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Chinese-American Film Festival Seeks to Serve as Cultural Bridge

With U.S.-China ties at an ever-sinking low, the Chinese-American Film and TV Festival pledged to improve communications between the two countries –  at a Chinese-language-only press conference in Shanghai on Tuesday that had few foreigners present.

The event took place on the sidelines of the Shanghai International Film Festival. Most attendees who took to the stage seemed more intent on heaping praise upon James Su, the Chinese-American film festival’s chairman, through flowery references to Communist leaders than discussing how to actually strengthen ties between the world’s two largest film markets.

Su “really spent a lot of effort, painstaking care and honestly, a lot of money” to build up the festival, said one of a parade of leaders invited to express their gratitude for the event.

“He has a lot of money — don’t worry,” interrupted another speaker onstage, who had just delivered an ode of his own. To her counter that “sooner or later, it’ll all be spent,” he shot back, to knowing laughs: “If it was spent on us, it will be worthwhile!”

The Chinese-American film festival will take place in Los Angeles this year from Nov. 3-6, just before the American Film Market, which has itself seen a growing Chinese presence over the years. Now in its 15th year, the event has grown under Su’s influence to become a notable occasion for Chinese industry players to network among themselves.

Su himself kicked off the proceedings with a quote from Chinese President Xi Jinping about the need to promote cultural exchange around the world. He said he hopes the festival can “become a bridge between the U.S. and Chinese peoples.”

But don’t expect screenings of “Crazy Rich Asians” or Awkwafina’s “The Farewell.” It appears that the U.S.-based target audience envisioned by the festival isn’t so much the general American public as it is overseas Chinese, who are seen by Beijing as having a role to play in the government’s goal of boosting soft power abroad.

Tao Yong, vice chairman of the Shanghai Returned Overseas Chinese Federation, praised the ability of film to “use artistic language to tell the world our China story.” He then cited a quote from Xi and one from former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping that he said “very nicely explain the usefulness of our overseas Chinese as a bridge.” He added: “The central government attaches great importance to the power of making use of overseas Chinese.”

Other high-powered speakers spoke of China’s growing cultural confidence. Shanghai Film Group Corp. chairman Ren Zhonglun took to the stage to say that Chinese film’s biggest improvement in recent years is that it has “become more sober and more rational.”

“Before, either because we were too rushed or too overconfident, we kept thinking about at what point we’d be able to catch up to certain countries, giving ourselves unnecessary pressure and disappointment,” he said. Now, “we believe that whether there’s competition or cooperation between countries, what’s most important is that we study from each other.”

China Film Group general manager Jiang Ping recounted a trip in the late 1990s to the U.S. for a screening. “I remember 20 years ago, foreigners completely looked down on us, thinking, ‘You Chinese people can’t even shoot 100 films a year. You don’t even have $100 million a year at the box office.’ They had no idea that in these 14 or 15 years we would become a big film nation,” he said. “But to develop from a big to a strong film nation, we must study and have communication.”

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