Pingyao Film Festival: China's Indie Darling Kicks Off With Han Yan's 'Old Neighborhood'

Pingyao Film Festival poster 2019 - H 2019
Courtesy of Pingyao Film Festival

The festival, founded by art-house favorite Jia Zhangke, was forced to change its opening title at the last minute, but still boasts plenty of substance across its 52-film program, plus a Zhang Yimou master class.

China’s third annual Pingyao International Film Festival is set to kick off Thursday night with a gala screening of rising 38-year-old director Han Yan's Old Neighborhood, the first of 52 titles that will screen across the indie-spirited event until its conclusion on Oct. 19.

There’s been some degree of backstage drama already at the festival, as its initial choice for opening night — Li Shaohong and Chang Xiaoyang’s patriotic Liberations — was abruptly pulled by festival organizers earlier this week. The festival team — led by Cannes-winning auteur and founder Jia Zhangke — was told by the film’s production company that “postproduction, including the digital and visual effects of the film, has not been completed as expected and it will have to require further work.”

The citing of "technical problems" has become a common euphemism for censorship problems in the Chinese industry, but so far there’s been no sniff of politics about the decision. Still, it continues a rocky run for China’s major film festivals, after the Shanghai International Film Festival had its opening-night premiere of WWII actioner The Eight Hundred suddenly canceled because of a last-minute censorship order by the country's ruling Communist Party (CPC). The move followed the shock withdrawal of Chinese maestro Zhang Yimou's latest art house effort from competition at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. 

These are sensitive times for China as the country continues to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the CPC.

The Pingyao festival still promises plenty across its third edition, and hopes are high for Old Neighborhood, the fourth film from Han, whose Go Away Mr Tumour was China’s Oscar submission in the international film category in 2015. He also directed Michael Douglas on last year’s big budget teen thriller Animal World.

Among the A-list guests heading to PYIFF will be Zhang, in town for a master class and a screening of the 4K version of his landmark classic Red Sorghum. Fellow veteran Xie Fei will also host a master class.

The festival has lined up 52 films from 26 countries and regions, with 28 world premieres on the list.

PYIFF was put together by Jia with film historian and former Venice boss Marco Muller as artistic director. Its remit has been to “to become a professional showcase for exceptional films and outstanding filmmakers, to celebrate the achievements of international cinema, and promote the works of young Chinese directors.” The event is unique among Chinese festivals in being held in the remote, ancient town of Pingyao, which also happens to be Jia's hometown. 

Once again the program champions the cause of China’s next generation, with one program giving a platform specifically for filmmakers from the surrounding Shanxi region.

The festival will close with the world premiere of Hong Kong director Jacob Cheung's The Opera House.