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Shelly on Film: Beijing’s First Official Film Festival

By Shelly Kraicer

I previously wrote here about the cancellation of the 2011 Beijing Independent Documentary Film Festival (DOChina) at Songzhuang. As a companion piece, let’s take a look at the other important film event scheduled for roughly the same time in Beijing, the First Beijing International Film Festival (Di yi jie Beijing guoji dianying ji), which took place from April 23 to 28, 2011.

The BJIFF Opening Gala was more than spectacular, as far as these things go. An obviously huge budget was expended on large scale staged showpieces, set up for what was reported to be a “live television broadcast” managed by CCTV3, in Beijing’s most spectacular theatre, the Opera Hall of National Center for the Performing Arts just beside the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square.

CCTV news clip Here.

It makes sense that the fledgling BJIFF would shower a large part of its apparently substantial resources on this splashy opening show. The festival seems to be about scale, civic and national power, and about positioning Beijing — institutionally, internationally, industrially, and in the media’s frame of reference — as the centre of China’s visible film culture. That Shanghai has been host to China’s most prominent long-running film fest, in fact the only one with a real international profile, was an impediment to this image Beijing is eager to project. Hence the BJIFF, tasked to reposition in “film festival” terms Beijing as the acknowledged and unrivaled centre of Chinese cinema.

Chairpersons of International Film Festivals Meet in 1st BJIFF (image: Beijing International Film Festival)

This large-scale PR project (for that’s what it is, fundamentally: a state power-driven PR demonstration on a giant scale) necessitates large, splashy, visible, easily media-tized events, with both domestic and international impact. So, actual film screenings, the core of a film festival’s mission, were relegated in the BJIFF to a sort of barely publicized sideshow (during the festival it was impossible to find English-language information on the film schedule, and Chinese language info was incomplete and only available piecemeal online). Decorative festival side bars included an under-populated “film market” and “project market”, and various hard- or impossible-to-get-into directors’ talks and festival seminars.

But a gala opening ceremony, with red carpet, TV coverage, stars, international guests: that was easy to find. “Stars Shining in Beijing” was the official name of the opening ceremony on the evening of April 23rd. I think the result fully fleshed out its rather complex mission statement, which I quote for you from the English official programme guide: “Let us make the Beijing International Film Festival a world-class cultural extravaganza with Chinese characteristics and with a Beijing flavor!”

The Chinese government loves representational galas, high profile stunning propaganda events to symbolize and define its main themes and policies. The 2008 Olympics and 2010 Shanghai World Expo are the largest scale recent examples. But look also at the way Beijing’s recent star architecture projects — Rem Koolhas’s perpetually-under-construction CCTV headquarters, Stephen Holl’s Lynked Hybrid complex, Zaha Hadid’s Galaxy SOHO — are somehow supposed to symbolize the progressiveness of Beijing’s new contemporary architecture. In fact, they are islands of stunning design that mask the reality Beijing’s destructively and dispiritingly mediocre new building stock.

Marco Muller (image: Beijing International Film Festival)

So, one can see how the Opening Gala is designed to represent the BJIFF in propaganda, media, and in official tallies of how the government’s money was spent and corresponding prestige purchased. “Beijing Welcomes You”. We were treated to surprisingly short speeches by the Mayor of Beijing Guo Jinlong and the director of SARFT (the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television) Cai Fuchao, and then to a somewhat longer paean to the glories of Beijing and Chinese cinema by Venice International Film Festival Director Marco Müller. Müller with his usual bilingual flair, hit all the appropriate notes when it comes to articulating harmonious official cooperation with China.

Politburo heavyweight and Beijing Communist Party Head Liu Qi gave us an Olympic Games style “I declare the 1st annual BJIFF open”. He is in fact the former President of the Beijing Olympic Games Organizing Committee, which I think serves to clarify the way the 2008 Games and the BJIFF function in parallel kinds of ways.

It is notable that the Opening Gala’s complement of high officials far outranked the deputy mayors and vice-heads of SARFT who annually grace the rival Shanghai International Film Festival’s opening ceremonies. I’ve never seen Politburo members at a film event before. Their presence signals not only the weight that State and Party power is placing behind the BJIFF, but also suggests how closely said State and Party are watching over BJIFF as a core event in China’s projection of its “soft power” around the world.

One of the most distinctive elements of the evening’s proceedings was the parade of foreign film festival heads who marched up to the stage: Venice, Toronto, Pusan, Sundance, Tokyo, Thessaloniki, the list of festival directors goes on and on. These visiting eminences (was anyone reminded of tribute state potentates arriving in Qing dynasty Beijing to make ritual acknowledgement of the Emperor of the Middle Kingdom’s power and prestige?) received flowers from charming plaid-skirted children and the audience’s enthusiastic applause, as their presence seemingly ratified the international standing and importance of BJIFF for local and national audiences.

Then the fun began. A giant dance number attempted to mix actors in full Beijing Opera regalia with some sort of hospital orderly-style white-garbed breakdancing dervishes: evidently an attempt to show the harmonious relationship between Beijing culture then and now.

Star time: BJIFF’s two unexpectedly accurately named “image ambassadors”, Zhang Ziyi and Jackie Chan (both chosen, presumably, as much for their high recognizability factor in non-Chinese entertainment markets as for their status in current Chinese movie culture) arrived onstage for some awkward and surprisingly unrehearsed chit-chat. This was followed by a second large scale dance spectacular whose fantasy representation of Jiangnan (southern) China culture (take that, Shanghai) presumably balanced the “hard” northern Beijing opener: languidly floating diaphanously-begowned fairy maidens floating on clouds of Buddhist fairy-land stage smoke. Actually rather elegant, I have to admit.

The Opening Gala's "Italian Orchestra" playing themes from classic films

An even more elaborate staged song and dance involved a giant mechanical floating bridge that opened, robot-transformer style, into what looked like a giant space alien-toad that threatened to eat up not only the singer perched precariously on top but also the entire National Performing Arts Centre and its inhabitants. (I believe the intention was to represent a vast, sublime mountain scape, but believe me, the giant toad image stuck). More money flowed onto the stage in the form of the “Italian Film Orchestra”, an entire symphony orchestra flown in from Europe to play a medley of Western film music classics (more John Williams/Henry Mancini than Sergei Prokofiev).

A selection of famous Chinese directors and actors was paraded across the stage in a spurious celebration of “awards” to “Excellent Chinese films in External Trade in 2010”. This was clearly designed as an excuse to put film celebrities like John Woo, Leon Lai, Wang Xueqi, Feng Xiaogang, Xu Fan, Zhang Jingchu, and Wang Xueqi on official display.

No Chinese national arts gala event would be complete without a horrifically picturesque “ethnic minorities harmoniously dance to power” number. Here, dancers clad in every imaginable ‘colorfully exotic’ kind of garb lip-synched to a weirdly atavistic drum beat. I can only guess that the choreographers took their inspiration from the Stravinsky/Nijinsky primitive-esque Sacre du printemps via old Hollywood oogah oogah “savage native” dance numbers. At least the music and dance, in a weirdly naked way, articulated the “civilized centre’s” actual attitude towards its decorative minority subjects.

After which, as a touching farewell, Olympic ballad crooner Liu Huan favored us with a BJIFF tribute song.

I look forward to the 2nd annual BJIFF: may its mission statement favor a little more culture, a lot more films, a little less “world-class”, and a lot less “cultural extravaganza”. And keep the local flavor: Beijing always welcomes you.

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