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Pingyao Journal

China’s Newest Film Festival Tests the Limits of Independence

PINGYAO, China — It seemed odd to meet an aspiring director at a film festival who pleaded not to be quoted. He was afraid, he explained, after a discussion about cinema in China veered into censorship and how it affects filmmakers working here.

It is the question hovering over the weeklong festival that opened on Saturday in the ancient walled city of Pingyao: Can you create and showcase independent films in a country that frowns on independence, much less dissent?

  • 檢視大圖 Pingyao’s old city center. Buildings here date back to the Ming dynasty, more than four centuries ago.

    Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

    Pingyao’s old city center. Buildings here date back to the Ming dynasty, more than four centuries ago.

  • 檢視大圖 A movie on Pingyao’s history playing on a 360-degree screen at an old cinema in the city’s center that is now a museum.

    Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

    A movie on Pingyao’s history playing on a 360-degree screen at an old cinema in the city’s center that is now a museum.

  • 檢視大圖 Banners with the actress Fan Bingbing, left, and the director Feng Xiaogang, right.

    Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

    Banners with the actress Fan Bingbing, left, and the director Feng Xiaogang, right.

  • 檢視大圖 Marco Müller, left, who was brought in to help organize Pingyao’s festival, urged journalists to focus not on politics but on the art.

    Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

    Marco Müller, left, who was brought in to help organize Pingyao’s festival, urged journalists to focus not on politics but on the art.

  • 檢視大圖 The movie “Youth” premiered at the Pingyao festival.

    Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

    The movie “Youth” premiered at the Pingyao festival.

  • 檢視大圖 A light check on the eve of Pingyao’s film festival, which opened on Saturday.

    Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

    A light check on the eve of Pingyao’s film festival, which opened on Saturday.

“There is a level,” said Sun Liang, another young director, whose experimental film “Kill the Shadow” played on Tuesday after having its international premiere in Montreal in September. “You don’t want to make something too violent or too inappropriate, to go over that level.”

It is “probably like this in every country,” he added.

Only it is not. China’s grip on culture is as tight as it is on the media, politics and the economy. And if anything, that grip has grown even tighter under President Xi Jinping, who used last month’s Communist Party congress in Beijing to anoint himself China’s most powerful leader in a generation.

By accident of timing, the festival seems to have become an early test of what is acceptable in what is now being called the Xi era.

It is the brainchild of the country’s most celebrated independent filmmaker, Jia Zhangke, whose own work — gritty, violent, politically tinged — has fallen afoul of the censors before.

He said he wanted to present artistic films that might otherwise struggle to reach a wide audience, at home and beyond. Mr. Jia called it the Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival in homage to the 2000 martial-arts film by the director Ang Lee.

Mr. Jia would like it to be China’s version of Sundance, America’s biggest independent film festival — though perhaps, as officials like to say here, one “with Chinese characteristics.”

It is impossible, to say the least, to imagine the governor’s office in Utah screening the films to be shown at the Sundance in Park City, though that is exactly what officials in Shanxi Province, where Pingyao is located, did for all 52 films shown here.

Mr. Jia said independent filmmaking could still flourish in China, despite such restrictions. “Nearly 800 movies are made in China every year, among which there are many by talented young directors,” he said.

Directors and producers in attendance, even those who spoke frankly of the limits, agreed. There is, for now, still space for creativity, they said.

Even so, it was also evident that the festival could not escape the gravitational pull of the country’s politics. It was originally scheduled to open a week earlier, but when the dates for the party congress were announced, only weeks before it began, the festival’s schedule had to shift accordingly.

The film chosen for the festival’s opening, “Youth,” also became entangled in an unspoken rule of congress politics. Its nationwide release in October was abruptly canceled, even though a promotional tour had already begun. Many critics assumed the reason was that it depicted an event — China’s unsuccessful war in Vietnam in 1979 — that would have run against the congress’s message of national strength.

The delay was, naturally, the first question at the festival’s opening news conference, prompting an evasive answer from its producer, Ye Ning, the chief executive of Huayi Brothers Media. (Despite its premiere here, its national release remains unscheduled.)

The festival’s artistic director, Marco Müller, then chided journalists to steer their questions to the film’s director, Feng Xiaogang, and two leading actresses. “Let’s emphasize the artistic aspects,” said Mr. Müller, an experienced organizer whose role in another inaugural festival, in the former Portuguese colony of Macau, ended with his abrupt resignation last year.

Agang Yargyi, a Tibetan filmmaker who traveled from the western province of Sichuan to attend, expressed admiration for Mr. Feng’s choice of a historical subject, calling it “very daring.”

Mr. Agang, 27, has made three short films, including one, “Dream,” that played in film festivals in Finland and Washington. He described the challenges facing filmmakers, heightened in his case by his ethnic ties to a sometimes restive region. He cannot get a visa, for example, to accompany his films on the festival circuit.

“China is a country that doesn’t like to review its history,” he said.

And yet China’s troubled history is inescapable.

Pingyao’s historical center, a protected Unesco heritage site, dates back 2,700 years. Its 30-foot walls enclose evocative narrow streets and courtyards hidden behind worn wooden doors. Many structures have been neatly restored, catering to the millions of tourists drawn to one of China’s last unspoiled old cities.

Mr. Jia chose Pingyao because it is near his hometown; one of his films, “Platform,” takes place there and includes an encounter between two characters on the ramparts of the city’s walls. That film was about a theater troupe in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, which ravaged the country’s cultural elite.

The only cinema in Pingyao’s old city, ironically, was a modern addition, built in 1965, just before the Communist leader Mao Zedong set the Cultural Revolution in motion. The cinema closed in 2003, but reopened last year as a museum. A red banner on the building declares, “Long Live Great Leader Chairman Mao.”

The festival had the financial support of the regional government, which hopes to attract still more visitors.

Opening night drew more than 1,500 people, according to organizers. Fans pressed the barricades framing the red carpets to snap photographs of China’s biggest stars.

These included the actress Fan Bingbing, whose latest film, a patriotic action blockbuster called “Sky Hunter,” also played here. It was made in cooperation with the People’s Liberation Army, in keeping with a government-encouraged trend to extol the country’s might. Its addition certainly bent the definition of independent.

Such, it seems, are the compromises required to put on a festival. Its posters declare “Pingyao Year Zero,” signaling Mr. Jia’s hope that it will be long lived.

Mr. Feng, the director of “Youth,” played down the questions swirling around the festival. Now 59, he saw the Cultural Revolution, and the headlong rush into capitalism that followed, and reminded younger filmmakers that things had once been worse.

“So many theaters were demolished, turned into saunas, foot baths or nightclubs,” he said. “Maybe every young director has some illusion that his circumstance is the most difficult, that he is the most unfortunate, but really, it’s not that way.”

Then he made what sounded like a plea to persevere.

“The young directors of today,” he said, “should not be beaten back by difficulties and setbacks.”

Olivia Mitchell Ryan contributed research from Pingyao, China, and Zoe Mou contributed research from Beijing.

Copyright © 2017 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.
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