FIRST Film Festival founder on building China's best platform for young talent: "Our biggest goal is to support new auteurs"

FIRST Film Festival founder on building China’s best platform for young talent: “Our biggest goal is to support new auteurs”

If you ask a Chinese independent auteur what his favorite film festival is, expect to be directed to the city of Xining, China’s historic gateway to the vast Tibetan plateau. Here, in a city now teamed up at the foot of the world’s tallest mountains, the FIRST International Film Festival has carved out a reputation that regularly earns it comparisons with Sundance – it’s China’s quintessential independent event, where exciting new film talent is most likely to be discovered.

This year’s festival, running from July 23-21, features a selection of 98 films, including 27 features and 71 shorts, many from first-time or first-time directors. Former financier turned producer, screenwriter and director Song Wen co-founded the FIFF in 2006 and has steered the event through 17 years of tumultuous growth and change in Chinese industry. Along the way, he and the festival have nurtured the careers of some of China’s most distinctive new cinematic voices, including Wen Muye (Dying to survive), Xin Yukun (The coffin in the mountain), Zhang Dalei (Summer is gone), Shao Yihui (B for Busy), Teng Congcong (Send me to the clouds) and the late, great Hu Bo (Elephant sitting still), among many others.

Related stories

Ahead of Sunday’s official FIFF kick-off, The Hollywood Reporter connected with Song for a quick chat about this year’s schedule, his industry’s strong post-pandemic recovery, and why Chinese viewers seem to have fallen in love with Hollywood lately.

What are some of the trends you’ve identified in FIRST’s film schedule this year?

There are some trends, but I think they are still emerging. First, the line between fictional and non-fiction cinema is becoming increasingly blurred, whether it’s narrative films that bring reality closer or documentaries that authentically present a filmmaker’s point of view on their world. Many of the films in our selection, especially the shorts and short films, explicitly challenge these boundaries in some way. Also, due to all the recent advances in technology, cinema has become much cheaper and more accessible in China, so many talented people with no training or professional background are making their way into cinema. It’s a further decentralization of the filmmaking process, which has allowed for a lot of interesting experimentation that we see in the program. Young filmmakers can now also experiment with genres such as science fiction or thriller through much more convenient means, to reflect on their own experiences and auteur visions.

What role does FIRST play in the Chinese film industry today?

I think FIRST is irreplaceable as a melting pot of new young film talent in China – to meet new people, build relationships, exchange film ideas and receive training. Many exciting talents and films started here, such as Xin Yukun’s Coffin in the mountains or Hu Bo Elephant sitting still. They have pushed the boundary of what Chinese cinematic aesthetics can be. At the same time, over the past 17 years, we have discovered and managed to support many directors who have a unique perspective on genre cinema, such as Dong Yue of The impending stormby Xin Yukun The coffin in the mountainor of Teng Congcong Send me to the clouds. And then there’s Wen Muye, who has become one of China’s most successful commercial directors Dying to survive (2018). When she was still in her first year of university, she made her first short film, selected by the FIRST festival. Two of her latest short films also entered the competition section at FIRST and won awards. Xu Zheng, now one of China’s leading actors and filmmakers, was on the judging panel the year Wen Muye showed that first short film at FIRST. Xu Zheng said he took note after watching Wen’s short film at the time, writing “This director is ready to make a feature film right now.” Eventually, they worked together on Dying to survive, which earned over $450 million. This is probably the best example of the kind of connections and opportunities we hope to create and encourage at the festival. Our biggest goal is to support new authors.

How would you describe the current situation of the Chinese film industry in general? How is the post-COVID recovery going?

So, from a more practical perspective, things have been going quite well lately. During the summer release season, many new films achieved very high box office receipts. On Thursday, Fengshen, one of China’s films with the highest production values, earned over RMB 100 million (US$14 million) on its first day. There have been several other big commercial successes recently and the industry and market are returning to normal. But I think Fengshen it shows the best direction for the Chinese industry, because there will be three installments in this franchise, and it is a very large-budget project that uses the full capacity of the Chinese film industry system, with hundreds of craftsmen involved in its creation. We are very lucky to be able to invite this film to our festival this year for an outdoor screening. The director, (Wuershan), and some of the cast members will be here to discuss the film while soaking up the culture and ambiance of the city.

Now there are positive points in the market, but there are also challenges. The communication of our film directors and film festivals with the international industry is still slowly returning to normal. While everyone is doing their best, this will take longer. And during the pandemic, young people in particular have become even more engaged by their smartphones and smart TVs and tablets at home, so getting them back into the movie-going habit is very challenging. There are many new forms of entertainment that young people find very appealing and this remains a competitive challenge.

Although many Chinese commercial films are again performing strongly at the Chinese box office, Hollywood films have earned far less than they once did. Why do you think this is so? Is it the movies or has the taste of Chinese audiences changed in some fundamental way?

Well, one thing you hear a lot is that Hollywood movies, more and more, are choosing to tell stories in an episodic way, with lots of sequels. Or, they’ve tried to continue the legacy of a piece of IP by creating many stories based on it, in a similar fashion. I would say that most of the audience in China – I wouldn’t say they are bored – but they feel like they are seeing the same stories and the same characters over and over again. And as I said before, Chinese youth have many options for entertainment these days. If your movie doesn’t offer something they think is new or exciting, they won’t be released in theaters. They can stay in their bedroom and play video games or watch TikTok videos and have fun.

What’s your advice for newcomers attending FIRST for the first time?

If you are attending FIRST for the first time, I just hope you can come with an open mind towards all these young filmmakers. Maybe they made some mistakes with their film in terms of technique, but the most important thing is to recognize the vision and the potential, to help them develop their talent to become the next great auteur of the future. Cinematic art is a road we all travel together that keeps winding, so let’s not be cautious. The film festival is a place of open minds and new communications.