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Independents on the Sidelines: Chris Berry on the Shanghai International Film Festival


Oxhide II (2009, dir. Liu Jiayin)

Held on June 13-21, 2009, the 12th Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF) was, to quote Chris Berry, “bigger than ever.” In his review of the festival on Senses of Cinema, Berry analyzed the continued growth and unusual challenges confronting this “large and ambitious A-list festival.” The subtle and ambiguous status of Chinese independent cinema is of particular concern.

For this relative newcomer to the international festival circuit, the greatest challenge is to attract strong entries for its main competition. Berry notes that the unavoidable self-awareness of “both political sensitivities and the expectations of the public and the authorities” makes the selection of foreign films “idiosyncratic, to say the least.” In the domestic sector, the official-sponsored status of the festival prevents it showing Chinese independent films – films that have not been through the government censorship system, although the various sidebar events managed to “provide spaces where independents can appear and participate.” Berry especially noted the presence of Liu Jiayin and praised highly her new work Oxhide II, inevitably absent in the festival:

Like the original Oxhide (2005), Oxhide II is a no-budget minimalist miracle. Filmed in long-take mode in her family’s tiny Beijing flat, it stars Liu and her parents, following them through the conversation that occurs during the New Year custom of rolling, boiling and eating dumplings. Just as Christmas lunch might tell you a lot about the many Western cultures, we get an insight not only into Liu’s family dynamics but also surviving the pressures of ordinary city life and the new market economy in China today. In the inevitable absence of the film, Liu herself appeared at a female filmmakers’ roundtable. It was sponsored by a women’s lifestyle website, and featured a bevy of glamorous and dolled up women filmmakers. Amongst them, Liu stood out almost as much as the moderator, the famous male filmmaker and former independent, Jia Zhangke. Her no make-up image and no-frills ethos of filmmaking struck a refreshing note and sent a strong message to the many ordinary young women in the audience.

For Berry, the most exciting and unexpected discovery of the festival also proved the dilemma concerning independent cinema. This was The Search (Xun Zhao Zhi Mei Geng Deng), the long awaited second film from Tibetan director Pema Tseden (a.k.a. Wanma Caidan), which won the Jury Grand Prix. Although his “sensitive” status as an ethnically Tibetan director in the People’s Republic makes it impossible for Pema Tseden to avoid going through the official censorship process, his film is, Berry noted, “exactly the kind of uncommercial and low budget film that would normally be made as an independent film in China.”


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