It has become a truism, now, to speak of the global proliferation of film festivals in the last few decades. Worldwide, they presently number in the thousands, across all the continents, taking place at all times of the year, in cities large and small. The array of films they show is dizzying in number. And yet, even with this idea of a permanent global film festival, offering inexhaustible possibilities of watching cinema in new and unfamiliar realms, the seasoned festival-goer often finds themselves in a kind of geographical rut, ritualistically returning year after year to the same cities, on the same dates, to attend the same festivals, which end up showing, effectively, the same films: Cannes, Berlin, Rotterdam, Toronto, etc., etc., etc.

It was for this reason that, when presented with the opportunity to attend a relatively young festival in the Chinese city of Pingyao, your correspondent leapt at the chance. The setting it provides for viewing films is absolutely unique: an immaculately preserved ancient city, continuously inhabited for nearly 3000 years, nestled deep within the interior of China – a country which, even if it has become, in these last years, the beating heart of global capitalism, continues to exert a sense of fascination and mystery for the Western visitor. This singularity is compounded by the profile sought by Pingyao’s organisers. If so many other newly minted festivals have clearly been developed for opportunistic reasons, in which the cinema itself is of only secondary importance – subordinate to tourist dollars, city-branding strategies or even just the egos of local sponsors and dignitaries, then Pingyao has consciously positioned itself as a cinephiles’ film festival. Founded three years ago by Jia Zhangke, undoubtedly one of the foremost auteurs in contemporary cinema, and buttressed by Marco Müller occupying the role of as artistic director (a figure who, during his tenures at Rotterdam, Locarno and Venice, among others, became synonymous with an uncompromisingly daring approach to programming), the festival thus wears its auteur cinema credentials on its sleeve: its official title, after all is the “Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival”, a nod, of course, to the Ang Lee film. “Crouching Tigers” and “Hidden Dragons” are also the names given to sections of the program focused on first- or second-time filmmakers, while even the festival locales pay homage to the history of Chinese cinema: the main auditorium is dubbed “Spring in a Small Town” after Fei Mu’s 1949 masterpiece, while the open-air amphitheatre used for gala events is self-referentially known as “Platform”.

Spring in a Small Town (Fei Mu, 1949)

Such touches could grate if it were not for the earnest sincerity of the festival’s mission to give a showcase to new independent cinema, and, given that the Chinese state has never been overly sympathetic to such a cause, the conditions in which it does so can be trying. Inspiration for the festival’s founding reportedly came after the Beijing Independent Film Festival was closed down in 2014, and the officially sanctioned festivals in the capital and Shanghai are dominated by big-budget productions and their attendant red-carpet glamour.1 Pingyao’s location is far enough away from China’s centres of power that the festival organisers can carve out a zone of relative autonomy.

This is not to paint the festival as an island of cinephilic purity, unsullied by the crasser side of the film industry. Clearly, the substantial resources dedicated to it – evident in the custom-built festival complex (which, in shades of 24 City, was converted from an old tractor engine factory) and the peerless generosity shown to international guests – have been enabled by Jia’s careful cultivation of amicable relations with regional authorities. The director is, as we know, something of a prodigal son for Shanxi province: born and raised in humble circumstances in the town of Fenyang (a 45 minute drive from Pingyao), he returns from his position of arthouse superstardom to bring cinema back to local audiences. The festival site is also, predictably, slathered with advertising from sponsors – including most prominently, a social media start-up called Momo, whose exact functioning was difficult to discern from its omnipresent billboards and ad spots. The commercialisation of the film festival space is, it transpires, just as advanced a process in China as it is in other countries. Pingyao also treated itself to a fair dose of star power in its masterclasses and juries – whether in the form of directors such as Zhang Yimou, actors such as Joan Chen, or even luminaries from the programming world such as new Berlinale head Carlo Chatrian – and did not refrain from showing its high-profile guests off in a garishly kitsch opening ceremony.

Attending any film festival innately involves stepping into a bubble: spending a week or two watching multiple films a day could not be otherwise. But at Pingyao this sense of seclusion was greatly amplified. Whisked by car from the airport in Taiyuan (the nearest major city to Pingyao, a 90-minute drive away), I spent the following days being shuttled in electric buggies between the hotel housing international guests, just outside the old town, and the festival complex that hosted all the screenings, itself safely ensconced within the walled city. This was my first visit to China, a vast, diverse nation of 1.4 billion people undergoing the most sweeping process of modernisation in human history. And yet I spent practically my entire time in the country confined to a tiny patch of an ancient city, and a good chunk of it in dark rooms watching films.

The films, of course, are the true measure of any festival, and here Jia Zhangke and Marco Müller had to negotiate obstacles beyond what most programmers face: not only seeking to screen the best films possible while keeping its various stakeholders satisfied, but also, in the Chinese context, wending a way through the country’s Byzantine and capricious censorship processes. Rumours circulated about the film slated to be the opening night gala, the 1949-set drama Liberation by Li Shaohong and Chang Xiaoyang, which was pulled from the program at the last hour due to supposed “technical problems” (which has frequently been used, of late, as a euphemism for an adverse censorship decision), and which was replaced by an episode from the international, multi-director omnibus called Neighbors (executive produced by Jia himself), a film so conceptually tepid that it could be guaranteed not to raise the ire of government censors.

Wisdom Tooth (Liang Ming)

More explosive material was nonetheless readily on offer at the festival. This included the Chinese films screened by Pingyao, which indisputably constitute the festival’s raison d’être (particularly on the global stage), and which had a strong presence in the line-up. Notably, a concerted effort was made to avoid the glitzy big-budget affairs which have most of the nation’s film industry captive and highlight the work of up-and-coming auteurs. In this vein, the most promising film at the festival was Liang Ming’s feature debut Ri guang zhi xia (Wisdom Tooth), a deserved winner of the Jury Award at the festival. The young filmmaker earned his stripes as an actor and subsequently assistant director with Lou Ye, and the influence of his mentor’s uncompromising asperity can also be seen here. At the tail end of the 1990s, an oil spill in the north-east of China destroys the livelihoods of local traders in a permanently snowbound fishing outpost. Guliang and Guxi, a directionless brother and sister in their twenties lose their fish stall, and Guliang consequently finds himself working for a local criminal cartel which exerts ruthless control over most of the town’s business activities. At the same time, he becomes smitten with Qingchang (who goes by the fittingly brassy nickname “Sis Pizzazz”), resulting in a combustible triangle of emotions. With its intimations of both lesbian and incestuous sexuality, and its brazen depiction of the centrality of organised crime to the PRC’s long economic boom, Wisdom Tooth brushes against some of the key taboos in Chinese cinema, even if its subversiveness is somewhat palliated by being set two decades in the past. If its plot sometimes meanders into wayward dreaminess, the film’s prowess is above all ensured by Liang Ming’s confident direction and eye for fine detail, from the hibernal mood enveloping the proceedings to the subtle gestures or tics the actors give to their performances, which marks him out as one of the most promising directors in young Chinese cinema.

While not all of them were as convincing as Wisdom Tooth, a large number of Chinese films shown at the festival similarly centred around violent crime, and the traumatic aftereffects that such brutality can have on victims, bystanders and even the perpetrators. Brutality, if these works are any guide, seems to be a pervasive element in the reality of modern China. Zhui xiong shi jiu nian (Bloody Daisy, Xu Xiangyun) and Liu yu tian (Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng) both revolve around detectives plagued by the murder mysteries they have been tasked with investigating. In the first, a cop duo spends upwards of a decade trailing a Jack the Ripper-style serial killer who carves daisy shapes into his female victims’ skin, but the futility of their obsessive efforts wreaks havoc with their personal lives. In the second, the director himself plays a police officer troubled by his girlfriend’s suicide, who takes on the enigmatic case of a severed arm, which unites him in grief with a hospital doctor whose brother the limb belonged to. Both films flit uncertainly between the police procedural and other film genres – buddy comedy, forlorn romance – but the resulting indeterminacy mitigates their merits.

A similar tale of processing past traumatic losses marked the storylines of Walking in Darkness (Tang Yongkang) and Summer is the Coldest Season (Zhou Sun), and in fact the repetition of this narrative trope across all four of these films inevitably led to them fusing together somewhat in the mind of this festival attendee. While Walking in Darkness shows the repetition-compulsion of a man who, every night, rides with the same taxi driver while recounting the disappearance of his loved ones, Summer is the Coldest Season takes the considerably more interesting route of following a 14 year-old girl whose mother was violently murdered two years earlier. While Li Jiahe’s father, a former professional wrestler, moulders in self-pity, the girl takes a more resolute path: stalking the juvenile delinquent responsible for the death and fantasising about taking visceral revenge on him. With this mesmerising character study, Zhou Sun has us engrossed in the psychological vacillations of the quietly dogged Li Jiahe, torn between vengeance and fascination for her mother’s killer.

Of the other Chinese films on view, Yesir’s Koali & Rice was an irredeemably sentimental portrait of a widowed woman in the remote province of Fujian seeking salvation from a late-life crisis in her attempts to perfect the eponymous dish (a speciality of the region). Brick, finally, was focused on a more cerebral matter: a successful Singapore-based architect, Wenxin, returns to his home town to bury his mother’s ashes, and while staying with his elderly father becomes embroiled in local debates surrounding plans to develop the dilapidated old town. Wenxin’s anti-modernist tendencies, fostered by his budding feelings for a local woman who runs a hole-in-the-wall lunchhouse in the old town, lead him to advocate an approach that retains the feel of the ancient quarter, right down to the type of brick used in rehabilitating its buildings, but this also entails the demolition of a recently constructed hotel, which happens to have been designed by a friend of Wenxin’s. The director Ding Wenjian is himself a trained architect, and watching this film in Pingyao, a site that has been subject to similar urbanist debates, gave Brick a certain resonance, but could not rescue the plodding film from a lack of dynamism. The cinema, unlike architecture, is an art of movement, and this is a lesson that Ding Wenjian still must learn.

Wet Season (Anthony Chen)

So much for the Chinese films, then, which even if they were uneven in their qualities formed the major point of interest for an international observer keen to see how the country’s new generation of filmmakers measures up. For local audiences, and those whose film consumption has been less than comprehensive in recent months, Pingyao also offered an array of international films presently making their way through the festival circuit. China’s near neighbours in East and South Asia were well represented at the festival. Anthony Chen’s Wet Season, a follow-up to his 2013 family drama Ilo Ilo, centres on a Mandarin instructor in a Singaporean high school who, in the wake of difficulties in conceiving a child with her disengaged husband, instead awakens amorous feelings in one of her students. Wei Lun’s infatuation for his teacher Ling is achingly apparent, as he longingly films her with his smart phone and eagerly takes up the opportunity for make-up classes, which inevitably migrate to Ling’s own apartment. The student-teacher romance is a well-worn plotline in cinema (just think of Adam Sandler’s That’s My Boy [2012]), and in some ways Wet Season is a step back from the ornate ensemble structure of Ilo Ilo, but it continues Chen’s sensitive, Edward Yang-like dissection of class, family and social mores in his home country.

Japanese cinema, which has been in a state of rude health in recent years, had a significant presence at the festival. The schlocky Howling Village (Takashi Shimizu), a horror film featuring a sealed tunnel housing the ghosts of a village that had been inundated by a dam project, could not quite figure out whether it was playing for genuine frights or parodic laughs. Paradise Next (directed by Yoshihiro Hanno, the noted film composer who has worked on the films of Hou Hsiao-hisen and indeed Jia Zhangke, among others) was a much more sympathetic film, with shades of Takeshi Kitano in its trio-on-the-run-from-the-mob story charting a course from Japan to a picturesque seaside town in Taiwan, but was still a slight and easily forgettable object. The actor Joe Odagiri’s feature directorial debut They Say Nothing Stays the Same promised significantly more critical heft, or at least the stridently anti-capitalist director’s statement in the festival catalogue did so, but it was sadly one of the films at Pingyao I was unable to attend. Another Asian power, India, was present in the festival’s main slate with Eeb allay ooo! by Prateek Vats, but the depiction of a young man’s failed efforts in his job expelling langur monkeys from Delhi’s parliamentary district paled in comparison to the bountiful cinematic riches in the retrospective dedicated to the subcontinent’s “new cinema” from 1957-1978, a precious chance for cinephiles to take in restored films by the Indian masters such as Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Kumar Shahani, Govindan Aravandan and others.

Our Mothers (César Diaz)

Returning to contemporary cinema, Latin America provided some of the festival’s true highlights. Nuestras madres (Our Mothers) by César Diaz was, by some distance, the best new film screening at Pingyao, and duly followed up its Caméra d’or at Cannes with a Best Director prize at this festival. The film’s protagonist is a young forensic archaeologist, Ernesto, who works on the Sisyphean task of recovering and documenting the dead bodies of the victims of Guatemala’s decades-long civil war (in which, from 1960 to 1996, the country’s military dictatorship attempted to wipe out a leftist insurgency). The intrepid investigator is not only, it turns out, motivated by historical injustice – his work is just as much fired by the tales Ernesto’s mother has told him of his father as a martyred revolutionary leader. When an elderly Mayan woman enters his office with information about the massacre in her village in the early 1980s, Ernesto thinks the case might lead him to find his father’s remains. But when his mother, who has retained her revolutionary rage against the regime, finally testifies before the reconciliation tribunal, her revelation takes the film in a direction that makes Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex look like a delightful romp. Diaz, who is based in Belgium but of Guatemalan heritage, adroitly handles material which otherwise could have veered off into melodramatic excess. In treating the psychological aftereffects of the most harrowing period in the history of Central America (and one in which the US government played a particularly ignoble role), the filmmaker strips Our Mothers back to its bare essentials. Whether in the way its narrative draws to its emotional climax or in its low-key visual palette, not a foot is put wrong during the film’s brisk 78-minute running time.

Melina Léon’s Canción sin nombre (Song without a Name) bears striking narrative parallels with Our Mothers: inspired by her father’s newspaper writings, the film charts the activities of an investigative reporter in Peru whose attention is brought to the case of an adoption ring kidnapping newborns from poor rural mothers. The action takes place in 1988, in the midst of the conflict between the Shining Path Maoist guerrilla group and the Peruvian military, but the motivation for the abductions seems to be more financial than political in nature. And if Léon is more open to daring formal moves than Diaz, opting to film in black-and-white and a 4:3 format to invoke television coverage of the period, the film on the whole remains a prosaic, quasi-journalistic undertaking. An oneiric, hallucinatory atmosphere, by contrast, is attained by Maya Da-rin in A Febre (The Fever), which takes place in the stifling humidity of Manaus, the capital of the Amazonas region in Brazil, and sees a security guard succumb to a mysterious, febrile illness as his daughter prepares to depart to Brasilia for her studies in medicine. More disappointing was the Argentine film Al Acecho (Furtive, Francisco D’Eufemia), whose account of a newly-relocated park ranger taking a vivid interest in pursuing a band of fox poachers descends into gory genre excess.

The European presence at Pingyao was more thematically and formally dispersed than that of other regions. Little, indeed, seemed to unite the Haneke-esque glaciality of Michal Hogenauer’s Tiché Doteky (A Certain Kind of Silence) with the comic book splashiness of Igor T’s Neapolitan gangster film Cinque é il numero perfetto (5 is the Perfect Number), apart from a certain penchant both films had for hyper-stylisation, or the French animation J’ai perdu mon corps (I Lost My Body) with the tale of transnational adoption scams Sole (Carlo Sironi), apart from the common presence in both films of romance blossoming in unlikely quarters. Perhaps the most intriguing offer from the continent, however, came from an obscure corner. The small nation of Georgia has a modest film industry, but, in my experience at least, seems never to have produced anything other than great films. In Dmitry Mamuliya’s Dostoyevsky-inspired Borotmokmedia (The Criminal Man), the meek, taciturn Giorgi – a 28 year-old who, with his loping gait and furrowed brow, looks aged beyond his years – happens upon the dead body on the side of a road. The corpse is that of a star goalkeeper, whose murder becomes a media sensation in the Caucasian republic. But Giorgi becomes obsessed with the case, and his desire to enter the mind of a murderer is, with gradual inevitability, taken to its logical extreme, which Mamuliya charts with the same methodical patience exhibited by his protagonist.

The Criminal Man (Dmitry Mamuliya)

One of the youngest festivals in the world, Pingyao is evidently making a strenuous attempt to position itself on the global festival circuit. Certainly, its chosen strategy of promoting the work of young filmmakers whose careers are in the ascension, rather than chase after already established big-name auteurs, can only be commended, and there is probably no other viable path for the festival than for it to aim at becoming a kind of Chinese Jeonju or Locarno. The success to which it has already been able to carve out a niche on a national level was all too apparent in the large numbers of enthusiastic young cinephiles from around China attending the films – which had the unwelcome side effect that obtaining access to screenings was often a difficult task. From an international perspective, meanwhile, it is the festival’s ability to foster new Chinese cinema – the PRC’s putative “seventh generation” of filmmakers, who are to carry the torch from the likes of Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye and Wang Bing as they amble into middle-aged maturity – that will determine its fortunes. In trying to put itself on the map, the festival is at least helped by Pingyao’s unique setting, although this had the perverse effect of overshadowing the films to a certain extent. Upon returning home, my memories of the city are more vivid – more cinematic, I dare say – than that of any of the films I saw. Indeed, much as first-time visitors to Manhattan are overwhelmed by the uncanny effect of seeing in real life a city they had experienced on screen so many times already, I often found it had to shake the feeling, while walking the streets of Pingyao, taking in its sights and sounds, that I was inside a Jia Zhangke film, albeit it one unfortunately projected without subtitles. This was not least due to the frequent appearances that Jia made during the festival, much like the cameos he has a propensity to make in his films. The celebrity he has amongst the youth of China is probably without comparison among arthouse filmmakers anywhere else in the world (Tarantino is probably the closest equivalent in the west), but this did not stop him from a hands-on presence during the festival: introducing films, moderating panels, shaking hands on the red carpet. Most memorably, I crossed paths with him as he walked out of the festival’s ticket office, flanked on each side by a bevy of heavy-set goons wearing forbidding black suits, as Jia himself puffed contentedly on a fat cigar. Out of everything I saw at Pingyao, it is this image that has incontestably left the most indelible imprint on my mind.

Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival
10-19 October 2019
Festival website: http://www.pyiffestival.com/index_en/index.aspx

Endnotes:

  1. As I write this I have also just learnt of the of the closure of the Chinese Independent Film Festival. See Rebecca Davis, “China Film Festival Closes, Says Independence is ‘Impossible’”, Variety, 13 January 2020.

About The Author

Daniel Fairfax is assistant professor in Film Studies at the Goethe Universität-Frankfurt, and an editor of Senses of Cinema.