If you ask any Chinese indie auteur for their own favorite film festival, expect to be directed to the city of Xining, China’s historic gateway to the vast Tibetan Plateau. Here, in a now-teaming city in the foothills of the world’s tallest mountains, the FIRST International Film Festival has carved out a reputation that regularly earns it comparisons to Sundance — it is China’s preeminent indie event, where exciting new cinematic talent is most likely to be discovered.
This year’s festival, running July 23-31, features a selection of 98 films, including 27 features and 71 shorts — many of them made by first or second-time directors. Former financier-turned-producer, writer and director Song Wen, co-founded FIFF in 2006 and has shepherded the event through 17 years of tumultuous growth and change in the 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 (The 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.
Ahead of FIFF’s official kickoff on Sunday, The Hollywood Reporter connected with Song for a brief chat about this year’s program, his industry’s strong post-pandemic recovery, and why Chinese filmgoers appear to have fallen out of love with Hollywood lately.
What are some of the trends you have identified across FIRST’s film program this year?
There are some trends, but I think they are still in the process of emerging. First, the boundary between fictional and non-fictional filmmaking is becoming increasingly blurred — whether it’s narrative films that bring reality up close or documentary films that authentically present a filmmaker’s point of view on their world. Many of the films in our selection — especially the shorts, and short shorts — are explicitly challenging these boundaries in some way. Also, because of all of the recent advances in technology, filmmaking has become much cheaper and more accessible in China, so a lot of talented people without professional training or backgrounds are finding their way into filmmaking. 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 directors are now even able to experiment with genres like sci-fi or thrillers through much more cost-effective means, to reflect on their own experiences and auteurist visions.
What role does FIRST play in the Chinese film industry today?
I think FIRST is irreplaceable as a melting pot for new young filmmaking talent in China — to have new encounters, build relationships, exchange ideas about movies and get training. A lot of exciting talent and films got their start here, like Xin Yukun’s Coffin in the Mountain or Hu Bo’s Elephant Sitting Still. They pushed the boundary of what Chinese film aesthetics can be. At the same time, over these past 17 years, we have discovered and managed to support a lot of filmmakers who have a unique perspective on genre filmmaking — like Dong Yue’s The Looming Storm, Xin Yukun’s The Coffin in the Mountain, or Teng Congcong’s Send Me to the Clouds. And then there is Wen Muye, who went on to become one of China’s most successful commercial directors with Dying to Survive (2018). When he was still in the first year of university, he made his first short film, which was selected by the FIRST festival. Two of his later shorts also entered the competition section at FIRST and won awards. Xu Zheng, now one of the most important actors and filmmakers in China, was on the jury the year when Wen Muye showed that first short at FIRST. Xu Zheng has said how he made a note after seeing Wen’s short at that time, writing “This director is ready to make a feature right now.” Eventually, they worked together on Dying to Survive, which earned over $450 million. That’s probably the top example of the sorts of connections and opportunities we hope to create and encourage at the festival. Our biggest goal is to support new auteurs.
How would you describe the current situation for the Chinese film industry overall? How is the post-COVID recovery going?
So, from a more practical perspective, recently things have been going pretty well. During the summer release season, a lot of new films have received very high box office. On Thursday, Fengshen, one of the Chinese films with the highest production values, earned over RMB 100 million ($14 million) on its first day. There have been several other big commercial successes recently and the industry and market are getting back to normal. But I think Fengshen shows the best direction for the Chinese industry, because there are going to be three installments in this franchise, and it’s a very big-budget project that utilizes the full capacity of the Chinese film industry system, with hundreds of craftspeople involved in its creation. We’re very lucky that we’ve been able to invite this film to our festival this year for an open-air screening. The director, [Wuershan], and some of the cast will be here, to discuss the film while engaging in the culture and atmosphere of the city.
There are bright spots in the market now, but there are also challenges. Our filmmakers’ and film festivals’ communication with the international industry is still making slow steps back to normal. Although everyone is trying their best, this will take some more time. And during the pandemic, young people, in particular, became even more engaged by their smartphones and smart TVs and tablets at home, so getting them back into the habit of going to the cinema 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 performing very well at China’s box office again, Hollywood films have been earning far less than they once did. Why do you think this is? Is it the films, or has the Chinese audience’s taste changed in some fundamental way?
Well, something you hear a lot is that Hollywood films, more and more, choose to tell stories in an episodic way, with many sequels. Or, they’re tried to continue the legacy of a piece of IP by creating many stories based on it, in a similar way. I would say most of the audience in China — I wouldn’t say they’re getting bored — but they’re feeling that they’re seeing the same stories and characters again and again. And like I said earlier, Chinese young people have a lot of options for entertainment these days. If your film isn’t offering something that they think is new or exciting, they won’t come out to the cinema. They can stay in their bedroom and play video games or watch TikTok videos and have a great time.
What’s your advice for newcomers attending FIRST for the first time?
If you’re participating in FIRST for the first time, I only hope that you can come with an open mind toward all of these young filmmakers. Maybe they have made some mistakes with their film in terms of technique, but what’s more important is to recognize vision and potential — to help them develop their talent to become the next great auteur of the future. Film art is a road that we’re all on together that keeps winding, so let’s not be conservative. The film festival is a place for open minds and new communication.
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