Beijing Film Festival Wraps Fifth Edition in Transition

The Beijing Intl. Film Festival wrapped its fifth edition April 20, and despite its substantial resources — reportedly a budget of $13 million — and the recent appointment of festival veteran Marco Mueller as a special adviser, it remains more of a work in progress than a film lover’s treasure trove, or a film executive’s essential destination.

The hiring of Mueller, a Mandarin-speaking intellectual, seemed to signal a shift from the festival’s bombastic first years toward something more film-focused and user-friendly. Working with his established programming team, Mueller, in the space of just 40 days, was able to put on a credible competition and gala section, including Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Wolf Totem” and Tsui Hark’s “The Taking of Tiger Mountain.” Indeed, the festival opened with Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s “Wondrous Boccaccio” (oddly, the film didn’t screen at the official opening-night gala, which featured plenty of spectacular stagecraft and Arnold Schwarzenegger) and closed with upmarket Hong Kong action film “Helios,” from Luk Kim-ching and Longmond Leung Lok-Man; Mueller also landed the world premiere of Japanese auteur Sion Sono’s “Love & Peace.”

Mueller insisted he was untroubled by unwanted directives or heavy-handed censorship in picking his 20 films. But the festival seems to remain more a platform for flashy grandstanding than for matters of cultural substance, with numerous deals between Chinese and foreign companies trumpeted at signing ceremonies.

Moreover, the festival and the market — which sported an extensive program of industry-focused panels and events — seemed to compete and overlap in their conference and seminar sections. Co-productions and China’s international openness were often discussed, yet not much of substance was said.

The fest’s project and pitching events seem to hold long-term promise, promoting and rewarding skills such as script development and creative production, skills that are in short supply, it was regularly noted by industryites from China and elsewhere.

For all its current failings, the Beijing fest will continue to be significant, because China is a growing economic power that offers a financial lifeline to foreign filmmakers at a time when the traditional movie business model is under threat. It also provides an opportunity for delegations of U.S., Australian and European executives to visit Chinese regulators and connect with those mainland companies whose executives have not yet become international jet-setters.

Mueller says a purpose-built festival center may be in the cards, and he hopes for more integration between the festival and market. But judging by the fifth edition, he may do well to focus on films, filmmakers and film education.

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