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It is going to be tough acting like things have gone back to normal, and operating an in-person festival, complete with foreign guests. But given plentiful resources and a can-do spirit, the Hainan Intl. Film Festival might be able to pull it off.

The festival, set to run Dec. 5-12, won’t be the first Chinese festival to operate in front of live audiences. The delayed editions of the Shanghai and Beijing festivals managed it in restricted fashion, and October’s Pingyao festival expects to as well. But Hainan will try to bring in a limited number of key visitors from outside the country.

“Foreign guests are expected to arrive in Hainan via special channels, and epidemic prevention measures will be effectively implemented,” organizers told Variety. They are equally keen to build up the market component as an event of international standing, meaning that top industry figures could also get the nod.

Hainan is often an exception within the People’s Republic. An island province on China’s southern tip, it is “China’s tropical island” tourist resort, home to a large military base, and a budding corporate nexus.

China’s President Xi Jinping previously announced a plan to make the island a pilot-free trade zone by 2020 and a free trade port by 2025. That would involve attracting foreign and Chinese companies to establish themselves there.

Some of the elements that could make that work are beyond local decision-making (like allowing uncensored access to the internet within the FTZ). But other matters demonstrating that Hainan is vibrant and cosmopolitan can be helped along by policies that expand Hainan’s cultural capital, such as festivals and theme parks.

The first two editions of the festival were a steep learning curve. The post-coronavirus period may now provide a less pressurized period to straighten out the kinks.
Chief selector Roger Garcia, who did two stints running the Hong Kong festival, says that new venues within capital city, Sanya, may be used. And he is looking to program 100 films this year, down from 130 in 2019.

That should still be enough, he hopes, to launch a competition section for the first time. There will be three strands: features, documentaries and short films, and the usual prize categories (best picture, artistic contribution, actor and actress and director) as well as one that best reflects on children.

Garcia expects that audiences will be largely local, or visiting from elsewhere within China, which gives him a chance to sidestep the pressure to secure premieres. Instead he can select titles that might have been screened in Berlin, (virtual) Cannes, Venice or Toronto, but which have not yet made their way into Chinese theaters.
“I’m looking for a good mix of popular and arthouse films: Japanese, Chinese, Southeast Asian and Western, too,” says Garcia. “Above all, we really want this to be a public event, and hope we can program five or six films as galas, which would be new.”

Commercial multiplexes in China are now largely open, and there have been no reported instances of virus infections linked to cinemas. They are operating with ongoing post-COVID restrictions that limit ticket sales to 50% of seating capacity. “We’d like it if that got to 75% by the time we open,” says Garcia.

He hopes to create an international presence through video links, live online introductions and Q&A sessions. And, amazingly, he hopes to be able to assemble the competition jury as an in-person team.

“The selection process is going surprisingly well. The level of interest I’ve had from European distributors has been good, especially from those who came last year. And several of the films we have got have found Chinese distributors already,” says Garcia.

“Market screenings are an established part of international film festivals. We wish to create a market screening section that conforms to international standards and has innovative features,” a market spokesman says. Last year’s debut H!Market event involved more than 100 Chinese firms and 123 companies in total.
They also want to press on with a project market, and a youth talent section.