The Shanghai International Film Festival’s gigantic size and its globalised focus are not only revealed in the fact that more than 1500 sessions of 500 titles, from 106 countries, were diffused in 45 theatres across all the 16 metropolitan districts of Shanghai in the duration of 9 whole days, but also its dense, all-inclusive schedule of non-screening activities, which included a four-day film forum, a three-day film market, a number of award galas, and so on. The atmosphere of SIFF was not confined to film auditoriums or conference centres. During June, the “Golden Goblet” logo of SIFF could be seen everywhere in Shanghai, as the poster advertising the festival hung in almost every subway station across the city. The cityscape encompassed by film seems to presage, as the Chinese film curator Dan Sha comments, “the renaissance of Shanghai cinema.”1 However, surrounding this cinephilic ambience is the frequent appearance of political signifiers and propagandistic slogans proposed by President Xi Jinping’s government. The phenomenon reminds us that SIFF is not such a film festival administrated by an ideologically independent cultural institution as the other FIAPF-accredited A-List film festivals. It is a governmental film festival. The website of SIFF informs that the film festival is mainly organised by two governmental entities, The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China (SAPPRFT) and Shanghai Municipal Administration of Culture, Radio, and Film. The direct control of both the national and the regional governmental authorities, which are in charge of the authoritative supervision of cultural production as well as censorship, implies the possible existence of the top-down political penetration upon the whole film festival. 

The most highlighted political term this year is “The Belt and Road” (Yidaiyilu) (the full name is “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the oceangoing “Maritime Silk Road”). The term refers to the Chinese government’s national top-level development strategy to establish a cooperative mechanism and economic zone for sustainable, reciprocal relationships amongst China and countries in Southeast Asia, Middle East, and Europe, on the basis of the ancient “Silk Road”. This national strategy has been created to enhance economic interactions and trade connection across continents of Asia and Europe through mutual infrastructure construction as well as diplomatic negotiations, and also to boost multilateral cultural exchange. As the film festival with the highest status in China, SIFF has historically been the flagship platform to display the diversity of global screen culture and to promote the film industries’ transnational collaboration. Naturally, “The Belt and Road” becomes the main theme of the 20th anniversary of SIFF. As far as film programming is concerned, of the approximately 500 films shown, the official statistics say that 198 films (nearly 40% of the program) are selected from “The Belt and Road” nations, affirming the notion that a specific weight is laid on the exhibition from these countries. Moreover, the program strand titled The Belt and Road gathers nine titles from these participating countries, predominantly award-winning titles acclaimed in other international film festivals. As the official website of SIFF pinpoints, through these high-quality films, the aim of this program strand is to “let audiences feel the great power of diversity and get closer to our friends from different countries by learning so much from them.”2

Bhutanese drama Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait may have been the most popular film in the strand. The high popularity is not only due to the casting of two Chinese stars, Xun Zhou and Tony Leung Chu-Wai, but also due to the director Khyentse Norbu. As a renowned spiritual thinker and a best-seller author, Norbu has a strong fandom in China. Hema Hema acquired a majority of production budget from China through crowd-funding, and technical support from Chinese filmmakers such as director Zhuangzhuang Tian and Taiwanese sound editor Duu-Chih Tu. This film is a symbolic China-Bhutan co-production, demonstrating the possible success of collaboration among China and other Belt and Road nations within the fields of creative economy and film production. In terms of mise en scène, Hema Hema deeply weaves into the mountains and jungles of Bhutan. It thematically reveals the secretive culture and philosophy of samsara under Buddhist spiritualism. From this perspective, SIFF endeavoured to widen the opportunity for audiences to experience other cultures.             

Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait

Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait

Beyond the function of multicultural exposure, this section also played a cultural role on exposing the political conundrums these countries face. Afghan film Raftan (Parting), directed by Navid Mahmoudi, viscerally documents a one-day adventure of a couple, Nabi and Fereshteh, who are on a quest to escape their Afghan hometown and to immigrate to Europe. This film keeps a melancholy, melodramatic touch on the hardly sustainable romance of Nabi and Fereshteh in the chaotic society. The emotional narrative constructs a visceral bond between audiences and these Afghani refugees. With the aesthetics of hand-held cinematography and strong amplification of surrounding noise, director Mahmoudi vividly captures the social turmoil of a contemporary Middle East and deconstructs the fundamental cause of the immigration crisis. As Afghanistan’s official submission for Oscar foreign-language film, Parting invites the spectators’ sympathy for the people involved into the sociopolitical dilemma occurring in a “Belt and Road” partner nation.

Raftan (Parting)

Raftan (Parting)

But politics is not an unbridled topic in China. The Chinese Communist Party is highly sensitive around issues of identity politics. It is difficult for queer films, in particular, to avoid the re-editing scissors or even nationwide ban from film censorship, implemented by one of the organizers for SIFF, SAPPRFT. Until now, there has been no queer film permitted into Chinese theatres since Ba Wang Bie Ji (Farewell My Concubine), released in 1993. Still in the Belt and Road strand, the Croatian film Ustav Republike Hrvatske (The Constitution: A Love Story About Hate) caught my attention because it is a queer film. The film begins with a depiction of the everyday threats that the transgender and homosexual university professor, Vjeko, encounters, as he is bullied and attacked by a gang of rascals. In studying for an oral examination on Croatian constitution, the professor’s neighbour, an illiterate policeman named Ante, seeks education assistance from Vjeko. In the course of their learning and teaching, Ante dispels his hostility against his queer neighbour and undertakes to investigate the attack. In order to be able to screen queer films, it may be that SIFF is allowed a more cultural openness towards such motifs on the basis of social equality and political freedom. This open attitude is possibly due to the condition that censorship is implemented by SIFF’s film selection committee, instead of the bureaucratic censorship procedures of SAPPRFT.3 To maintain the artistic essence of SIFF’s selection (and in keeping with much general international film festival practice), many LGBTIQ-themed films, which may normally be regarded as symbolic heterodoxy by national censorship, can be approved for one or two screenings at SIFF. Such a screening of The Constitution reflects the paradox inherent in the Communist Party’s authoritative attitudes towards queer culture: the production and theatrical distribution of LGBTQ media is explicitly banned under the regulations of SAPPRFT, but authorities still keep a blind eye on the distribution of queer media in a limited, sub-cultural range.

Ustav Republike Hrvatske (The Constitution: A Love Story About Hate)

Ustav Republike Hrvatske (The Constitution: A Love Story About Hate)

As well as having its own explicit program strand, films from The Belt and Road initiative were included in SIFF’s main competition, the Jinjue (Golden Goblet) category. Over recent years, the festival has invited several internationally renowned filmmakers from these nations as jury members. Last year, the president of the jury was Serbian director Emir Kusturica. This year, Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski and Romanian Cannes winner Cristian Mungiu both became the members of the jury, with Mungiu appointed president. In the past, most films in contention for the Golden Goblet award, were from the Asia-Pacific region. This year, the regional selection broadened out to include Jestem Morderca (I’m A Killer) from Poland, Pauwi Na (Pedicab) from Philippines, Zard (Yellow) from Iran, as well as Kharms from Russia, co-produced by Macedonia and Lithuania. It’s hard to say whether it is a coincidence or by design but curiously all four films won significant awards. Maciej Pieprzyca won Best Director for I’m A Killer. Kharms won Best Screenwriter (for Ivan Bolotnikov) and Best Cinematography (for Shandor Berkeshi). Yellow won the Grand Jury Prize and Best Leading Actress (for Sareh Bayet). The title of Best Feature Film and the Golden Goblet cup went to Pedicab. The results seem to indicate SIFF’s determination to encouraging more films from these nations to participate in its main competition in the future.

“The Belt and Road” was also the indubitable theme of this year’s film market. “Since last year,” director of SIFF film forum Rubing Guo told me, “the organisation committee of SIFF has drawn up a couple of cooperative agreements with film festivals in India (Mumbai International Film Festival), Estonia (Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival), Egypt (Cairo International Film Festival) and United Arab Emirates (Dubai International Film Festival). These film festivals have composed an archipelago-like Belt and Road Film Festival Alliance. A specialised pavilion was allocated for the newly established alliance in the Shanghai Exhibition Centre. Everyday during the film market, representatives of different film festivals from these nations arranged presentations and workshops to introduce their festivals and the screen culture of their nations. The pavilion aimed also to construct a more internationalised platform to showcase Chinese films to a broader global network of film festivals. It also exerted an incubatory effect on the transnational co-production projects of China and other nations. Chinese novelist Danyan Chen’s documentary project Sa wa liu tang de fang xiang (Where the Sava Flows) was a beneficiary of this incubatory mechanism, having received grants from China and Serbia for its production. Thus, The Belt and Road initiative fixed the position of this film market in the global map of film trade, from a “hub for all kinds of Chinese-foreign film deals,” to a more area-specific platform to promote the co-production and film circulation within “The Belt and Road Economic Zone.”4

The 20th SIFF also dovetailed with another significant historical milestone, the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to mainland China, so Ann Hui’s Ming yue ji shi you (Our Time Will Come) was a timely selection for the main competition. The original title comes from an ancient Chinese poem, reflecting the poet’s longing for his brother and family living far away. Hui utilises the ancient poem to reflect Hong Kong citizens’ complicated identification with China, which mingles cultural homesickness with historical self-isolation. The story traces back to early 1940s Hong Kong under the occupation of Japanese militarism. A group of guerillas rescued patriotic Mainland intellectuals and fostered the lurking resistant force in the shadow of the meticulous introspection and the dangerous curfews of the Japanese invaders. Whereas Hui places particular emphasis on the local history of Hong Kong, through the elaborate depictions of its clandestine undercover actions and the dissemination of oppositional flyers against Japanese control, the film reiterates the positive effect of Hong Kong’s politically resistant actions on the anti-Japanese warfare within the whole “Cultural China”.5 Moreover, the film’s Chinese/Hong Kong co-production nature parallels the allegorical brotherhood within the film’s narrative. Our Time Will Come is an achievement of the commercial cooperation of Mainland’s and Hong Kong’s film industry in the post-handover era, for it has been sponsored by Shanghai government’s funding project of “the Promotion of Shanghai Film Development”. It is noteworthy that although most characters are designed as Hong Kong natives, almost all the main protagonists are performed by actors from Mainland China and Taiwan, including Xun Zhou, Wallace Huo and Eddie Peng. This type of casting suggests that the local identity of Hong Kong film production has been steadily diluted in the post-handover era.

Ming yue ji shi you (Our Time Will Come)

Ming yue ji shi you (Our Time Will Come)

The phrase hugang, the juxtaposition of the abbreviations of Shanghai and Hong Kong, is also scattered in the festival’s film forum. With June established as “The month of Hugang culture” by the Shanghai government, a conference under the subject of “Hugang cooperation and exchange” was organised to exchange and share the production experiences from Shanghai and Hong Kong. One thing worthy of discussion is the word formation of hugang. Instead of the common expression with the intent of trans-nationality “zhonggang” (China-Hong Kong), the relationship of Shanghai and Hong Kong is linguistically enacted as the relationship of two cities, or the relationship of two provincial units of People’s Republic of China. On the one hand, this vocabulary formation represents the Communist Party’s national discourse that Hong Kong is a “Special Administrative Region” of China, that is, not an independent nation.” On the other hand, Hugang accentuates the harmonious relationship between the mainland and Hong Kong, and conceals the recent oppositional voices and political conflicts intended to split Hong Kong from the jurisdiction of the People’s Republic of China.

In addition to The Belt and Road Initiative and the 20th anniversary of the handover mentioned above, the terms “Structural Reform of the Supply Front” and “Spirits of Craftsmanship” also appeared in the discussion topics of the four-day film forum. The former term refers to Xi Jinping’s government’s new policy on Chinese macroeconomic reform. The latter is the “spiritual ideal” which the government propagates to propel the industrial construction. In terms of the overflow of political terms, the 20th anniversary of SIFF can be interpreted as a “politics-oriented” film festival, disseminating the recent state policies as well as diplomatic strategies, more than a “business-oriented” film festival financing film projects and initiating cooperation and communication among film practitioners, or an “audience-oriented” film festival inviting well-known film stars and attracting cinephilic audiences to purchase tickets for their interested films.6 Nonetheless, such political penetration may not be a malicious thing. Due to its political strategies, SIFF finds a reasonable, stable direction not only to connect with an international gauge, but also to assist governmental authorities with the improvement and reform of its domestic film industry.

Shanghai International Film Festival
17-26 May 2017
Festival website: http://www.siff.com/siff2017/english/

Endnotes

  1. Dan Sha is the main curator of Beijing International Film Festival. He is also a renowned film critic in Chinese social media. For the original source of his comment, see Dan Sha, Zhou Zhou, “From this night, let us find the renaissance of Shanghai cinema,” Sohu, 2017, http://www.sohu.com/a/149655554_817440. (In Chinese)
  2. See the official introduction of The Belt and Road program strand, “First-batch films in “The Belt and Road” Unit of Shanghai International Film Festival,” SIFF, 2017, http://www.siff.com/a/2017-05-22/1694.html.
  3. For the self-censorship procedure of SIFF, see Ran Ma,” Programming China at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Shanghai International Film Festival,” Chinese Film Festivals: Sites of Translation, Edited by Chris Berry & Luke Robinson, London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017, pp. 237-257.
  4. See Chris Berry, “Shanghai and Hong Kong: A Tale of Two Festivals,” Chinese Film Festivals: Sites of Translation, Edited by Chris Berry & Luke Robinson, London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017, p. 25.
  5. The term was coined by Tu Wei-ming, see his “Cultural China: The Periphery as the Center”, Daedelus, spring 1991, 120, n. 2, pp. 1-32.
  6. The “business oriented” model and “the audience-oriented” model are illustrated in Mark Peranson’s categorisation of film festivals. See Mark Peranson, “First You Get the Power, Then You Get the Money: Two Models of Film Festivals,” in Dekalog 3: On Film Festivals, Edited by Richard Porton, London: Wallflower Press, 2009, pp. 23–37.