Merchant of Venice
Updated: 2011-05-06 11:00
By Liu Wei (China Daily European Weekly)
Venice Film Festival chairman is a devoted salesman and promoter of Chinese films
Marco Muller's Chinese friends call him "Ma Zhu Xi", literally "Chairman Ma", The title is appropriate. After all, he is the chairman of the Venice International Film Festival, having taken over in 2004. But he is also well-known to Chinese filmmakers, thanks to his ceaseless efforts to promote Chinese films globally.
Italian-born Muller, 58, has overseen two Chinese directors being honored: Ang Lee won the Golden Lion in 2005 and 2007, respectively, for Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution; and Jia Zhangke, only 36 in 2006, bagged the top prize for Still Life, a film about people displaced by the Three Gorges dam.
Before taking over as head of the festival, Muller selected Asian films for it. From 1980 to 1994, he brought the works of Zhang Yimou, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang to the notice of not just the Lido, but also to the rest of the world.
In 2007, he named Zhang as leader of the jury. Two years later, Ang Lee walked into the same job.
Muller is a frequent China visitor. He first set foot in Beijing in 1974, when he was only 21, to learn anthropology, but was told the major had been cancelled in the frenzy of the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976).
He ended up at Liaoning University, only to find students there too had been claimed by the politics of those times. So he spent his days shuttling between cinemas on his bicycle.
When the "cultural revolution" ended, he spent time as a visiting scholar in Nanjing University. That was also the time he watched many banned Chinese films of the previous decade.
He was particularly fascinated by films made in the 1930s and 1940s, as they reminded him of 1940s and 50s neo-realist Italian cinema.
Returning to Italy in 1982, he hosted the first major retrospective of Chinese films in the West, in Turin.
Muller's most recent trip to China was for the first Beijing International Film Festival (BJIFF), which
ran from April 23 to 28, to participate in a forum on how a film festival
influences the host city.
The city has changed dramatically, observes Muller, and adds he misses the old Beijing. In the past, whenever he visited he would stay in friends' homes, Chinese and Italian.
He knows the Gulou area, perhaps the city's best-preserved old quarter, quite well. But he insists he is not talking just about the hutong, his nostalgia is more for people-to-people interactions.
"Beijing is a cosmopolitan city now, but the bonds between people is not as close as before," he says, in Chinese.
Talking of the festival he says, "BJIFF has been bold enough to give up the competition part," referring to the absence of an awards section at the festival.
"In Venice, there is this hierarchy that the competing films are the most important, so films in other sections lack enough attention. The Beijing festival treats all films equally."
Muller says he is aware of the fact while China's box office has been growing at an annual rate of 35 percent since 2003, reaching 10 billion yuan (1.04 billion euros) in 2010, no Chinese film has been entered in the competition section of the upcoming Cannes Film Festival.
But this does not mean Chinese cinema is only about commercial success, he says.
"I watch about 70 Chinese films a year, and I still see energy and variety," he says.
His recent favorite is Jiang Wen's Let the Bullets Fly, the highest-grossing Chinese film so far with box office revenues of 700 million yuan (72 million euros) since its premiere last winter. The drama about a bandit, a cheat and a gangster reminds him of films of Italian director Sergio Leone, who made the acclaimed Once Upon a Time in America.
"The film is very personal, conveying Jiang's ideas about life and the world, but it also has brave explorations of commercial values. It is an approach Chinese filmmakers may take," he says.
Muller also has words of praise for Hong Kong director Tsui Hark's Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, saying Tsui "moves forward to a higher level and the film is mature in many aspects".
He expresses appreciation for young Chinese documentary makers, such as Huang Wenhai, who won the Horizons Second Special Mention award in the Venice film festival in 2008 for We, a documentary on China's intellectuals; and Du Haibin, director of 1428, a documentary about the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
But not all European filmgoers and buyers share his passion for Chinese cinema, Muller points out.
"Chinese films used to be popular in the 1990s on the international market," he says. "But now a Chinese blockbuster costs about 100,000 euros to buy and at least 300,000 euros for its marketing and promotion. In Italy, American films occupy 55-60 percent of the screens, and local films the rest. (There is) little space for films of other countries."
The domestic market remains the best source of support for a Chinese film, Muller says and adds that the Italian government's protection of local filmmakers may offer some lessons for China's film industry.
"We don't have censorship in Italy. The market is the censor," he says.
"A film ticket costs 8 to 10 euros. Every time a ticket is sold 1 euro goes to a fund by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities to help new directors make their maiden films."
2011 will mark the last year for Muller as chairman of the Venice festival. So what plans does this champion of Chinese cinema in the West have in store for this last stint?
He says he wants to keep them secret, but does let on that they include an innovative Italian film helmed by a Chinese director.
"It will be a China-relevant story, for sure," he says.
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