowds of young cinephiles and college students, many of whom travel from as far away as Shanghai (1,340km) and Shenzhen (2,000km). The closest airport is a 70-minute drive away in Taiyuan, the capital of the Shanxi province, although Pingyao is also connected to both Xian and Beijing via high-speed rail links. The inconvenience, though, is clearly proving no deterrent to attendees, with Mueller saying: "All the screenings were sold out this year, so Jia is considering building an additional three screens just behind the existing theatres."

The festival, though, is about more than just entertaining young audiences with the kind of critically acclaimed films they don't get to see in their local multiplexes. Jia and Mueller also have a business objective in that they want to improve market conditions for the promotion and distribution of arthouse films throughout mainland China.

Although China is now the world's second-biggest film market, with an annual box office of $8.86 billion (RMB60.98 billion) in 2018, most of that revenue still gets channelled back to Hollywood blockbusters or big-budget local productions. While some arthouse titles have proved to be notable successes – Lebanese director Nadine Labaki's Capernaum, for instance, grossed $54 million in China earlier this year – mainland distributors tend to buy such films in bulk for distribution via streaming platforms rather than for any theatrical release.

According to Mueller, the PYIFF's awards now play a key role in bringing these smaller movies to the attention of the Chinese media and to wider audiences, while also allowing them to work closely with mainland film distributors. By luring such distributors to Pingyao to watch the films and experience audience reactions firsthand, Mueller hopes they will be motivated to help them negotiate their way through the country's strict quota and censorship system.

Photo: Wet Season: Singaporean social drama.
Wet Season: Singaporean social drama.
Photo: Wet Season: Singaporean social drama.
Wet Season: Singaporean social drama.
Photo: Wisdom Tooth: Chinese coming-of-age saga.
Wisdom Tooth: Chinese coming-of-age saga.
Photo: Wisdom Tooth: Chinese coming-of-age saga.
Wisdom Tooth: Chinese coming-of-age saga.

Explaining his thinking, he said: "Often, distributors won't have seen the films they bought at Cannes or Berlin even months after signing a deal. The challenge for us, then, is to reveal the hidden market value of such properties."

In addition to providing a platform for completed features, PYIFF also aims to help young Chinese filmmakers develop, produce and eventually find a market for their own upcoming projects. In order to facilitate this, the festival has hosted a Work-in-Progress (WIP) lab since its first edition. This provides an opportunity for sales agents and festival programmers from around the world to view new Chinese films at the rough-cut stage.

This year, for the first time, the festival also hosted a co-production and financing market – Pingyao Project Promotion – as a channel for filmmakers to secure funding and other partnership arrangements for projects that may still be at script stage. At the end of the festival, a dozen or so Chinese studios and sponsors handed out 11 cash awards to those projects and works-in-progress they saw as having the most potential.

Prior to the event, Jia and his team reviewed more than 500 scripts, before choosing just 16 to be presented to the potential investors attending the inaugural Pingyao Project Promotion. Explaining why such intensive support had been provided for this particular endeavour, he said: "While there are a great many young directors in China, it's not always easy for them to meet with financiers and producers. Consequently, we see this as a great opportunity for us to identify new talent and to introduce them to audiences and to the industry at large."

In addition to the finance market, PYIFF also looked to educate many of the young directors in attendance via its Filmmakers' Programme of seminars and master classes. This year, leading Chinese filmmakers Zhang Yimou and Xie Fei, Japanese director Takashi Shimizu, Brazilian director Kleber Mendonca Filho and Hong Kong producer Nansun Shi were among the high-profile talents sharing their experiences. Leveraging their strong international connections, Jia and Mueller also assembled a panel of leading film-festival directors and programmers, including Cannes' Christian Jeune, Berlin's Carlo Chatrian and Tokyo's Shozo Ichiyama.

While it can be a struggle for Chinese arthouse filmmakers to get their work distributed in their home market, a number of these sessions touched on the even thornier issue of securing film festival slots and overseas distribution. Pretty much the consensus among the panel of festival programmers was that Chinese filmmakers need to strive for originality, rather than be overly influenced by such current festival favourites as Jia, Wang Xiaoshuai or Lou Ye. In particular, it was felt, they need to focus on portraying their own reality, as that is what international festival audiences tend to crave.

Expanding upon this, Chatrian – who takes over as the Berlin Film Festival's Artistic Director next year – said: "The best Chinese films are well-rooted in a very different reality, which explains why they've been so successful in Berlin. At the end of the day, they give audiences a strong feeling of having experienced a different reality."

In another session, it was standing room only for legendary Hong Kong producer Nansun Shi, who regaled attendees with tales of how she helped develop the international market for Hong Kong films back in the early 1980s. After opening up markets in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, she said she then set her sights on the rest of the world and started making an annual pilgrimage to the Cannes Film Festival.

Detailing how she made an impact at that notoriously opaque event, she said: "We hired marketing experts and they taught us a variety of skills that we could use to appeal to buyers. We also came to realise that, while Hong Kong films had great action scenes, we needed to improve many of the technical elements, such as post-production. Once I'd done my homework and knew what to pitch to distributors, we started selling into 20-30 markets around the world."

While best-known for producing such blockbusters as the Detective Dee and Infernal Affairs series, Shi has also been behind some of Hong Kong's most successful arthouse titles, including 2011's A Simple Life (winner of Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival), and 2013's Bends (which premiered at Cannes). Based on her experience with these two movies in particular, she maintained films don't necessarily need big budgets and well-known stars to succeed outside their home countries, with it being possible find an audience through shared humanity and universal values.

Concluding with a rallying call to young directors, she said: "Learn from the example of A Separation, the recent Iranian Oscar winner and two Cannes Palme d'Or winners – Japan's Shoplifters and South Korea's Parasite. These were not big-budget movies but were beautifully realised and told genuinely touching stories.

"Of course, you still need a selling point when it comes to distribution – such as a Cannes award – otherwise an Iranian movie is unlikely to attract a big audience in global terms. Chinese filmmakers, though, genuinely do have the opportunity to make this kind of movie."

Photo: Purpose-built and picture perfect: The Pingyao Festival Palace.
Purpose-built and picture perfect: The Pingyao Festival Palace.
Photo: Purpose-built and picture perfect: The Pingyao Festival Palace.
Purpose-built and picture perfect: The Pingyao Festival Palace.

The 2019 Pingyao International Film Festival (PYIFF) took place from the 10-19 October at the Pingyao Festival Palace.

Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Pingyao

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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