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SHANGHAI — Suspense started the Shanghai International Film Festival Saturday morning as no opening film was named in the catalog and market booths costing $800 and up remained empty.
By evening, however, the 10th annual fest — separated from the Shanghai Television Festival for the first time — began to show signs of the life organizers hope someday will rebill China’s commercial capital as its movie capital for the first time since the 1930s.
A VIP reception at the imposing municipal building saw the likes of Hong Kong hitmaker Bill Kong (“Crouching Tiger”) rub shoulders with director Jia Zhangke, whose “Still Life” won at Venice last year, and Jerome Paillard, director general of Cannes’ Marche du Film.
Absent were Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li, but Sharon Stone and Norah Jones — and the directors of other film festivals from Hawaii to Dubai — brought an international air to the fest. Some sipped champagne before a move in sponsoring Cadillacs to the opening ceremony at the Shanghai Arts Center next door.
Veteran director Chen Kaige — best known in the West for “Farewell My Concubine” and in China these days for “The Promise” — is festival jury head. Chen, who in a few weeks will start shooting a biography of Chinese opera legend Mei Lanfang, reminisced and offered guarded praise.
“A long time ago, the Shanghai government didn’t know how to start a film festival,” Chen said. “Eventually, they learned quality films make any festival. This is still the issue, but maybe it’s too soon for me to say here, today.”
Sixteen films are competing for the Jin Jue, or Golden Chalice, award. None are from the U.S.
Geoffrey Gilmore, director of the Sundance Film Festival, attending SIFF as a part of its inaugural Film Festival Directors’ Summit on Sunday, couched his doubts in respectful acknowledgment of the event’s evolution.
“Is Shanghai now the platform for international visibility for Chinese directors? The answer is yes,” said Gilmore, who has traveled to Asia at least 50 times. “Is there always a level of concomitant quality? That’s sometimes still an issue.”
Well into the reception, a festival organizer finally was able to say that the competition film “Eye in the Sky,” by Yau Na-hoi, also would be the official opening film and would represent China. The Hong Kong director, described as low-key by other attendees, was nowhere in sight.
Martial arts star Donnie Yen, whose “Flashpoint” will premiere Aug. 1 in Hong Kong, bravely sipped red wine in a white dinner jacket.
“I’ve got to give our Shanghai colleagues credit for trying,” Yen said. “Nothing compares with Cannes, but Shanghai’s learning how to pour a drink, and those details make a festival.”
An after-party invited guests to the ritzy 18 on the Bund, an architectural gem of Shanghai’s 1930s European riverfront concession. But organizers stopped short of renting the roof and served wine and beer to a liquor crowd.
Beyond the velvet rope, at the festival theaters, reviewers said screening information was unclear at best and that some badge-holders were turned away from theaters near empty. Tickets to imported films sold quickly, they said. For the other 51 weeks of the year, Chinese desirous of a big-screen thrill are limited by regulations that see to it that only 20 films are imported each year.
“I come to the festival every time, and I plan to come every day to see films,” said Fu Qiusheng, a steel factory manager buying a ticket for “La Dolce Vita.”
Ye Jing, also at the Fellini retrospective, is the director of the China Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio in Beijing, a part of state broadcaster CCTV.
“Though this is not outstanding as the world’s film festivals go,” Ye said. “It’s one of the biggest and most important in China.”
Offering hope that independent cinema might stake a new claim in Shanghai, with or without SIFF, was news that a new art house theater is set to open Tuesday with Jin Jue competition film “The Go Master” by Tian Zhuangzhuang.
“Finding the actual films will be a real challenge,” Jin Na, organizer of the Hongmiao Art Movie Center told a local entertainment weekly.
Richard Trombly contributed to this report.
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