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In the end, it was always going to come down to those youngsters.
China’s FIRST International Film Festival, which has now 17 editions, prided itself on providing a platform on which the county’s next generation of filmmakers can reveal their talent. Fittingly, then, the event is attended by a predominantly young audience. They travel in large numbers to the city of Xining, set in China’s mountainous central region, fringing the Tibetan Plateau, and they really do feast on the program of independent films.
There were 98 films screened across the festival’s nine-day run, 27 features and 71 shorts among them. There were Q&A sessions with the audience that often ran well into overtime, such was the enthusiasm shown for everything from a gritty but life-affirming three-hour drama about a migrant woman trying to forge a life in a big city (Qin Tian’s Fate of the Moonlight) to a six-minute short that sees a young boy who’s made out of paper have nightmares about scissor men coming to get him (Zhou Shengwei’s Perfect City: The Bravest Kid).
Led by jury president Joan Chen and filled across its many sections by local A-listers including Yao Chen, Jackson Yee and Zhang Songwen, the jury was wise to the mood — and to the youth — with both those films picking up big awards on the festival’s closing night.
For Qian and Fate of the Moonlight there was the Best Narrative Feature; for Zhou and Perfect City: The Bravest Kid there was the Best Animated/Experimental Short Film.
Galaxy Writer was another that proved hugely popular with audiences, and with the judges, too, as this ultra-smart tale of — guess what? — struggling young filmmakers saw co-directors Li Kuo and Shan Dandan handed the Grand Jury Prize while being joined on stage by Gao Qun to accept the award for best screenplay.
The festival reported that more than 30,000 film fans in attendance at this year’s event, along with a media presence of around 500 and 600 industry players, drawn to the films but also to the sidebar events such as the FIRST LAB filmmaker training program and the FIRST market. Among the international filmmakers to lend a hand across the festival were Singapore’s Anthony Chen, Hong Kong-based cinematographer Christopher Doyle, MOMA’s Department of Films curator La Frances Hui and Berlinale Shorts curator Anna Henckel-Donnersmarck.
Festival founder and head Song Wen walked away happy that the event “continues to discover and cultivate more powerful storytellers, and to help young filmmakers turn these stories into reality.”
“Communication knows no boundaries,” said Song. “Movies reflect real life and will also affect our lives. Every year, FIRST gathers movies by young people and with wisdom, attitude, and with the shining light of thought, this makes watching movies meaningful.”
The festival’s inspired First Frame program and competition focuses on the work of female directors or stories about women and its main award went to the quasi-documentary This Woman. It sees a married woman talking about her various affairs and how she sees her role as wife, mother and woman in contemporary China, and the director Alan said she wanted to leave her audience questioned what was real in the movie and what was invented. Mission accomplished.
While FIFF’s primary concern is emerging talent, there was also time to celebrate the past, with a selection from China’s “Fifth Generation” of filmmakers on show, including a rare public screening of the Mi Jiashan comedy The Troubleshooters from 1988, and one of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), a nice touch given Chen was in town and many in the audience would never have seen the Oscar-winner on a big screen before.
There was also a high dose of red-carpet glamour with the appearance of director Wuershan and the stars of his current domestic box office leader Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms, a fantasy epic the studio claims took about 10,000 people about 10 years to make and one the Chinese film industry as a whole hopes will shape the future of the country’s blockbusters in terms visual style and quality — and box office returns.
The film — based on the classic Chinese text Fengshenyanyi — has so far collected some $156 million after 11 days and there were plenty of stars in the audience for a special screening, with the likes of Song Zhongwen paying homage to both the director and the film’s much-loved star, the 80s heart-throb Fei Xiang (aka Kris Phillips).
Wuershan is one of many established stars in China to have forged a deep connection with FIFF and its efforts to encourage the country’s younger generations to enter the industry. The festival’s focus on shorts is designed to entertain the audience, but to also inspire them, and you could witness young filmmakers mingling with young fans in the bars and nightclubs that fringe FIFF’s outdoor screen in Xining’s GuaoZhang Square entertainment and dining district.
Early award winners across the week included the gripping documentary Nest, a film that follows the fortunes of a man whose once-comfortable family has fallen on hard times. Director Qin Xiaoyue said she wanted her audience to think about how contemporary society everywhere had “let some families down” and it was one of a number of films jury head Chen said had been “asking questions that have not been asked before.”
Bitter Sweet Ballad — which won an audience award for documentaries — does that, too, in looking at the fortunes of students at a school for migrant children on the outskirts of Beijing. It’s both inspiring and heartbreaking as these kids join a choir and they try to assimilate into life in the capital and we watch their hopes get raised and sometimes shattered.
Chen said she had long wanted to visit FIFF and she captured the mood when saying she’d been impressed by the “great variety of themes as well as styles.”
“That is in itself great because things have become more narrow in the market here (in China),” said Chen. “So I’ve seen very experimental work, I have also seen very commercial attempts. But, all in all, they’re authentic, and that’s just so important.”
The award winners:
Best Narrative Feature: Fate of the Moonlight directed by Qin Tain
Best Director: Wang Zichuan (Day Dreaming)
Grand Jury Prize: Galaxy Writer directed by Li Kuo and Shan Dandan
Best Performance: Wu Kangren (Abang Adik, Malaysia)
Best Artistic Originality: Du Guangyu (Day Dreaming)
Best Screenplay: Shan Dandan, Li Kuo, Gao Qun (Galaxy Writer)
Best Documentary: Nest directed by Qin Xiaoyue
Spirit of Freedom: Nan Xin (Go Photo Shooting)
Best Short Film: Walking With Her Into The Night directed by Shu Hui
Best Animated/Experimental Short Film: Perfect City: The Bravest Kid directed by Zhou Shengwei
Special Mention: Where Do Ants Sleep at Night directed by Dean Wei