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16th Shanghai International Film Festival Report

Written by Kevin Ma Tell a Friend

Screening over 300 films in just nine days, the 16th edition of the Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF), held from June 14 to 23, was easily China's biggest film event of the year. As an International Federation of Film Producers Association-accredited A-list film festival, it gave local cinephiles a rare opportunity to see the latest in Chinese and world cinema (many of them uncensored). Popular screenings often sold out on the first day of ticket sales, with eager audiences even resorting to lining up outside cinemas overnight to make sure they get to see the films on their wish list.

The Festival

With the usual Shanghai Grand Theater venue undergoing renovations, the festival chose to hold its Opening and Closing ceremonies this year at the Cultural Square. Both events were broadcast live on local television, and the red carpet event featured some of the world's biggest stars. This year, the Opening Ceremony saw guests such as Xu Zheng, Bai Baihe, Huang Xiaoming, Tsui Hark, Johnnie To, Andy Lau, Jay Chou, Donnie Yen, Aaron Kwok and Chow Yun Fat, while the Closing Ceremony was attended by Keanu Reeves, Jackie Chan, Liu Ye, Kara Hui and Lisa Lu. After a successful opening last year with the world premiere of Painted Skin: Resurrection, the festival decided to shift its focus to Hollywood this year by opening with Pixar's Monsters University and closing with heist film Now You See Me.

This year's Competition and Asian New Talent sections featured high-profile Asian films such as Dante Lam's Unbeatable, Barbara Wong's The Stolen Years, Roh Deok's A Very Ordinary Couple, Lee Won Suk's How to Use Guys with Secret Tips and the Andy Lau-produced youth drama Singing When We Were Young. On the non-competition side, the festival also had nine programs in its Panorama sections. The "Tribute to the Masters" section included retrospectives for Ozu Yasujiro, Tang Xiaodan and Leslie Cheung, featuring classics such as Equinox Flower, Tokyo Story, A Better Tomorrow, Farewell My Concubine and Days of Being Wild.

Meanwhile, the Global Village section offered films from nine different nations, including India (celebrating its film industry's 100th anniversary this year), Thailand and Japan. These sections featured hit films like Thermae Romae, Tokyo Family, Wolf Children, Love For Beginners, 3 A.M., 3 Idiots and You Won't Get to Live Life Twice. Due to China's quota on imported films, these films never received commercial theatrical releases in the country. As a result, the films – especially the Japanese ones – were especially popular with audiences.

Like the Hong Kong International Film Festival, the SIFF also included a program for notable Chinese films from the past year. This year's "Most Focused Chinese Films" program included A Simple Life, Finding Mr. Right, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons and The Last Supper.

Twenty-six cinemas across Shanghai were used for festival screenings, but the festival's center of activity was the Shanghai Film Art Center, which houses nine auditoriums, several restaurants and even a supermarket. Four of the cinema's auditoriums (including its 1000-seater) are devoted to festival screenings. The Film Art Center also hosted most of the festival's major premieres, with a red carpet laid out at the entrance for meet-the-filmmaker sessions.

Owned by the Shanghai Film Group, the Crowne Plaza Hotel next to the Film Art Center also became a major part of the festival headquarters. Most of the festival's official press conferences, the Asian New Talent Award ceremony and the film market's closing ceremony party were held in the hotel ballroom. Many festival guests also stayed in the hotel, which means you might come across people like Competition Jury President Tom Hooper, Asian New Talent Award jury member Lu Chuan and even director Jia Zhangke in the lobby!

The Film Market

The festival's film market was held at the Shanghai Exhibition Center, located about 3.5 kilometers northeast of the Film Art Center. In addition to housing promotional booths run by film distributors and other film-related companies, this is also where the project market meetings happen. The CFPC (China Film Pitch and Catch) picks eight developing projects by Chinese filmmakers and match them with potential investors. Another 20 projects from China and abroad are picked for the Co-FPC (Co-production Film Pitch and Catch), aimed at forging co-productions.

Arguably the most interesting part of the film market are the seminars where some of the biggest figures in Chinese cinema have a chance to sit side-by-side and engage in a true discussion about what's happening in the film industry. At a forum featuring producers and studio heads (including Huayi Brothers' James Wang, Edko's Bill Kong and Taiwan's Li Lieh), the guests called for a need in striking a healthy balance between big-budget blockbusters and smaller films with strong artistic sensibilities. At another forum featuring new directors, Charlie Yeung, novelist Guo Jingming, Xu Zheng and lyricist Vincent Fang each talked about the joys and pains of directing films for the first time.

Perhaps the best forum of all was a special master class featuring directors Oliver Stone and Johnnie To. Held at the newly opened Shanghai Film Museum, the forum covered topics such as human greed, screen violence, politics and even the dramatic value of the Edward Snowden story. The notoriously outspoken directors – both speaking in their native languages with simultaneous translation available – each had their share of controversial statements: Stone went on a rant on the artificiality and propaganda values of Hollywood war films, while To briefly criticized Hong Kong's obsession with retaining its own cinematic identity. At one point, forum moderator Raymond Zhou (a film critic at China Daily) even told Stone that he was speaking like a "Chinese Angry Young Man." It's easy to get buried by the film screenings happening everyday at the festival, but seminars like these are definitely worth skipping film screenings for.

With so many events happening in just nine days, the Shanghai Film Festival is bound to have its share of hiccups. Forums often start late, some film screenings get cancelled at the very last minute and technical problems can lead to disruptions (understandable considering Chinese subtitles of many foreign films are manually cued). Nevertheless, the festival is so popular among Shanghai residents that several of its cinemas become the highest-grossing cinemas in the country during the festival. The selection offers a wide variety of films that range from European arthouse films to Japanese commercial blockbusters, reflecting the festival committee's knowledge about global cinema and the demand for variety among Chinese filmgoers. Box office numbers may suggest that most Chinese audiences only want to see Hollywood commercial films, but for nine days, Shanghai gets to prove them wrong.

Special Thanks: Film Business Asia

Published July 23, 2013

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