It seems only fair that the year Chen Kaige came to the Sydney Film Festival this Sydney-based journalist, who has been to more Sydney fests than I care to remember, should go to the 14th edition of the Shanghai International Film Festival. The fact that the two festivals overlap means that Shanghai's star-studded red carpet tends to blow Sydney's roll call of soapie stars hoping to be interviewed by Andrew Urban right off the front page.
This was truer than ever this year, when the Murdochs – Rupert and Wendi to their friends – were present in Shanghai. (News Limited did the dutiful worldwide cross promotion.) Murdochs aside, the red carpet was a star-studded affair with Susan Sarandon in town to receive a life achievement award, Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam) to head the jury of the Golden Goblet competition and Matt Dillon for – well, no one could work out why Matt Dillon was in Shanghai.
For the Chinese, the big feature of opening night was the award for achievement in Chinese cinema, which went to Feng Xiaogang (Aftershock, If You Are the One). Rather than having Feng give an acceptance speech, the festival pulled a switcheroo. Instead his wife Xu Fan and their actor/producer friend Zhou Guoli gave speeches on Feng's behalf. While the missus was appropriately adoring (Feng is also her most frequent director), Zhou gave a speech that brought the house down complaining about how Feng was not really his friend as he never ever offered him roles...
Red carpets are one thing, but the festival experience is something else. Press ticketing at Shanghai can be a touch on the ad hoc side. All guests were entitled to 10 tickets over the duration of the festival – that's a mere 1 film per day! But if you were prepared to take a punt on a spare seat, there were other ways – some legit, some sneaky – to gain entry. And despite several films being 'sold out' I always got in. My success rate was high. Maybe I was just lucky. Several other Western journalists and programmers were getting very frazzled. As the festival progressed, many, unsure how to proceed, merely gave up, putting their emphasis on networking with other festival guests.
Shanghai's main competition was a hit and mainly miss affair featuring two Chinese films. The first Sino effort, Mr Tree (pictured), produced by Jia Zhangke but directed by Han Jie, is the story of a small town drunk who has a brief moment as a visionary before being reduced to the village idiot. Dripping with pretension, the film is carried not by the director's concerns about urban development or arty inserts of characters in trees but a charismatic lead performance by Wang Baoqiang who was able to do everything director Han could want. Despite my indifference, Mr Tree won the Best Picture and Best Director awards. No doubt, it is being programmed by Western film festivals even as I write.
The other Chinese competition entry shown later in the week was known as either Folk Songs Singing or the more directly translated but cumbersome The Young Man Sings Folk Song in the Opposite Door. It's obviously based on a play, but director Zhang Ming did an excellent job of opening it up, aided by the glorious setting of riverside Ziyang in Sichuan province. The story of a young woman who becomes infatuated with her music teacher gave actress Lv Xingchen a glorious role and her eventual win as Best Actress in the competition was well deserved.
Before Folk Songs Singing there were a few duds. The first real sign of life came from the Turkish Hayde Bre which, thanks to a strong performance from actor Sevret Emrulla, had the generally non-plussed Chinese audience up on their feet cheering. Things got even better with Thai comedy Friday Killer. The first in a trilogy, the film, shot in 2010, was not released due to production company Phranakorn's anxiety. They must have faith in director Yuthlert Sippapak though, because they let him go ahead with the sequel anyway and released Saturday Killer last October. A bawdy combination of low-brow comedy marbled with Tarantino parodies and pointed political references, this type of film usually inhabits the backend of a festival, rather than the competition. Gut-bustingly funny, it received 'the jury award'. (Whatever's left over when best film has already been given?) The jury also gave Friday Killer a cinematography award which was nice, but surprising.
My personal favourite was Sabu's Bunny Drop. In some ways it is an insignificant film about an adult saddled with a young kid. Ironically, what makes it special it is that except for a couple of minor digressions the film is ordinary. There is little here that a parent, particularly a single parent, has not experienced at some stage. But the expert way in which Sabu paces the film and lets it unfold largely without tricks or excessive manipulation was sublime and beautiful.
Outside of the competition I focussed on the Chinese selection. It was fascinating to see the range of films that Chinese filmmakers draw on. Deep Pond was an el cheapo schlock horror film that played like a fishing pole version of Duel (1971). The Floating Shadow seemed to draw on the tough 'Women's B pictures' like Caged (1950) and The Snake Pit (2004). The Wild Strawberries had nothing to do with Bergman (though director Chen Bing is a fan) but was a compelling portrait of illicit romance that comes a cropper against Maoist bureaucracy. There was even a Tibetan epic (Once Upon A Time in Tibet), which thanks to Mark Lee Pingbin's beautiful cinematography was lifted well above the standard set by its performances.
Some of the major Chinese films of the past year were also on show. Aftershock is still pulling in Chinese audiences, as are If You are the One 2, Ip Man 2, and the celebratory The Founding of the Republic (all of which have played in Australian multiplexes). It also gave me an opportunity to see Chen Kaige's Sacrifice, whose babyswapping premise eventually developed into a compelling epic drama. My big disappointment was that I still haven't seen Jiang Wen's Let the Bullets Fly. Hopefully, this film will be playing at Melbourne's upcoming film festival. I look forward to what is reportedly a stylised Sergio Leone-influenced gangster film and currently the highest grossing film in Chinese history.
Naturally, there were a few Chinese duds too. But with China, pumping out an astounding average of 450 films per year, that's not surprising. Given the number of films produced, the percentage of quality films is awe-inspiring. It's going to be a fascinating century of cinema.