Cannes: Chinese Cinema Returns to Official Competition

Jia Zhangke - P 2013
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Jia Zhangke's "A Touch of Sin" is the first Chinese entrant for Palme d’Or in three years, while Hong Kong's Flora Lau premieres debut in Un Certain Regard.

HONG KONG – “I’m back!” So reads Jia Zhangke’s Thursday afternoon tweet, a few minutes after Cannes Film Festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux unveiled the mainland Chinese director’s latest offering, A Touch of Sin, as a Competition entry on the Croisette this year.

Jia’s short message might be to mark his return to Cannes after a three-year lull – he was there the last time, competing in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, in 2010 with the documentary I Wish I Knew – but the tweet could also serve as his own clarion call for Chinese-language cinema, which will be represented on the Riviera next month by three entries in three different sections of the festival.

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Appearing alongside Jia in the official competition this year, however, will be two filmmakers coming from the very different end of Hong Kong’s industrial spectrum: Cannes stalwart Johnnie To will bring his thriller Blind Detective to the festival as an out-of-competition midnight screening entry, while first-time director Flora Lau will tread the tapis rouge with her debut, Bends.

But as the first Chinese-language film to compete for the Palme d’Or in three years, A Touch of Sin will undoubtedly be central to the Chinese charge for glory at Cannes this year. The first full-fledged collaboration between Jia’s Xstream Productions with a major national studio (Shanghai Film Group), the film revolves around four threads set in vastly different geographical and social milieus across modern-day China, ranging from the bustling southern metropolis of Guangzhou to the more rural townships in his home province of Shanxi.

Starring Jiang Wu, Wang Baoqiang (of Lost in Thailand fame) and Jia’s muse (and wife) Zhao Tao, the film is “a major production” made over five months with a 100-strong crew, he told Chinese web news portal Jia described A Touch of Sin – a title punning on King Hu’s martial arts classic A Touch of Zen, which won a Technical Grand Prize at Cannes in 1975 – as a road movie with action scenes.

With the participation of a major Chinese studio and the presence of genre-film elements – Jia also said his new film was born while he was preparing the shoot of the period drama In the Qing Dynasty, produced by the Hong Kong noir master To – A Touch of Sin offers an approach for off-mainstream filmmakers to survive and thrive as the mainland Chinese cinema’s turbo-charged lurch toward mainstream commercial fare in what is now recognized (by a recent MPA report) as the second-biggest film market in the world.

Once cutting a regular presence at the festival, mainland Chinese filmmakers have figured rarely in the official selection in recent years. The last time a mainland Chinese director was selected for the main competition happened in 2010, when Wang Xiaoshuai’s Chongqing Blues was bumped up from the Un Certain Regard sidebar in the last minute just as I Wish I Knew was entered into the section. Then there was the lull of 2011 (with Peter Chan’s Wu Xia premiering in a Midnight screening, and Zou Peng’s indie production Sauna on Moon featuring in the Critics’ Week sidebar) and 2012 (Lou Ye’s Mystery in Un Certain Regard; Korean helmer Hur Jin-ho’s Chinese-language take of Dangerous Liaisons in the Directors’ Fortnight).

Veteran producer Nansun Shi, who had helped many a Chinese-language film to navigate the film festival circuit in recent years (including Han Jie’s Locarno entry Hello! Mr Tree, a film produced by Jia’s new-filmmmaker Wings Project), said Chinese films have, over the years, been present in major international film festivals. “[I] hope to see more to come,” she told The Hollywood Reporter on Thursday.

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But she added that, in general, non-commercial films are always more difficult to get made in both mainland China and her hometown Hong Kong. “But yet, it depends on who gives the definition of what is commercial. We have seen many sleepers of late. Did the filmmakers know beforehand they were going to do so well?” she said.

A competition juror at Cannes in 2011, Shi is executive producer of Bends, which was given a berth in the Un Certain Regard berth and became the first Hong Kong film to appear outside the out-of-competition slots since 2009. Directed by first-timer Lau, the film examines the strengthening bonds between a listless, affluent socialite (played by Hong Kong star Carina Lau) and her driver (mainland A-lister Chen Kun).

Shi said she was asked by a friend to give some advice to Lau’s screenplay. “I read it and gave my notes, mainly to say that nobody would be interested to see a film like this,” she told THR. Her friend continued to send in revised versions: “At the 18th draft, I called her and asked her, ‘Hey, you are really going to do this film, no matter what?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ I asked her why. And she said, ‘If young passionate filmmakers are trying so hard, the least we can do is to give them a little help.’”

And help came in the form of a strong and seasoned back-up team, with Shi’s production expertise alongside the production design of William Chang and cinematography of Christopher Doyle, the two behind-the-camera artisans who helped propel many of Wong Kar-wai’s films to greatness throughout the years.

“I am absolutely delighted that Hong Kong’s young talent is being recognized internationally. I am particularly pleased that many veteran Hong Kong filmmakers and artistes have come together to collaborate with these young talent to have created Bends,” said Shi, whose Bona Film-owned Distribution Workshop is repping the film alongside distributors Tomson Group (which is co-founded by Cannes regular Hsu Feng, the star of King Hu’s A Touch of Zen and then producer of Chen Kaige’s prize-winning 1993 entry Farewell of the Concubine).

Meanwhile, To himself will appear at Cannes with the Media Asia-backed Blind Detective, about a visually impaired ex-cop (Andy Lau) working with a policewoman (Sammi Cheng) to explore the case of a woman gone missing for more than a decade. It will be the director’s second festival premiere in six months, with his Drug War opening at the Rome festival in November.

While Taiwanese cinema is absent in the official lineup revealed Thursday, a chance remains that entries might appear at the Critics' Week or Directors' Fortnight programs, which will be unveiled next week. In fact, the latter has already slated to showcase Taipei Factory, an omnibus film involving four of the island's young directors and four of their international peers in a collaboration between the Fortnight with the Taipei Film Commission.