State of the Shanghai International Film Festival

State of the Shanghai International Film Festival

Shanghai's 14th international film fest starts June 11: But has it made a difference to China's film industry, or is it an expensive exercise no one gives a damn about?
Barry Levinson - SIFF
Barry Levinson, director of "Rain Man" and the face of this year's Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF).

When you list the great film festivals of the world, names such as Cannes, Berlin and Sundance immediately spring to mind. If you narrow the field to Asian film festivals, Busan, Tokyo and Hong Kong will often come top of the list.

Even though it has been continuously running in one form or another since 1993, the Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF) rarely rates a mention.

According to Wang Hui Yu, the head of the film department at Shanghai's Film Art Institute, this trend will be hard to change given the festival is essentially more of a facade than an attempt to produce a ground-breaking cultural event.

“After all,” she adds with a hint of sadness, “who cares about a trophy from a conservative, state-run film festival in China?”

SIFF - Shanghai International Film Festival - Chen haoChen Hao, actress, model, singer and one of the many mainland glitterati who will make an appearance at this year's SIFF.

A booming film industry

Despite this criticism, it would be a mistake to equate a lack of international respect with irrelevance.

Over the past five years the Shanghai industry's growth has exploded in terms of quantity with this growth accompanying a rise in movie-going culture in China. Box office receipts last year climbed a record 65 percent to US$1.5 billion.

Local media claims that one cinema screen opened every day on average for the past 12 months.

Growing China's entertainment -- specifically movie -- industry is part of the country's next five-year plan, with Beijing aiming to increase the country’s current film and television production value to almost RMB 3 trillion (approximately US$460 billion) by 2016, in the hope of extending China’s cultural influence worldwide.

Putting the SIFF on the world's film awards radar is part of this major drive.

Columbia-born director and producer Juan Vargas has been working in Shanghai for eight years and says that although the festival may be less important overall than rival events, it is increasingly more important than those events in terms of making connections in China.

“Five years ago no one thought Chinese people would pay for expensive tickets to see a movie at a cinema, but somehow it became a trend -- so now there is a public,” he says.

According to Vargas, the best thing about SIFF is the opportunity it gives this new film-going public to see a different sort of movie.

“I would say [SIFF organizers] are trying to show more foreign films, which I think is probably good because for the Shanghainese audience it's the only chance they get to see these smaller foreign movies,” he says.

A touch of glamor

In recent years the “international” portion of SIFF has also seen significant growth, in no small part thanks to Yue-Sai Kan, one of China's most famous talk show hosts and cosmetics moguls, who six years ago took it upon herself to start inviting Hollywood celebrities to the festival, in order to add some “internationalism and glamor” to the proceedings.

After all, who cares about a trophy from a conservative, state-run film festival in China?— Wang Hui Yu, head of the film department at Shanghai's Film Art Institute

“I said to them, 'How can you call yourself an international film festival when not one foreign person comes?'” Kan matter-of-factly explains.

“[These celebrities] make it more glamorous," she continues. "We get a chance to bring in some important artists who would otherwise not come here and learn more about this country and our movie industry, which is growing by leaps and bounds.”

According to organizers, this year's top prize at SIFF, the Golden Goblet, will be contested by 1,519 films from 102 countries. Oscar-winner Barry Levinson (who directed “Rain Man”) will head a jury that also features Japanese director Yoichi Sai, British screenwriter Christopher Hampton and Spanish actress Paz Vega.

Stars Susan Sarandon, Matt Dillon, Marisa Tomei and Willem Dafoe, as well as Rupert Murdoch and his film producer wife Wendi Deng have all confirmed their trips to Shanghai this year for the festival.

Looking ahead

Wang Hui Yu believes that the best thing SIFF can do for local industry is to be a springboard for larger forums, discussions and workshops on the craft of filmmaking. Despite a quantitative growth in Shanghai's film industry, she is concerned that quality is not keeping up.

“We can improve the festival by doing more training programs,” she says. “A longer-run sister program, maybe a month before or after, where filmmakers can discuss craft with each other and with producers, and have an open-minded talk with investors. If SIFF could combine what they have now with something like the Sundance Lab, it would make it more practical.”

The consensus seems to be that although SIFF is far from perfect, it's certainly better than nothing.

It's very being is enough to make it relevant for Shanghai's industry, but as it evolves, there is still much more that can be done.

“You hear me complain about this and that, because my expectations are from world standards, but when we come back to Chinese standards, I think Shanghai is well above any other city,” Wang says. “So it is relevant. But can it be improved? The answer is yes.”

Shanghai International Film Festival, June 11-19, +86 21 6253 7115, www.siff.com

The full schedule for this year's festival has not yet been announced. Check the website closer to the date for further information.

Casey is a city/lifestyle journalist from Melbourne, Australia, who has been based in Shanghai since 2007.

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