How the FIRST International Film Festival champions the cause of Chinese independent filmmakers

How the FIRST International Film Festival champions the cause of Chinese independent filmmakers

The Chinese film community has traveled to the hinterland of Xining for the annual festival which champions the cause of the country’s independent voices, giving emerging talent a platform on which to announce themselves to the world.

The FIRST International Film Festival takes place from July 23, marking its 17thth edition and the first since the COVID pandemic curtailed in-person activities across the country for the better part of three years. Full flights are expected, while seats on the trains that usually transport day-trippers and pilgrims to a city that dates back to the days of the Silk Road are now at a premium for film buffs who make their annual sojourn from Beijing and beyond.

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For the uninitiated, the obvious comparison is Sundance, and not just because of Xining’s similar mountain surroundings and lofty elevations of about 2,275 meters. While there are obvious differences between the controls placed on content in China versus the United States, a generation of Chinese filmmakers have market-tested their ideas at FIFF as, like every year at Sundance, there is a pledge to screen short films, many of the students.

“I think the FIFF 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,” is how festival founder Song Wen puts it.

This year there are 98 films screened in total over the eight days of the festival, and the line-up includes 27 features and 71 shorts. The opening of the festival is the latest animation by acclaimed painter-turned-director Liu Jian — Art school 1994 see a student life in the 1990s and how China’s economic reforms changed society – and the first post-crime film steeped in Good day was shortlisted in the running for the Golden Bear in Berlin 2017. Among the films submitted by 16 countries and territories was the illegal immigration drama Malaysia Big Brotheralready three times awarded at international festivals, and again in contention for the main prize of the FIFF.

The jury is chaired this year by Joan Chen with a special screening of Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic The last emperor, the film that launched his career globally, for a special screening. Chen will be joined on the various judging panels — and no doubt along the red carpet — by the likes of Chinese A-listers Yao Chen, Nicolas Tse and Jackson Yee.

“I’m excited to meet a new wave of Chinese filmmakers, to hear their new voices and see their perspectives,” says Chen. “I look forward to being encouraged by their passion and energy. Having lived and worked in both the East and West, I also hope to bring my unique experiences to the discussions taking place at the festival.”

The FIFF has an impressive strike rate in terms of nurturing the talents of young filmmakers who have since moved on to bigger things. Among the directors who first made the trip to Xining as students, with short films and hopes in their folders, was Wen Muye, whose first feature film Dying to survive grossed more than $431 million and Shao Yihui, whose first feature film B for busy raised $36 million.

“FIRST is a festival that nurtures young talents, who are the future and hope of Chinese cinema,” says Chen. “I am interested in discovering, faced with an ever-changing, chaotic and overwhelming future, how this generation evokes clarity, meaning, beauty and transcendence through the alchemy of cinema”.

Other films that have garnered attention include Closest, Trending topic, a socially savvy thriller that examines China’s hot-button topic of “grassroots” media platforms and the effect their stories can have on people when they go viral and out of control. It is by director Xin Yukun, whose debut The coffin in the mountain won the Best Feature Award at the FIFF, and stars one of China’s biggest stars in Zhou Dongyu, who was recently seen by international audiences at Cannes for his role in Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s thriller The Breaking the Ice.

That was a Singapore-China co-production and Chen will no doubt discuss the possibilities such collaborations can offer in his role in Xining as a mentor to young filmmakers. They can also probably learn from some workshops, such as The Future of 5-Minute Films: Writing the History of the Individual, which (like the festival) will tap into the short-short movement in China, which is supported by the world’s largest smartphone market.

There are more than a billion smartphone owners across the country, so it’s no wonder many want to use their devices to dabble in movies – and the FIFF’s short film programme/competition boasts 20 films, all five minutes or less in length. There is also a Filmmaking Forum to help generate ideas and a Rough Cut Workshop which aims to help budding filmmakers fine-tune their documentaries.

Adds Chen: “I hope to be delighted by a distinct and authentic cinematic language, evocative cinematic images and sounds. I look forward to being challenged by new questions about the human condition.