China's young directors in spotlight at SIFF

Panel reveals difference of opinion on working with newbies

SHANGHAI -- Young directors were fixed in the spotlight here on Monday, the first day of the nascent film market that runs alongside the Shanghai International Film Festival, now in its 13th year.
Called SIFFMART, the three-day event, now in its fourth year, has attracted an increasing number of overseas companies hoping to sell their films into China’s expanding boxoffice, but still few that appear ready to buy Chinese films to take home.
At the market’s concurrent SIFFORUM, a session called “New Orientation of Chinese Film: Made in China by Young Chinese Directors” gathered panelists to debate how young directors should get their films made -- and whether or not they should care about exports.
“Young Chinese directors are very lucky now,” said hit-making producer Bill Kong (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), mentor to many a young director and backer of a few of the biggest Chinese films ever to sell overseas. “You can rest assured that there will always be a market at home that is highly diversified.”
Boosted by pent-up demand for entertainment from a swelling middle class, China’s gross movie ticket sales rose 43% in 2009 to hit $909 million -- a trend expected to improve this year as a slightly greater variety of films begins to make it past state film censors.
Zhao Haicheng, producer at the state-run China Film Group, encouraged young Chinese directors to start by experimenting in new media, a route he said limited risk to investors and might help grow an audience among China’s online population, now the world’s largest -- even if that medium, too, is closely monitored for political content.
Zhao, who had a hand in young director Xu Jinglei’s romantic comedy “Go La La Go,” a current boxoffice hit, said that the director and her peers and juniors, many in the forum audience, needed to pay attention to and learn from Hollywood’s style of storytelling freedom.
“We should let young directors have their own quirks and characteristics that investors shouldn’t interfere with,” Zhao said.
After much debate with two other film veterans -- producer and “Wheat” director He Ping, who moderated the session, and producer Lu Jianmin, who said he didn’t like working with young directors whose general immaturity brought too much risk to filmmaking -- a group of directors took the stage in front of an audience of about 200 SIFFORUM guests.
Only one, Li Weiran, was just starting out in features and the others admitted they didn’t count themselves young. Li, an award-winning advertising director and 1998 graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, got his forthcoming debut comedy “Welcome to Sha Ma Town” produced by LETV Pictures because, he said, he is not one to let his ego get in the way of business.
“As a business owner, I understand budget control. I have smooth relations with my investors because I look at the budget and only then consider what I am able to achieve,” Li said.
Taiwan actor-turned director Leon Dai, now 43, reflected on his evolving view of what film means to him and advised Li and his peers to think hard before taking somebody else’s money to make a movie.
“Coming through the film market, you may have to give up some of your principles.  It’s your responsibility to safeguard the investor’s capital,” Dai said.
“Go La La Go,” was cited by more than a few panelists as an example of a success for any young director. Xu, 36, made the romantic comedy for 15 million yuan ($2.2 million), of which 3 million yuan was covered by product placement.
The film, released in April, has grossed more than 120 million yuan.