Shanghai fest puts local pix in spotlight

60 titles from past 18 months screened at event

Ask Chinese industryites what the main problem is with Chinese cinema and the answer won’t be financing, scripts or censorship. It’s distribution. In that respect, the mainland movies at the ninth Shanghai Film Festival, which ended Sunday, mirrored the industry.

Last year, according to official figures, China produced 260 features, including Hong Kong co-productions, direct-to-DVD titles and HD movies. Despite quotas limiting foreign movies, most of those 260 never hit theaters, largely due to lack of screens, exhibs’ coolness toward local product and the absence of a national network of distributors.

Even when a local film does elbow its way into an urban multiplex amid the U.S. fare on almost every screen, customers aren’t encouraged by ticket prices that can be as high as 70 yuan ($8).

Some 60 local pics from the past 18 months were screened at this year’s fest — a good opportunity to sample production. But, aside from the problem of getting tickets, there also was the problem of the selection.

Many directors and producers don’t want their movies anywhere near the fest. This isn’t due just to the Beijing/Shanghai, north/south rivalry that sparked the festival’s creation in the first place. Mainland filmmakers want kudos that count and foreign distribution possibilities, neither of which Shanghai has offered in its rather chaotically organized nine editions so far.

For instance, Xu Jinglei, a multihyphenate who was on the jury, preemed her “Dreams May Come” in Beijing on Monday, a day after the fest wrapped.

As China’s sole international film festival (and with a TV fest wrapped into it), Shanghai is a huge, understaffed ocean liner that answers to bureaucrats in Beijing and can make only small course corrections each year. So it will take new fest director Tang Lijun, a Shanghaier from a TV background, more than one edition to make the event into the showcase Chinese cinema deserves.

Still, some notable titles did manage to slip through, led by the remarkable “Trouble Makers,” helmer Cao Baoping’s black comedy about corruption in a Yunnan village. Pic won the jury prize in fest’s secondary competition, Asian New Talent.

In the same competish, “International Military Tribunal Far East” reflected considerable talent from newbie director Gao Qunshu (already signed to CAA’s new China division). Slickly helmed pic is like an Asian version of “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

Other interesting new titles included Hong Kong co-production psychodrama “Curse of Lola,” by Li Hong; “The Music Box,” by Chen Yifei (who died during production in spring ’05); contempo urban drama “Aspirin,” from first-time helmer Yan Po; HD-lensed romance “The Contract,” by Lu Xuechang; and late addition “The Birthday,” a Hebei-set family drama, financed and helmed by Ning Jingwu.

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