Since its conception in 2011, the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival, which plays in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane respectively, has strived to support and promote emerging filmmakers. In such a rapidly growing market such as mainland Chinese cinema, where lower budget art-house fare is marginalised by increasingly dominant commercial cinema, this is something to be applauded.
“In the first few years of the festival we weren't so sure about the direction the film festival was headed,” admits Ray Shen who has been president of the GKCFF for its entire four-year duration “now we have clarified the direction to encourage aspiring directors. We want our festival to be different and do something for new filmmakers in China and our festival exists to focus on the art-house instead of the commercial.”
If predictions are correct by 2018, China will have the biggest film industry in the world – something that isn't difficult to imagine when you realise almost a 1000 films are currently shot in China each year, that it's home to the biggest film studio in the world (Hengdian World Studios) and has a mega cinema-going population and affordable digital film technology that fuels an increasingly efficient output.
“We are just one place behind the North American market and the gap is getting shorter,” says festival artistic director, fellow veteran Chinese filmmaker and former Vice President of Beijing Film Academy, Fei Xie. “However, this is not our main concern. This festival is for cultural exchange not for commission and this is why I [mainly] chose art films because the commercial films [already] have a market. This is about supporting the dreams of the young directors and the future of the Chinese film industry.”
Indeed two examples of 'art films' that screened at this year's festival, Emily Tang's confronting emotional drama All Apologies and Lin Ruijun's micro-budgeted spiritual spectacle Fly with the Crane (awarded both Best Film and Best Director/Jury Prize at the festival's Golden Koala awards), were made in 2012 and are still yet to secure a Chinese release. To further empathise his point, Fei is quick to point out that the Chinese fish-out-of-water rom-com Finding Mr Right (aka Beijing Meets Seattle) and Hong Kong crime thriller Cold War – both hugely popular commercial films that also screened at GKCFF – didn't receive any award recognition by the festival's practicing professional Australian film industry jury members. “Instead, low budget [films] got recognised by Australians here which proves our point: culture and dreams instead of money, stars and commercial.”
With its elderly lead farmer protagonist (played naturalistically by an actual life-long rural farmer), painstakingly paced long takes and deeply hypnotic cinematography, Fly with the Crane – which explores a man's spiritual right to burial in a country where cremation is compulsory – is certainly a contender for an art-house outsider that is ripe for recognition. So too is Tang's more polished All Apologies, which also explores a restrictive government law (this time China's one-child policy) with equally controversial results when a family tragically loses their only son and the father takes extreme measures to right the wrongdoing.
“In the '80s and '90s, we had the Golden Age of the Chinese film industry with so many brilliant films shot by directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaig but we haven't seen as much outstanding work recently because of the dominance of commercial filmmaking,” laments Fei Xie.
One way GKCFF is now paying tribute to bygone eras is through their inaugural 'masterpiece screening', which selected Fei's own award-winning drama Song of Tibet from 2000, while it is forecast that next year's retrospective will possibly include Chinese masterpieces from the 1950s and 1960s.
Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival 2014 winners:
Best Film: All Apologies
Best Director: Emily Tang (All Apologies)
Best Actor: Ma Xingchun (Fly with the Crane)
Best Actress: Yang Shuting (All Apologies)
Jury Prize: Fly with the Crane
Pictured (credit Sebastian Coke):
Bottom row from left: Fly with the Crane lead actor Ma Xingchun and Festival artistic director/Song of Tibet filmmaker Fei Xie.
Top from left: Fly with the Crane actress Zhang Min, film's director Lin Ruijun and festival president Ray Shen.
For more information on the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival head to the official website: