Shanghai fest hopes to draw more foreign imports

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BEIJING -- Organizers of the 10th annual Shanghai International Film Festival are working to broaden the scope of mainland China's premiere industry event so it might live up to its name. Their work is cut out for them.

Rules emanating from China's capital to the north make a film festival a hard sell, even in China's commercial capital more than 600 miles away. Beijing limits foreign film imports even as it doles out weak punishments for movie pirates, which means illegally copied films from around the globe are available on the cheap.

The result? Few films make real money in China.

However, firm in their belief that China's 100-year-old motion picture industry has something of value to offer the world, SIFF organizers, from its owners at the Shanghai Media and Entertainment Group, are unveiling several new features as a means to draw a crowd to the June 16-24 event.

Based again this year at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Shanghai's Puxi district and at the adjacent eight-screen Shanghai Film Art Center, the event will host its inaugural Film Festival Directors Forum, uniting the heads of the biggest sister events from around the globe. Moderating will be Eric Mika, managing director of the Film and Performing Arts and Music Group of the Nielsen Co., parent company of The Hollywood Reporter.

The SIFF also will add a film market, an element at a couple of previous festivals that returns with eight-12 projects seeking production funds.

The SIFF market's main organizers are China Film Promotion International, the overseas wing of the China Film Group, the Beijing-based and state-run film powerhouse.

Organizers are mulling a new festival section, tentatively called Tribute to the Masters, with a retrospective of the work of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Also on the short list for the honor are actor Michael Douglas and director Pedro Almodovar.

By press time, organizers said that if it the new feature does come off in June, another likely tribute will to be Zhou Xuan, the Chinese actress-singer who 70 years ago starred in director Yuan Muzhi's "Street Angel," a classic from the first golden era of Shanghai cinema. Zhou, who died 50 years ago, ended her career in and out of mental institutions.

SIFF organizers were in discussions with Zhou's family to help launch a live concert tribute to her songs, many of which remain popular today thanks to rerecordings made by the likes of Taiwanese pop queen Cai Qin. The concert hopes to include local artists and Zhou's granddaughter, also a singer.

To make sure that SIFF's focus remains on film, however, guests -- who are expected to number 5,000 this year, up from 3,000 in 2006 -- won't have to deal with the annual Shanghai Television Festival. SIFF and STVF are owned by SMEG -- owner of the Shanghai Film Studio and operator of the city's biggest television stations -- which decided to move the TV festival to June 11-16.

"If we put these two together as was done in the past, then attendees get confused," said Margaret Pu Zixiao, a SIFF international relations official.

Organizers also are hoping to raise the stakes at SIFF's one red carpet event -- the annual Jin Jue Awards, presented in eight categories including best film, actor and actress. The 2007 jury has not yet been announced. In 2006, it was led by French director Luc Besson, the first non-Chinese to take the role.

"We are in discussions with SARFT to get the Jin Jue Award winner a fast pass to approved distribution in China," Pu said, referring to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, whose censors must approve each film applying for theatrical distribution to China's nascent but fast-growing boxoffice.

To help raise awareness of the rampant piracy problem that dogs China's boxoffice, director Feng Xiaogang loaned his name and skills to SIFF's initial anti-piracy public service announcement contest.

Sifting through more than 2,000 scripts submitted online,
SIFF organizers will choose one, the first half of which then will be directed by Beijing-based Feng (2006's "The Banquet"). The second half will be helmed by a winner selected from participating filmmakers attending the festival.

The festival will host 800 screenings of 200-300 films from around the world, all of which will be open to the public. This will beef up 2006's schedule of 600 screenings of 200 films.

As far as state-of-the-art theaters in China go, Shanghai has the cream of the crop, including several developed, then sold, by Warner Bros. International Cinemas.

In terms of artful places for festival parties, Shanghai suffers no shortage. The city's stunning blend of glass and steel skyscrapers and early 20th century European architecture that lines the banks of the Huangpu River provides myriad high-end restaurants and bars to lubricate the wheels of moviemaking commerce.

Where, in the past, critics have said that the SIFF film selection committee has had no record of choosing anything controversial -- beholden as they are to the censors -- there was some hope that this year the festival might at least have greater focus.

In the run-up to its 10th anniversary, SIFF had brought on one of its own longtime detractors as an adviser, the independent film critic and writer known publicly only by the name he used on his popular blog, Kafka Lu.

But Lu, 40, whose real name is Lu Zhigang, was struck and killed in a car crash April 2 in Shanghai, local media reported.

"We were taking some of his ideas to heart, and now he's gone," Pu said.

One executive from a Chinese film production company based in Beijing said that she had modest expectations for SIFF because organizers are taking on so many new projects.

"They're just now getting organized on the film market, so we're not expecting too much. We'll have to wait and see," said the Beijing-based executive, who asked not to be named. "We go because we have to, to show our support, but we're not expecting many deals to be done. After all, it's right after Cannes."

Executives polled at Warner Bros., UIP, Sony and Fox said their offices that oversee China business have no special plans for SIFF this year and are focused on May's Festival de Cannes.

Festivals and awards around the globe would seem to support the organizers' vision about the importance of Chinese film -- two features and a documentary made in China took home top prizes at the most recent Venice and Berlin film festivals and at this year's Academy Awards.

Shanghai survival guide

Shanghai, China's 21st century commercial capital, long ago was nicknamed the Paris of the East and regarded as a thriving center for culture and art, high and low.

Although the 10th annual Shanghai International Film Festival might struggle from June 16-24 to revive the spirit of the golden era of Chinese cinema firmly rooted here 70 years ago, visitors will note that the city is having little trouble reclaiming its cosmopolitan air.

If guests are able to pull away from air-conditioned screenings, the first thing they will notice is that Shanghai in June is humid and hot. Rainfall is heavy and temperatures regularly top 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius).

Dress lightly before stepping out. Note, too, that Shanghai residents pride themselves in being pushy, so as you step out, don't be surprised or too offended if somebody cuts in line in front of you.

There are sure to be lines to get into the Italian restaurant planned for the new boutique hotel Jia Shanghai, set to open this monthApril and expected to be in full swing by June. Inspired by its sister establishment opened in Hong Kong in 2003 with designer Philippe Starck, Jia (which means "home" in Chinese) also will have a rooftop bar. (Rates run $275/night; 931 West Nanjing Road; 86 21 6217 9000.)

If you're likely to argue over the bill, remember that in China -- in a conflict over matters big or small -- one always should leave his or her adversary a way out. The more insistent you become in public that your opponent is wrong, the more he or she likely is to dig their heels to avoid "losing face."

Speaking of face, if you want to show your new business partners that your taste runs to places with a storied pedigree and Asian flavor, take them to the elegant Face bar and the fine Thai and Indian kitchens attached. Situated in a lovely walled garden that once was Chiang Kai-shek's headquarters before he fled Mao Zedong's advance, Face is adjacent to another cool place to stay, the Rui Jin Guesthousecq. Detractors say it is run down, but fans say it is a taste of Old Shanghai at the right price. (Rates run $125/night; 118 Rui Jin 2 Road; 86 21 6466 4328.)

Once settled in and well fed, strike out in search of architecture, old and new. Shanghai is a great walking city for building lovers. Stroll along the West bank of the Huangpu River -- called the Bund -- for a glimpse of 1930s splendor. The headquarters of many Western companies are home to such restaurants and boutiques as Jean George, the Whampoa Club, Armani and Dolce & Gabbana. A trip by taxi to the Huangpu's East bank neighborhood of Pudong will reveal the soaring Jin Mao Tower, one of the world's tallest buildings, and the site of the neighboring World Financial Center, soon to be the tallest.

If it's art you're after, tell a cabbie to take you to Tai Kang Lu (Lu means "road" in Chinese) to explore this recently renovated maze of galleries and shops selling inexpensive Chinese antiques, from scrolls to ceramics and modern paintings. Then there is the magnificent Shanghai Museum, completely rebuilt in 1994 to house 120,000 items reflecting China's 5,000-year history. (Located at 201 Renmin Da Dao; 6372 3500.)

China's long traditions include a few worth remembering if business, not tourism, is your priority. Don't do deals in red ink -- it is bad luck -- and don't be offended if the people you meet spit or belch in your presence; they are not being rude, they're just being themselves.
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