Deadly flooding did not divert this year’s Pingyao International Film Festival from running its full course, with the event drawing to a close Monday with an award ceremony honoring Egyptian director Omar El Zohairy, India’s Natesh Hegde, and China’s Kong Dashan and Wei Shujun with top prizes.
Many anticipated that this fifth edition of the festival would be different, given the shifting role of its co-founder and leading light, director Jia Zhangke. He unexpectedly stepped down last year, only to recant and come back in the nebulous role of “chief experience officer” months ago.
Instead, this year’s iteration has been more memorable for the backdrop of historically heavy rains that have left at least 15 dead, more than 120,000 relocated, and an estimated 1.8 million people affected in the inland Shanxi province.
The show went on in Pingyao, even though some three dozen parts of the picturesque ancient capital’s old city walls had collapsed in the earlier merciless downpour.
Festival sponsor Zhiwen Group (formerly Momo Inc.) had donated $1.56 million (RMB10 million) to local relief funds at the opening ceremony, and the event will end Tuesday with a relief charity screening of the closing short “The Last Director on Earth,” which stars Jia and director Ning Hao.
Alongside the charity has come a greater turn toward commercialism, one made unavoidably clear by the hundreds of fans present at the typically low-key, intimate festival to catch a glimpse of their idol Karry Wang, the singer-actor from TFBoys. Two days before the festival’s start, he was abruptly made a youth jury member and “contributing curator.”
When eyebrows were raised at the young superstar’s lack of extensive cinematic experience or accolades, organizers explained that he would also be curating the music for an after party and appear on a panel about “new youth” in Chinese cinema.
On the festival’s red carpet, Wang took in the scene with a bland, unsmiling expression and declined to identify any upcoming projects. Doting fans waving cellphones and cameras pushed so hard in his direction that security guards could barely keep the guard rails in place.
As was the case in 2020, few international guests are in attendance given the difficulty of entering China during the ongoing pandemic.
Pingyao’s Roberto Rossellini Awards are accorded to films in the festival’s dozen entry-strong Crouching Tigers section, which includes international directorial debuts and second features.
The $20,000 prize for best film went to El Zohairy’s “Feathers,” the surrealistic comedy that won the grand prize at Cannes Critics’ Week earlier this year. Half the funds will go to its China distributor Huanxi Media. First time helmer Hegde won the $10,000 prize for best director for “Pedro,” which premiered last month in Busan’s New Currents section.
“Prayers for the Stolen (Noche de Fuego)” — writer-director Tatiana Huezo’s documentary-like first feature about life amid the violence of Mexico’s drug cartels — won the jury prize, coming off a special mention in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section. “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky (Ras vkhedavt, rodesac cas vukurebt)” from Georgia’s Alexandre Koberidze, which premiered in competition at Berlin in March, won Pingyao’s special mention.
The festival’s other 10-film Hidden Dragon section is dedicated to first, second and third features in the Chinese language, which compete for the Fei Mu Awards.
Kong Dashan’s “Journey to the West” won the Cinephilia Critics’ Award as well as the Fei Mu for best film, which is accompanied by a prize of $156,000 (RMB1 million prize), half of which will go to his Chinese distribution company. The award was jointly funded by 10 Chinese directors: Cheng Er, Chen Sicheng, Diao Yinan, Feng Xiaogang, Guan Hu, Jia Zhang-Ke, Lou Ye, Ning Hao, Wang Xiaoshuai and Zhang Yibai.
Up-and-coming Cannes favorite Wei Shujun won best director for his “Ripples of Life,” which comes with $31,000 (RMB200,000) to use to develop his next film — prize-money funded by Chinese actor Zhang Yi (“Cliff Walkers”). The film premiered at Cannes in this year’s Director’s Fortnight section.
Huang Miyi won the best actress prize for her work in “Gaey Wa’r (Streetwise)” by Na Jiazuo, which also came out in Un Certain Regard earlier this year. Zou Tao won best actor for his work in “Karma” from Zheng Peike. “Venus by Water” from director Wang Lin won the jury award, while “Farewell, My Hometown” from Wang Erzhuo won the prize for special mention. “Immanuel” from Han Tianchu won the Fei Mu award for best short, and was accorded $4,700 (RMB30,000) in development funds.
Karry Wang’s youth jury awarded its two prizes to Kong’s “Journey to the West” and Wei’s “Ripples of Life” as well.