Updated: 2012-06-18 10:42
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
Top: Feng Xiaogang (left) and John Woo at a master class during the 14th Shanghai International Film Festival in 2011. Above: Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and his wife Wendi Deng attend the 14th SIFF in 2011. Photos provided to China Daily
The biggest bash for filmmakers and film lovers in China yields golden nuggets of insight, a treasure trove of cinematic gold and a Golden Goblet for the best picture.
The image is eye-catching: a three-legged golden goblet sits in the center. The backdrop is a burning sun - or it could be a red balloon - that rises inexorably, leaving an airy trail in its wake.
This is the poster for the 15th Shanghai International Film Festival, or SIFF for short. As red is the designated color for so many things chinoiserie, its symbolism is clear: Chinese cinema is emerging as a force to be reckoned with.
Of course, SIFF, opening on Saturday and running through June 24, is not just about Chinese movies. As the only A-list film festival in China, it attracts 1,643 movies from 106 countries, out of which, 300-some will be screened and 17 will run for the Golden Goblet Award.
The eclectic bunch includes two Chinese entries, one of which is Detective Hunter Zhang. I've got to see it because it stars someone I personally know. Zhang Lixian is a publisher of the mook (magazine-style book) called Duku. The guy is funny, and I've seen him hosting events. But getting the title role for the new work by a known director? Curiosity is killing me.
Of the five nominees I have seen, four happen to be female directors. And it shows. For Chrysalis, by Spain's Paula Ortiz, and Stars Above, by Finland's Saara Fintell, the feminine touch is so exquisite, the images - let alone the stories - haunt you long after you leave the cinema. Canada's For the Love of God and Ukraine's House with a Turret may be more hard-edged, but they still reveal a sensitivity that is at once refreshing and reassuring.
However, it is difficult to predict the winner as few have seen all nominated films. Many who swarm to Shanghai during the nine days of movie jamboree prefer the tried and true - masterpieces from earlier ages that have never graced the Chinese screen.
Last year, I saw Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The 1927 silent picture from Germany's creative outburst of expressionism featured footage that was fully restored and snippets that were newly discovered and not yet cleaned up. It left intact the few frames that were still missing, filled with explanatory texts only. It was a work in process, a testament to the greatness of the masters in the early years of cinematic history.
This year, three Chinese classics will be shown in their fully restored glory. Appropriately, they were all made in Shanghai when the city was still the indisputable capital of Chinese cinema. Crossroads (1937), The Spring River Flows East (aka Tears of Yangtze, 1947) and Eight Thousand Li of Cloud and Moon (1947) will give you a glimpse of a bygone era.
"We are about the only film festival that directly invests in the repair and restoration of old films," says Tang Lijun, SIFF's managing director.
There are also retrospectives of Theo Angelopoulos, Francois Truffaut and Elizabeth Taylor. Those who love Chinese kung fu will have a chance to catch six movies by Chang Cheh, a Hong Kong pioneer of the genre.
Cinephiles revel in the endless choices - 300 films in 12 different sections, to be exact. Some 100 screenings will feature the movies' creative talents, directors and stars, who will take questions from the audience and shed light on behind-the-scenes trivia as well as lofty messages they have embedded into their stories.
While film fans have a field day, industry insiders will hobnob over which movies to buy and which projects to throw their weight behind. SIFF's film market was not launched until the festival was well into this century. When I first got involved in 2006, the market was still located at the Crown Plaza Hotel but has since moved to the spacious Shanghai Exhibition Center. Last year, more than 700 deals were signed.
One of SIFF's bright spots is its forums. Its organizers have an uncanny eye for the hot topics that weigh heavily on the minds of both professionals and amateurs. I have been a frequent moderator. I remember when Ang Lee came for the forum right after he won the Academy Award for Best Director, the room was so packed every inch of the floor was occupied.
This year, Jean-Jacques Annaud, who is also president of the main competition section and who is set to direct Wolf Totem, which is adapted from a Chinese novel, will share his experience in productions that transcend nations and cultures. Other celebrity filmmakers include Feng Xiaogang, whose candid ripostes have become somewhat of a hallmark, and Gary Kurtz, a big-time Hollywood producer whose credits include American Graffiti, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.
The 11 forums will touch on a wide range of topics. But a running theme, if there is one, is how to enhance the universal appeal of Chinese films. "Chinese cinema is at a difficult time," says Tang, the managing director. Box-office revenues in China are on a steep rise, yet the newly relaxed quota has placed unprecedented pressure on local filmmakers who are only beginning to climb out of the doldrums inflicted on them by misguided or outdated mindsets.
The forum I'll moderate with Chinese director He Ping is about the nuts and bolts of film storytelling. It is an aspect that is often taken for granted because in China you are not supposed to grapple with these kinds of skills if you see yourself as an artist. Just like the birds and bees, it is something one should naturally know, or so it seems. Unfortunately, storytelling is an art that takes many years to hone, and storytelling to a foreign audience can almost be mission impossible.
Another forum will focus on China's role as a hub for film production, with joint ventures and all kinds of partnerships. Filmmakers from across the Pacific Ocean, especially those on the financial and technical sides, will discuss ways to smoothen the bumps on the road to globalization.
Chinese film directors and stars will face the big challenge, or rather, elaborate on the resolve and detail how they will tackle Goliath in their own backyard. They may turn into crybabies if past gatherings are an indication, or they may collectively find a way to compete with the juggernaut.
Apart from the occasional guest who launches into a lengthy self-promotional sermon, the forums have substance and leave time for interaction - so much so that the best remarks have been collected into a book.
"We put ourselves into the shoes of China's film industry players," Tang Lijun says. "We observe and reflect on the hot issues that arise from the fast development of the industry, especially the big challenges at the present stage of our growth. So, we designed our forums from the core interests, ranging from the upgrading of the industry, to peripheral phenomena, which someday may move to the center stage, such as film stars who act as producers and new media as distribution channels, among others."
People go to film festivals for different reasons - to pitch, to search, to buy, to sell, to gawk at stars. When it comes to awards, there are always winners and losers. But it seems that the days when film festivals as arbiters of public taste may be over.
You may be the biggest winner at the most prestigious event, like Cannes, but you may still be desperately searching for an audience, even a very limited one. The really good thing about a festival could well be the rich abundance of offerings. Whatever your taste or your purpose, you may be able to find something worth your attention.