One of the Pingyao International Film Festival’s strengths has been its ability to draw on founders Marco Muller and arthouse auteur Jia Zhangke’s powerful network of global festival directors, who this year made the trek to China’s coal country, in Shanxi province, to engage with new Chinese talent. They gathered for a panel Tuesday afternoon to discuss their respective organizations’ and regions’ engagement with Chinese cinema.
Carlo Chatrian, the new artistic director of the Berlin Film Festival, said a real eagerness among Berlinale audiences for international content was a driving force behind the popularity of Chinese titles. “Chinese films especially are very much well-rooted in a different reality, so [viewers] have a very strong feeling of experiencing a different reality,” he said.
Kirill Razlogov, program director of the Moscow International Film Festival, said Chinese films are rarely screened in Russian cinemas, since — unlike Korean films — they aren’t really seen as commercially viable. Typically, the public only gets to encounter them via official, scheduled cultural-exchange film weeks that occur four or five times a year, showing 30 or 40 films. Audiences at such events, however, are very small, even for bigger films.
“We have difficulties with new films because they go to these film weeks that nobody sees and we can’t take them to the Moscow Film Festival,” he said. “My problem with Chinese cinema is there are very few places to see really new Chinese films. Pingyao is one of these places. It’s the one place where I can see unfinished films and select them for Moscow.”
Shozo Ichiyama, director of Tokyo Filmex, said it has historically been less of a struggle for Japanese audiences to encounter Chinese titles, since even back in the 1980s, there were already a number of regular distributors bringing over works such as those by China’s fifth generation directors. “But the audiences are typically very old people who like Chinese culture or landscapes. Such films can find success in Japan, but films about young people in the city don’t always find distributors,” Ichiyama said.
Sabrina Baraccetti, artistic director of the Udine Far East Film Festival, said her festival had decided to start adding more mainstream Chinese films to its lineup to help audiences better understand the current face of Chinese cinema seen by the general public. “In some way, telling the story of the market in China is also showing the more commercial films and understanding more what the audience is here,” she said.
When a Chinese attendee asked the panel whether the big three festivals of Cannes, Berlin and Venice were trending more commercial, having given accolades to Hollywood fare like “The Shape of Water” and “Joker” in recent years, Berlin’s Chatrian pointed out, to loud laughter from the crowd: “You are referring only to one film festival: Venice.”
“I don’t judge Venice,” he said. “It’s a festival that takes place at specific moment of the year, and is giving a lot of room to American cinema” as the Oscar race begins to heat up.
Yet whether at Pingyao or Busan or the Lumiere festival in Lyon, even small festival screenings have been packed with moviegoers lately, said Christian Jeune, head of the Cannes Film Festival’s film office. “The festival system is fragile because of the economic system at the moment, [but] its strength is still to gather people [together]. I still believe in that,” he said. “I’m pessimistic about the world, but I’m not so pessimistic about the life of festivals. I think it still has a future.”