The FIRST International Film Festival this week announced that it will occur with in-person screenings from July 26 to August 3 in China’s Qinghai province — implying that cinemas will be open in at least parts of the country by the end of the month.
This would make it among the first festivals in the world to occur since the novel coronavirus, and one of few that has not had to cancel or change its originally planned dates. FIRST follows at least two other in-person events: Taiwan’s Taipei Film Festival (June 25 to July 11) and France’s FID Marseille (July 7-13).
China’s showcase Shanghai Intl. Film Festival was postponed from its original June time slot. It is believed to be looking for a late July revival, but those plans have not been made public.
FIRST’s official selection of 13 feature films, eight documentaries and 13 shorts will compete for a series of ten awards. Around 60% of the selections are first works. Competition submissions closed on April 30, the same day that Beijing officially lifted its quarantine.
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The jury will be led by Hong Kong producer and director Peter Chan, whose Chinese new year volleyball blockbuster “Leap” has seen its scheduled late January release indefinitely postponed. Joining him will be prominent contemporary artist Cao Fei, actress Hao Lei (“Summer Palace”), director Zhang Ming (“The Pluto Moment”), novelist and screenwriter Liu Heng (Zhang Yimou’s “Ju Dou”), film editor Kong Jinglei, and sound editor Zhao Nan (Zhang Yimou’s “Shadow”).
The official selection includes the following thirteen feature films: “Slow Singing,” by Dong Xingyi; “Harhuu,” by Mongolian director Boyanhkeshig; “Only You Alone,” by Zhou Zhou (2018 FIRST selection “Ms. Meili”); “Cafe by the Highway,” by Shi Xiaofan; “Damp Season,” by Gao Ming, which screened as part of the Bright Future selection at Rotterdam; “Victim(s)” by Layla Zhuqing Ji, which stars Huang Lu (“Blind Mountain”) and is screening at the Udine Far East Film Festival; “Leaping Over the Dragon Gate,” by Xiao Yifan; “Love Poem,” by Wang Xiaozhen; “Lost Lotus,” by Liu Shu; “Art is Dead,” by Zhou Shengwei; “A Year in Tibet,” by Gao Jian; “A Branch to Roost, by Li Jifeng; and “The Partner,” by Gao Han.
It also includes the following eight documentaries: “Tough Out,” by Xu Huijing (of 2012 indie doc “Mothers,” about village cadres who hunt down young mothers who refuse to comply with the one-child policy); “Heart of a Lion,” by Xu Weichao; “Daughter of the Light,” by Tibetan helmer Khashem-Gyal; “Uncle Guo’s Dreamworks,” by Guo Shuang; “This Too Shall Pass,” by Li Baojiu; “Shape of the World,” by Zhao Xu; “The Lovely Widow and Her Annoying Son,” by Wang Kai; and “His Land,” by Xie Shuchang.
FIRST’s plans to go ahead could, of course, still be derailed at the last minute by another sudden COVID-19 outbreak. Chinese authorities have proven they’re not shy about re-ordering cities and cinema closures at the slightest sign of a revived coronavirus threat.
It will help, however, that the festival takes place out on the Tibetan plateau in the less bustling, third-tier provincial capital of Xining, rather than a first tier metropolis — particularly since Qinghai was not especially hard-hit by the virus.
Chinese cinemas have been shut since late January, making it the country with the longest theater closures to date. Authorities have recently said, however, that cinemas could begin reopening in low-risk areas, though none have yet received the local official green light needed to do so.
This year, the local government-backed FIRST festival received 895 total submissions, from which 643 entered the judging process, including 100 features, 73 documentaries and 470 shorts.
The number of Chinese submissions decreased 36% this year compared to last, falling below 700 for the first time in five years and reversing a five-year-long trend of growing local submission numbers.
It is unclear to what extent this is due to COVID-19, the festival said in a statement. Submission numbers were similar to those from last year through December, January and February, but they dropped significantly in March.
“The number of feature-length films produced in February dropped to particular lows, indicating that the pandemic had a direct impact on production and post-production interruptions,” it said. “On the other hand, the cancellation, postponement and shift to digital of major international film festivals and the complete shutdown of cinemas across the country has affected films’ plans for premiering at festivals and online distribution.”