Chinese Independent Filmmakers Look to Festival in Locarno ; Movies Find an Outlet at Swiss Event When They Are Blocked in China

By Wong, Edward | International New York Times, August 18, 2015 | Go to article overview

Chinese Independent Filmmakers Look to Festival in Locarno ; Movies Find an Outlet at Swiss Event When They Are Blocked in China


Wong, Edward, International New York Times


Movies find an outlet at the Swiss event when they are blocked in China.

Thanks largely to financing by a university teacher, Bi Gan was able to make his first feature film, "Kaili Blues," an elliptical story about a man's family relationships and his journey through the lush rural hilltowns of Guizhou Province in China. He even received approval from official censors. But its art house techniques and narrative style guarantee a minuscule Chinese audience.

The film, however, has found a natural outlet: the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland, a top-tier festival at a lake resort town that has had a long relationship with Asian cinema. "Kaili Blues" had its premiere there last week. (The festival began on Aug. 5 and ended on Saturday.)

"I knew that my movie was good, but I didn't know there were that many people who shared the same views on this film before the Locarno film festival invited me," said Mr. Bi, 26. "Now I think more people will be able to appreciate it."

Now in its 68th year, Locarno has emerged as one of the most important Western festivals to support Asian film, particularly works without big box-office prospects. For mainland Chinese filmmakers, that kind of affirmation from foreign industry insiders has become more crucial in recent years, as various levels of government under President Xi Jinping carry out the broadest crackdown on free expression since 1989. One year ago, for example, the police in the Beijing suburb of Songzhuang shut down one of China's most important independent film festivals. (The films that were never shown there are being presented by North American curators and filmmakers this month and in September on screens across New York.)

So for a young Chinese filmmaker, being selected for Locarno can be a critical step in building a career. Those filmmakers are also aware that as recently as 2010, Locarno awarded its top prize, the Golden Leopard, to a Chinese work: "Winter Vacation," a humorous noncommercial film by Li Hongqi, an unknown director. Last year, when Locarno showed "The Dossier," a film by Zhu Rikun about Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan dissident, Chinese officials complained about its inclusion to festival organizers before the screening.

"The most important thing for us is the artistic director's independence, free from economic and political pressures," said Marco Solari, president of Locarno, referring to the festival's creative head.

Despite the approval for theatrical distribution that "Kaili Blues" received this month from the central Chinese film censorship bureau, Mr. Bi said he knew that there were only a handful of theaters that would agree to show it. "I don't really expect too many Chinese viewers to watch it," he said. The main audience might well be found on the festival circuit outside China, where viewers seek something more than the dynastic action films or yuppie romantic comedies that do well at the Chinese box office.

"Films are not just about entertainment," Mr. Bi said. "There are people who might need this type of film. We can't turn off the light in the street just because there is only one person walking down the road."

Carlo Chatrian, Locarno's artistic director, said "Kaili Blues" was "one of the first films we selected."

"It's a new way of looking at inner China," he added.

Besides Mr. Bi's film, which was shown in a competition for first- and second-time feature filmmakers, Locarno also screened "Mr. Zhang Believes," about a man's 23-year labor camp experience during the Mao years. The film is based on a memoir. The director, Qiu Jiongjiong, declined to be interviewed for this article, citing the current political climate in China.

The festival gave Chinese filmmakers another kind of boost this year. Starting Aug. 4, Locarno hosted a traveling workshop called "Bridging the Dragon" that aims to bolster co-production partnerships for both European and Chinese films. …

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