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Relaxed yet armed with a steely ambition, up-and-coming Chinese helmer Wei Shujun is thrilled to be back at Cannes this year in the First Feature section with his road trip film “Striding Into the Wind,” after his short “On the Border” won the Special Jury Distinction award in 2018.

“Cannes has been my school, my teacher,” he told Variety, saying that he’s carefully watched and studied the festival’s selections from the past four years. (He confesses a particular fondness for last year’s competition title “The Traitor,” as well as for Hou Hsiao Hsien, the Dardenne brothers and, slightly incongruously, Woody Allen).

“I wouldn’t make a film just for a festival’s recognition, but this year it feels like I’m submitting my work to my teacher and asking, ‘OK, take a look, did I answer it correctly or not? Is this heading in the right direction?’ ” he laughs.

The film, whose international rights have already been nabbed by Films Boutique, is about 30% based on his own experiences from a period in his early 20s when he bought a beat-up old secondhand Jeep and spent much of his undergrad days skipping class and driving around, dreaming of heading all the way to Inner Mongolia — before he had to give up the vehicle after a DUI. 

A born and bred Beijinger who dabbles in hip-hop (his rap name is PUC, a spinoff of the second syllable of Tupac Shakur’s first name, and is apt to refer to friends as his “homies,” in English), Wei started in the entertainment business as a child actor around age 14. He went on to study sound recording at the Communication University of China in the capital.

He tried his hand at being an entrepreneur after graduation, starting a media company in hopes of taking on ad work. It flopped, with him spending most of his time playing arcade games and messing around with his colleagues, drinking and meeting “all sorts of unsavory people” in what he looks back on as a very educational period.

Two years later, he decided to get serious and head back to his alma mater for a Master’s to specifically study film. “On the Border” was his graduation thesis — and a source of friction with his supervisor.

“Film, especially auteur cinema, requires strong independent thought. But [the instructors’] way of thinking was more old school,” he explained. His supervisor had been in the same, legendary class of Fifth generation helmers as Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang, and “his teachings were never updated since – he’s been saying the same thing for the past 20 years.”

With Chinese society changing so quickly, Wei said, there’s a real generation gap. The China he knows as someone born in 1991 is a world away from the China the Fifth generation grew with during the tumult of the Cultural Revolution — and while those directors continue to mine the strong emotions and experiences of that period, younger people should find their own voice.

“The feedback I got was always that he hoped I could ‘adhere more to standards’ or ‘conform more to common practices.’ But I have to identify with my own characters and story, or else I’ll shoot something that conforms well but has no life to it,” he said.

Nowadays, younger Chinese helmers are no longer divided into a distinct “generation.” Wei finds himself often disappointed by the work of his contemporaries. “Many new directors now are just repeating the language of the Sixth generation – they’re still doing what has already been done,” he said. “I think that’s uninteresting. You have to have an international perspective, but also include your own new way of looking at the world as a younger person, and show that to people.”

When he first learned that his short had been selected by Cannes back in 2018, it was utterly unexpected. “I kept checking the email and thinking, did they send it by mistake? We were supposed to discuss a new script that night, but it was impossible – we went out and ordered tuxes instead,” he said.

His Cannes win made securing financing for his first feature back home a cinch: it took Alibaba Pictures just 12 days to decide to back it, he said.

“When I go to Taiwan or Singapore, they also are Chinese and speak Mandarin, but it’s so hard for filmmakers there. They have to work hard, shoot ads and then apply for funds. Comparatively, there are a lot of opportunities in China” for new directors, he assessed.

Even though a China theatrical release for “Striding Into the Wind” will have to wait until cinemas re-open there, Wei is keeping busy. He has two more films in progress: “Mr. Crane is Back,” a story about how a former criminal reforms himself after getting out of prison that looks at the topics of death and father-son relations, and “Ripple of Life,” a more artistic work divided into four chapters that examines “how people live with inertia.” One is set to shoot in the second half of the year, and the other in 2021, although the order is yet to be decided. 

Although Cannes last year was the springboard that launched “Parasite,” Wei said it may be some time before we see a Chinese title able to match its success.

“When you bring up Korea, you can’t just name a single film — it’s an accomplishment of the whole Korean industry continuously working hard since 2000,” he said, saying he felt that the country’s more mature industrial system and decades of exchange and study with the U.S. had allowed them to create such a crossover hit.

“When it comes to Chinese film, I genuinely can’t think of a single truly global director. I think it’s up to us, the younger generation, to study hard and improve ourselves,” he posited.

He said he’s handling the pressure of his Cannes experience well — it’s really his own expectations for his next film that make him nervous.

“I’m just so lucky to be a part of this. If you like the film, that’s great. If not, no worries. Whatever.”