The Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF) will kick off this year with the Chinese propaganda film “1921” as its opening night gala. The announcement was made late Tuesday evening local time with just three days to go before the premiere.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of China’s ruling Communist Party on July 1, a key political date that for the past year already has sent censors into high alert and film companies scrambling to develop content lauding the Party’s history and achievements.
SIFF’s 24th annual iteration takes place just before the anniversary itself, running from June 11-20.
Its opening night will be used to showcase the star-studded, Tencent Pictures-backed retelling of the Party’s early history, which is set in Shanghai in the year 1921.
Although SIFF has historically been China’s most internationally minded festival by far, its choice to honor a propaganda film of no interest to any other global market comes as no surprise. The centennial is actually the very theme of this year’s festival, which will be turned much more inwards anyway, given that international visitors and reporters are mostly unable to enter the country to attend due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
The festival chose the red and gold image of a train for its official poster to celebrate forward-marching progress of “the glorious journey of Chinese film in the century of the Communist Party’s leadership,” it said in an official statement.
The upcoming “1921” harkens back to an earlier, cruder era of Chinese blockbuster filmmaking that worshipped star power over quality, when producers strategized that shoving as many top names into a film would attract audiences no matter what the content — and hopefully, young people to propaganda narratives.
Among the long list of stars appearing in “1921” are Ni Ni (“The Flowers of War”), Liu Haoran (“Detective Chinatown 3”), TFBoy idol Wang Junkai, Chinese-Canadian Shawn Dou, and Zu Feng (“Summer of Changsha”), among many others.
The film is co-directed by relative newcomer Zheng Dasheng and Huang Jianxin. The latter is one of the country’s best-known directors for combining historical propaganda narratives with star power. With veteran Han Sanping, he co-helmed 2009’s “The Founding of a Republic” featuring cameos from Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau and many others to mark the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, as well as 2011’s “The Founding of a Party,” a celebration of the Party’s 90th anniversary that included Andy Lau and Chow Yun-fat playing former president Yuan Shikai.
SIFF’s last notable opener was in 2019, when it abruptly and embarrassingly pulled its opening night film “The Eight Hundred” the night before its scheduled debut due to censorship troubles. The festival hurriedly scheduled a restored 4K version of “Midnight Cowboy” to run in its place.