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Iconic Chinese indie film director Jia Zhangke is to make a return to the Pingyao International Film Festival that he founded and which he famously quit at the end of the October 2020 edition. His new role remains somewhat murky.

Jia was a speaker at a launch event Tuesday in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, used to announce the festival’s dates, the appointment of Lin Xudong as artistic director, and confirm other staffing arrangements for the next edition. The fifth edition will run in the ancient city, close to Jia’s birthplace, Oct. 12-19, 2021.

Last year Jia dropped a bombshell at the festival’s final day press conference and announced that he was standing down. He discussed succession and leadership issues, dropped hints about financial issues with the Pingyao city government and appeared to take issue with a takeover of the festival by the Shanxi authorities.

The abrupt nature of Jia’s exit added to the concerns of recent years that Chinese film festivals are being pulled closer into government control and that Jia’s larger than life, indie-style may have become a liability, rather than an asset.

“I should’ve left [the festival] earlier and begun to groom a new team to take over the festival, so that this festival can get rid of ‘Jia Zhangke’s shadow’,” Jia himself said last year.

The 2021 festival has indeed been “upgraded to provincial level,” according to a statement, meaning that it will be jointly operated by the Pingyao Film Festival Co., Ltd. and Shanxi Film Academy of Shanxi Communication University. But the same announcement also proclaimed that the festival will “maintain the original program structure and its existing characteristics,” and also “start again with a new attitude.”

Jia went on record to thank local officials for their “care and attention to PYIFF” and said this was “powerful motivation” to continue. His exact role remains unclear. “This year, I hope to be the chief experience officer, to join the audience watching films and meeting filmmakers in the cinema,” he said.

Jia may not get to apply his ideological heft directly in the running of the festival, but he was allowed Tuesday to speak of the festival “usher(ing) in important strategic opportunities that cry for reform and innovation.”

And the 2021 selection team sees the return of several Jia allies. Former Venice and Locarno festival chief Marco Mueller becomes chief consultant, in charge of the international film selection.

Marie-Pierre Duhamel, Wu Jueren, Jeremy Chua, Alena Sumakova, Deepti D’Cunha, Tomita Mikiko, Sandra Hebron, and Diego Lerer, will return to assist Mueller selecting international films. No mention was made of the programmers selecting the Chinese-titles.

New artistic director Lin, an ally of Jia, was described as a “film editor, film critic, documentary film researcher and painter.”