With Industry and Political Clouds Hovering, Shanghai Film Festival Opens on Quieter Note

At the shiny Lyric Theater in the heart of China’s biggest city, the Shanghai International Film Festival celebrated its 20th edition Saturday in relatively low-key fashion.

There were the usual speeches, parades of past award winners, and hordes of local media. But the star wattage on the red carpet (which was strewn with gold cups and an oversized Cadillac) was a couple of notches lower than in previous years. And on the industry side, there is similarly little expectation of a deals-announcement frenzy.

Last year the corridors and conference rooms of the festival-owned Crowne Plaza throbbed with slate announcements of jaw-dropping proportions. Numerous new connections were being made between Chinese companies and overseas filmmakers, many from Hollywood.

But the intervening year has been an instructive one. In hindsight, the 2016 Shanghai festival looks like the last hurrah of an old era when everything and anything seemed possible.

Soon after the festival, the Chinese box office hit a dramatic slowdown and has inched along ever since, despite the addition of 9,000 new screens. Hollywood movies, with their technical and storytelling strengths, have been in the ascendant, while domestic films have mostly struggled with problems of originality and execution, creating an audience perception that they offer less value for money. Many Chinese movies have opened strongly, but then faded fast.

Perhaps in reaction, this year’s conference and seminar agenda in Shanghai is putting greater emphasis on craft and screenwriting, as well as the usual theme of international co-production.

Capital controls imposed by the Chinese government late last year have put a brake on exuberant deal-making between Hollywood and China. Some deals have fallen through completely, such as Wanda’s purchase of Dick Clark Productions; others have hit snags.

Politics has also cast its shadow. There are no South Korean films in the festival lineup, a reflection of the diplomatic tensions between Beijing and Seoul over a U.S.-sponsored missile-defense installation on Korean soil. This is also a sensitive time in China’s five-year political cycle at home, with a Communist Party Congress scheduled for the autumn, followed by more high-level changes in early 2018.

All that spells self-restraint, political correctness, and studious attempts to avoid being on the wrong side when the political winds change. Speculation is rife that politics spurred the removal of Ann Hui’s “Our Time Will Come” from the festival’s opening night slot, though the film still plays in competition. Some camps suggest that the pro-democracy stance of one of Hui’s actors may have caused problems.

Other theories say that the replacement opener, Bille August’s “The Chinese Widow,” is simply more politically suitable for the moment. With China wooing Denmark to be part of its massive trade and infrastructure pact known as the Belt and Road initiative, August’s Denmark-China co-venture fits better.

The two films both dabble in Chinese civilian heroism against the backdrop of Japanese encroachment during World War II, except that one is set in mainland China, the other in British colonial Hong Kong.

Talent making an appearance in Shanghai included France’s Jean Reno, fashion designer Christian Louboutin, actor Louis Koo, directors Feng Xiaogang, Lu Chuan, Zhang Yibai, Ning Hau, Gordon Chan, Andrew Lau, and Wang Xiaoshuai, Chinese star actress Zhou Xun, and Italy’s Maria Grazia Cucinotta.

Executives in attendance included China Film Group head La Peikang, SAPPRFT deputy Zhang Hongsen, Bona Film Group chairman Yu Dong, Huayi co-chief James Wang, Huayi senior exec Jerry Ye, IMAX’s Richard Gelfond, Wanda’s John Zeng, the MPA’s William Feng, producer Michael J. Werner, Yasushi Shiina, Chuck Boller, and lawyer Michael Stephens.

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