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Beijing Festival Sends Out Mixed Messages

The eighth edition of the Beijing International Film Festival gets under way Sunday night. A spectacular ceremony, some 25 miles away from downtown Beijing will kick off a week of cinema-related celebrations that look little like any other major film festival.

That the opening ceremony is not followed by a film screening is one indicator. The deeply uneven film selection policy is another.

Baffling many in the industry, the festival lineup boasts both notable exclusions, and perplexing inclusions. A decision earlier this month to exclude the previously announced “Call Me By Your Name” was shock enough to produce a few ripples in the normally tightly-controlled Chinese Internet. And it further underlines the increasingly hard line being taken by Chinese regulators against LGBT content.

But policy, as manifested in the Beijing festival’s selection, does not appear wholly consistent.

The BJIFF’s Panorama section this year finds room for “Deadpool,” the “X-Men” spinoff from 2016 that was not allowed a release in mainstream Chinese theaters. Regulators rarely explain their decisions and it was widely assumed to be too sexy, and too vulgar.

In another policy reversal, the festival will also play “Have a Nice Day.” This animated drama targeting adult viewers deals with crime, corruption and disillusion with society. It had its world premiere in Berlin 14 months ago, but was so toxic that in June last year, producers were pressured to with draw it from the animation festival in Annecy. It had a reprieve in China, playing the Pingyao festival in October, and getting a minimalist theatrical release in December. It earned a pitiful $414,000.

Additionally, some seven South Korean films – including Hong Sang-soo-directed pair “Claire’s Camera” and “The Day After,” and 2017 blockbuster “The Battleship Island” – played in Wanda and CGV multiplexes in a week of pre-festival screenings.

This the first time in more than 20 months that Korean made titles have been allowed to play in China. The Middle Kingdom began an undeclared cold war against South Korean goods and services in July 2016, when the South Korean government was moving towards a decision to install the THAAD anti-missile system. “It is the first time a movie made only in Korea has been screened in China in two years, except for films co-produced by Korea and China,” an official related with the film industry in Beijing said.

The competition section is a hodge-podge of films from the 2017 festival circuit (Samuel Benchetrit’s “Dog” and Saul Dibb’s “Journey’s End”), others from China’s political friends, and the incongruously the Hong Kong-Chinese blockbuster “Operation Red Sea,” that is now the second highest grossing movie ever in China. Lending his considerable prestige is Wong Kar-wai, as president of the jury which will select the winners of the Tiantan prize.

The festival also makes a point of juxtaposing some of the most commercial international films of recent years against deep-dive art-house collections.

Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Trilogy,” the “Jurassic Park” and six of the “X-Men” series are given house room. So too are thematic programs of films by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman. The non-competition Panorama section also includes “The Florida Project,” “The Disaster Artist,” and “Get Out.”

But the festival purists may not have it right. Making use of China’s ubiquitous and powerful online ticketing platforms, the festival was able to announce that it had sold out screenings for “Battleship Island,” “Jurassic Park” and “X-Men” in just seconds.

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