June 01 2020
Now showing at China’s Taj Mahal
28 October 2018

A film festival that is as much about the place as it is about films

It’s easy to get lost in the narrow cobbled streets of Pingyao while trying to discover the nooks and crannies where Zhang Yimou shot his hypnotic and lush 1991 classic Raise The Red Lantern. The principal location for the film — the Qiao Family Compound — is about 40 km away from the ancient walled city I am in. Trademark red lanterns are festooned all over the bustling main streets as well as the quiet inner lanes.

I meander around the walled Unesco world heritage site (with 2,700 years of history) in China’s Shanxi province. It is like a film set — in this case, a marketplace, where a kung fu action sequence could unfold any minute. Cafes, heritage homes (with courtyards within courtyards) turned into hotels, fenjiu (local liquor), vinegar, walnut, hand-made shoes, curio shops... there’s even a parrot to pick a tarot card to predict your future.


Jia Zhangke (left) and Lee Chang-Dong. Photo: Special arrangement

Jia Zhangke (left) and Lee Chang-Dong. Photo: Special arrangement  

Very rarely does an international film festival become so much about the venue. Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival (PYIFF), the passion of auteur Jia Zhangke and international festival veteran Marco Muller, derives as much from its charming setting, as it does from the carefully curated, personally handpicked films; all this while retaining its overarching youth-skew and resolutely boutique character, ‘modest in scale but with ambitious aspirations.’

A small county town

My exotica, however, is Jia’s reality. Most of the film festivals in China are held in mega cities visited by billions of people, Jia says in an informal interaction with the foreign journalists.

“By hosting it in a small county town and underdeveloped economy, I wanted Chinese filmmakers and cinephiles to see Chinese reality,” he says. But notably, in just its second year, it has become a significant part of the Chinese film festival landscape. Jia goes on to talk about capturing a ‘China in transformation’ in his films. He has also seen a new wave of young filmmakers take over in the last decade as the country has a witnessed a shift from planned, state-supported cinema to a competitive market-driven one. “It has led to a stronger desire towards self-expression in youngsters. In the last year we have seen 800 new films in China, two-thirds of which have been directed by young, new directors.”

With Ang Lee’s permission, the festival incorporated his classic Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon into its name this year. The Crouching Tiger section featured debut and second films by young directors from across the world, in which India’s own Ivan Ayr’s Soni won best film. The Hidden Tiger section featured trends and developments in genre cinema.

Impressive line-up

The aim of PYIFF is to bring to focus cinema from non-Western regions that the Chinese audience is less familiar with. So there was a special package of Soviet New Wave cinema and masterclasses with Johnnie To and Korea’s Lee Chang-Dong and Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz. A changing China has meant fewer restrictions and controls, with only foreign films requiring government approval. For a second-timer, the line-up is pretty impressive, with many contemporary biggies from international festivals like Cannes and Toronto on the menu, including Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s Manta Ray, Beatriz Seigner’s Los Silencios, Liu Jie’s Baby, Paul Dano’s Wildlife, Sergey Dvortsevoy’s Ayka, which won best actress for Samal Yeslyamova at Cannes, Hong Sangsoo’s Hotel By The River, Lukas Dhont’s Girl, and Alice Rohrwacher’s Lazzaro Felice.


At the masterclass with Lee Chang-Dong. Photo: special arrangement

At the masterclass with Lee Chang-Dong. Photo: special arrangement  

Movies moving online

So how does Jia look at the evolution of the festival? In the first festival a lot of Asian, African, East European and South American films were screened and later procured and distributed in China so they could be accessible to a mainstream audience through online platforms and cinema channels. The festival has also supported the works of young directors from Shanxi province, especially women. Some young directors who visited the festival last year are collaborating with each other, says Jia; “Chinese filmmakers have partnered with Singapore crews and Taiwanese actors.”

Streaming platforms like Netflix may not have entered China yet but a lot of films are watched online in the country and also made purely for online distribution, which explains the focus on new media this year.

I begin my own viewing with the restored version of To’s slick action thriller Throw Down (2004) about two judo champions, with some spectacular duels and brilliantly choreographed fight sequences. To’s Hong Kong segues next day into Vetrimaaran’s intense, energetic and manic Chennai in the political yet crowd-pleasing ‘rowdy’ saga, Vada Chennai. Both films play at the big and beautiful state-of-the-art 500-seater theatre ‘Spring in the Small Town’, named after Fei Mu’s classic family saga of 1948.

Next to it is the open-air auditorium ‘Platform’, named after Jia’s 2000 ‘epic of the grassroots’, set in his birthplace Fenyang, a 40-minute drive from Pingyao. There are four smaller theatres where I brush up on some new Chinese voices — Bai Xue’s award-winning The Crossing, for instance, about young people getting embroiled in cross-border drug smuggling between Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

The Festival Palace, covering 11,000 sq.m. — the venue for all the theatres (2,200 seats in all), exhibition spaces, press centre and meeting rooms, cafés, bars and memento shops — was once the site of two factories from the times of Mao Zedong. The former diesel engine plants were retrofitted for this, I am told. I spot other abandoned industrial compounds and warehouses while walking on the ramparts of the walled city past the 72 watch towers representing the disciples of Confucius.

The mix of the past and present is everywhere. The festival is not just about cinema but about the economy, the construction and hospitality industries. Besides the Festival Palace, there is the Youjian Pingyao theme hotel cluster, planned as a mammoth complex of art, culture and tourism, with eight hotels, several restaurants and conference centres. One of the festival delegates describes Pingyao to me as the ‘Taj Mahal of China’, a most popular tourist destination.

Jia too is working on one project set in the past and anotherin the modern day. He doesn’t know which he will begin first: “After the festival I will sit and decide.” For now, all he breathes is Pingyao. As do we.



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