A visit to the Shanghai International Film Festival demonstrates the dominance of Chinese-language cinema in the region.
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22 Jun 2012 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2012 - 6:33 PM

SHANGHAI INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Visiting any of the major Asian film festivals can be counted upon to provide a jolt to expectations—and Shanghai, this year presenting its 15th edition, is no exception.

For one thing, there's the simple scale of it to contend with, the sheer volume of new work out there—from China, in particular. These days, the world's most populous nation is also firmly established as one of the cinema's production capitals, ranking third in terms of overall output behind Hollywood and India. Last year saw over 400 feature films 'approved' by the nation's State Administration of Radio, Film & Television. In addition, it's estimated, there were anywhere from 50 to 90 micro-budget and independent productions, operating very much under the radar.

Not that you'd know from this year's Cannes, which pretty much ignored China altogether. Only one Chinese feature appeared in the 2012 lineup, well outside of the main selection: Dangerous Liaisons premiered in Directors' Fortnight—and even that was directed by a Korean: Hur Jin-ho. (Berlin, by comparison, had three months earlier given berths to six mainland features, including new works from Tsui Hark and Zhang Yimou—both premiering out of competition.)

Asian film buffs grumbled, especially when Gong Li turned up unexpectedly at Cannes' closing ceremony to present an award—her surprise appearance read, by some, as a belated attempt to make amends. But more surprising still is the realisation—plainly apparent when one spends any sustained time in China—that the country doesn't actually care that much what Cannes thinks. Or anybody else, for that matter.

Western festival slots, jury awards, foreign sales... these things are nice enough, if they happen to come one's way, but they can no longer be said to make or break careers. The fact is, with a home audience of 1.35 billion to tap (plus an additional 30 million in Taiwan and Hong Kong), Chinese filmmakers are doing perfectly well on their own, thanks very much. They don't require the benediction of Cannes, or indeed any other western festival. The overwhelming majority don't even need overseas box-office to recoup their budgets.

Consequently, the last decade has seen a number of interesting shifts, in both themes and practice. Even while festivals like Cannes cling to a very 1960s notion of auteurism, and Sixth Generation helmers like Jia Zhangke tout the influence of Bresson and Hou Hsiao-hsien on their own (extremely cerebral) body of work, a young 'seventh generation' filmmaker like Lin Lisheng can slip, seemingly effortlessly, from an arty, minor-key chamber-piece like 2010's A Disappearing Village, 'to an FX-driven genre exercise like Million Dollar Crocodile (pictured), a monster comedy which unspooled at this year's festival to considerable acclaim.

Which is to say: careers are more fluid, here. And opportunities more varied and negotiable.

Many, if not most, of the Chinese features screening here are not intended for export. Insofar as they can be considered en masse, they favour a flashy visual surface—initiative of Hollywood gloss (lots of rapid edits and flash-cuts), yet imbued with a feel entirely their own. Frequently the result can seem gauche: with its broad performances and gimmicky visual style, a film like Steven Hai's The Painter can seem, to Western eyes, like a parody of an 'Asian' costume pic. But the fact is, it's not made for Westerners. And local audiences adore it.

Meanwhile, the lobby of the Shanghai Film Arts Center is crowded with posters—not only for this festival, but for the plethora of commercial releases that are to follow it: Black and White, the kind of action-blockbuster that would once have come from Hong Kong; Painted Skin II: The Resurrection, a supernatural costume flick... More films than one could ever hope to see. And only a fraction of them destined ever to reach viewers in the West.

A few filmmakers continue to strive for the approval of the Cahiers set, and create small, calculating works of capital-A 'art', presumably in the hope of a berth at the Rotterdam or Vancouver or Berlin film festivals. Most, however, are setting their sights unashamedly on mass-market appeal and commercial returns, their desires entirely congruent with the new priorities of their homeland. To win a critics' award is nice—but, as Deng Xiaoping once noted, "to get rich is glorious."