Chinese Indie ‘Postman’ Delivers Win In Rotterdam

Mainland Chinese director He Jianjun’s second feature, “Postman,” made a triumphant delivery, winning double honors at the 24th Rotterdam Intl. Film Festival, which wrapped Feb. 5.

After completing post-production just 24 hours before its world premiere, the drama of a Beijing mailman’s illicit entry into the lives of strangers bagged one of the three equally ranked top prizes in Rotterdam’s inaugural Tiger Awards competitive section, along with kudos from the Fipresci (international film critics federation) jury.

The victory was a significant one in a fest that prides itself on its sustained commitment to international independent filmmaking. “Postman” received its initial seed money from the Hubert Bals Fund, Rotterdam’s film financing scheme for developing countries.

But even more crucial was the fest intervention that enabled He to override a ruling by Chinese authorities denying him the right to continue working in the national film industry. Rotterdam was instrumental in helping the director smuggle his film out of China, allowing post-production to be carried out in the Netherlands and the U.K.

The Chinese government ban came on the heels of Rotterdam’s 1994 fest, in which several independent productions made outside of official auspices were screened, including He’s debut, “Red Beads.” Also among the seven blacklisted filmmakers was “Beijing Bastards” director Zhang Yuan, whose Tiananmen Square docu “The Square” was a much-discussed part of the 1995 lineup.

Other Tiger Awards recipients were Kazama Shiori’s “How Old Is the River?” (Japan) and Bogdan Dumitrescu’s “Thalassa, Thalassa. Return to the Sea” (Germany/Romania). Sponsored by Polygram Filmed Entertainment, and conceived as an incentive for Dutch distribution, each award in the first and second feature competition is accompanied by $10,000 cash.

While many festival circuit itinerants are complaining that the slew of worldwide competitive film events is way out of proportion to the number of worthy titles produced each year, Rotterdam director Emile Fallaux sees the fest’s step into the awards arena as a successful experiment.

“Our aim was to create a similar competition to the Camera d’Or in Cannes,” he told Variety. “It was a low-key competition that didn’t overwhelm the festival. We’ll proceed in this direction, though the selection process will be much stricter in future.”

Many festgoers found a discrepancy between the level of filmmaking skill on display in the 15-title competition and the often wafer-thin premises on which many of the highly polished entries were based.

Two U.S. titles dealing with gay and lesbian relationships were arguably an exception. Eric Mueller’s “World and Time Enough” and Maria Maggenti’s “The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love” both played to appreciative audiences.

Outside the competition, the main program launched a string of hits, from fest veterans like “Heavenly Creatures” and Citroen Audience Award winner “Once Were Warriors” to relative discoveries like Yuen Kwai and Wong Ching’s martial arts spectacular, “The New Legend of Shaolin,” and Yim Ho’s “The Day the Sun Turned Cold.” Both Hong Kong productions also figure in the Berlin fest lineup.

Additional muscle came via a series of strong sidebars. From among the soft-porn pleasures unveiled in “Pink Pictures From Japan,” a handful of titles looks tipped for further fest exposure. A group of pix saluting the cinema centennial was highlighted by the first showing outside France of the new color version of Jacques Tati’s 1949 classic “Jour de Fete.”

An extensive selection from among Czech veteran Karel Kachyna’s vast body of work became an unexpectedly huge popular success. Various international film institutes are now lining up to program the show, which is tipped for U.S. exposure at New York’s Public Theater.

Admissions at Rotterdam were up this year by close to 10%, with the $550,000 generated by ticket sales accounting for close to 25% of the fest’s budget.

One Rotterdam feature that has grown considerably in stature is the four-day Cinemart, which runs parallel to the main fest. “We had around 1,100 foreign industry guests at this year’s market,” said Fallaux. “Though it’s a semi-closed event limited to 46 selected projects, other producers and filmmakers know they can turn up and work the corridors.”

A survey conducted during Cinemart showed that 25% of participants claimed they left Rotterdam with concrete results, while a further 25% expect to conclude deals before Berlin.

Hot projects that reportedly wangled financing commitments from the market included Lodge Kerrigan’s “Clean, Shaven” follow-up, “Blood in the Water”; Alison Maclean’s “Bedlam”; Chinese indie helmer Wang Xiaoshuai’s “Beijing Story”; Dutchman George Sluizer’s “Black on White”; and Danish director Lars von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves.”

A special tribute was paid during the fest to Mark Finch, the San Francisco Intl. Lesbian & Gay Film Festival exhibitions who committed suicide Jan. 14. Finch worked as a program consultant for Rotterdam. Several of his friends and colleagues spoke before a screening of Tsai Ming-liang’s “Vive l’Amour,” one of Finch’s favorite films of 1994.

The 25th Rotterdam fest in 1996 will mark Fallaux’s final year as director. No possible replacements have so far been made known. Ending his five-year stint to return to documaking and journalism, Fallaux speaks highly of the work his staff has done in putting the festival on the map and making it a profitable concern: “We came in with a debt of around $600,000, which has now been eradicated.”

To mark the 25th anniversary, Fallaux will completely remount the 1971 inaugural lineup of 36 films as a quirky retrospective in their original home at the Lanteren Venster cinemas, now a small side venue in a fest that has expanded to include 200 features. Prints of the films are currently being restored, and all of the directors will be invited to attend.