The Pingyao International Film Festival hosted a line-up of independent films from around the world
The setting couldn’t have been better. A once abandoned diesel engine factory turned into an industrial-chic “Cinema Palace” to play host to China arthouse circuit’s latest addition, the Pingyao International Film Festival (PYIFF).
Inside the factory compound a cluster of buildings serves as an open-air arena, cinemas, exhibition halls, offices and cafes, decorated with moody film posters and giant outdoor screens. A red carpet, rolled all the way to the staircase of the magnificent 500-seat main cinema hall is traversed by some of the most-beloved entertainers in China today – Yang Mi, Yao Chen, Ma Yili, and Shang Wenjie, just to name a few.
Under the pleasant autumnal sun, artsy film enthusiasts debate about the Soviet new wave cinema, now and then, as they sip on RMB35 a-cup latte. Outside the compound is Pingyao’s 2,700-year-old dusty main thoroughfare marked by an abundance of tourist-friendly restaurants, knick-knack sellers and picturesque inns, as well as a labyrinth of narrow alleyways where one can still catch glimpses of a secluded small-town life.
PYIFF, launched in 2017, was the brainchild of China’s most famous contemporary independent filmmaker, Jia Zhangke, and film festival veteran, Marco Müller. The duo chose Pingyao, an ancient fortified inland city in the heart of coal-producing Shanxi province, as the location for their latest endeavor because Jia, as a Shanxi native, has long had the ambition to reshape the cultural landscape of his home province.
In Fenyang, Jia’s hometown and a one-hour drive from Pingyao, Jia has already established the Jia Zhangke Arts Center, where he organizes showcases of student films. A new film school is expected to emerge in the coming years.
The jewel in Jia’s crown is, however, the Pingyao International Film Festival, an annual “boutique” event with the support of the local government, dedicated to introducing, presenting and promoting “imaginative and original genre films from around the world,” on Chinese turf.
The second edition of the PYIFF kicked off on October 11, fronted by red-carpet celebrations and a screening of Half The Sky, in which five female directors – Daniela Thomas, Elizaveta Stishova, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, Liu Yulin and Sara Blecher - approach the subject of womanhood and femininity by telling the stories of different women.
The ambition of PYIFF to become a meeting point where audiences and filmmakers are free to exchange ideas, and a launching pad for domestic distribution of selected films – be it in theaters or on VOD platforms – was apparent in its program line-up. The week-long event divided its 55 official selections (including Empire Hotel by the Macau-based Portuguese director Ivo M. Ferreira) into a number of categories: Crouching Tigers (international directorial debuts or second features); Hidden Dragons (exceptional international genre films); Best of Fest (outstanding award-winning films from international film festival); New Generation China (Chinese-speaking films from up-and-coming filmmakers); Tribute/Retrospectives (rediscovered classics); Special Presentations (films with a special relationship to the PYIFF).
There were also daily forums and seminars, galas and parties, awards and prizes to support the emerging generation of filmmakers and introduce them to a growing number of young and cultivated Chinese cinephiles.
Among the stream of independent movies – The Load (Serbia), The Man Who Surprised Everyone (Russia), A Land Imagined (Singapore), Ayka (Russia), and Soni (India) - were films that juggled mainstream appeal with an arthouse approach. Baby, a nuanced film examining the consequences of China’s one-child policy, starred Chinese A-lister Yang Mi and was directed by Liu Jie as part of his trilogy of litigation themed films.
The festival also provided a window into local Shanxi production such as Patrolman Baoyin, directed by Yang Jin, a film about the adventures and misadventures of a big-hearted and heroic patrolman named Bao Yin in small-town Inner Mongolia.
Müller, who previously headed the Locarno, Venice, Rome and Beijing films festival, and was also involved in preparations for the first International Film Festival and Awards Macao in 2016, acknowledged the growth opportunity of arthouse cinema in a country intent on all forms of media domination.
“It may always remain as a niche,” he admits. “But, given China’s sheer population base and the emergence of film schools in every province, we should be able to reach over 50 million individuals. Even at the global level, this turnout number would be the biggest mass audience for arthouse films.”
“Most of the films that can actually be seen by the public are the big productions churned out by big companies. We would like PYIFF to be a platform for independent films despite the commercialized context. Thereby, the public can pay attention to the most dynamic sector of filmmaking,” he adds.
Behind the nascent cinephile scene that PYIFF has set out to foster, was Jia’s thoughtful expansion into the film industry’s entire eco-system, “a full circle” in his own words. The gritty realist turned mogul-in-the-making, with a penchant for fat cigars, has long diversified from his long-running independent production outfit XStream Pictures, to the newly established Fabula Entertainment with investment from China Merchants Bank and online giant Tencent, to explore “film-related lifestyle-building.” Given Jia’s own metamorphosis, it wasn’t all that surprising to see advertisements for flashy cars, Chinese liquor and popular dating apps share the screen with the art cinema at PYIFF.
Although each of the films in Pingyao’s lineup fell “under the guidance of Shanxi and Pingyao’s relevant government departments” as reported by China Daily, the festival has opened up a wealth of opportunities to discover rarefied gems beyond the usual confines of the state apparatus. Tunisian director Mohamed Ben Attia’s Dear Son, for example, was a delicate portrait of a fractured bond between father and son told with subtlety and grace in post-Arab Spring Tunisia. Chinese director Bai Xue’s The Crossing, which won the Best Film and the Best Actress awards at the PYIFF, told the story of a girl who already inhabited two worlds but risked everything to travel somewhere else.
Over at least the last 10 years, Jia has become very familiar with the word compromise: “People always think that interaction with the system is a compromise,” he once said. “I think that’s wrong. Compromise or not, you have to look at the work.”