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The Beijing International Film Festival on Wednesday unveiled its complete 2019 lineup — and, as per usual for the state-backed event, the selection is as eccentric as it is sprawling.
Some 261 films are set to be screened over the course of the fest’s ninth annual edition, which is set to run April 13-20 at venues across the Chinese capital.
The festival will open with The Composer, a period drama directed by Kazak filmmaker Xirzat Yahup, and close with the Bollywood tentpole Zero, starring Shah Rukh Khan.
The Composer is the first project to emerge from a co-production treaty signed by China and Kazakhstan in 2017, part of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative. The film’s story centers on the real-life travails of a Chinese composer who was stranded in Kazakhstan in the 1940s. The pic’s positioning as the festival’s opening title, meanwhile, perhaps offers its own real-life story about Beijing’s propaganda priorities in the current cultural moment.
The Composer also was included in Beijing’s main international competition section, which includes a total of 15 titles that will face off for the Tiantan Awards, which include trophies for best picture, directing, acting, writing and technical achievements. But if the relative prestige of such prizes tends to be determined by the number of high-profile world premieres a given festival can attract and host, Beijing’s 2019 selection makes clear that the event is either losing that game badly or playing by different rules altogether.
Among the 15 titles in competition, only one other — Chinese filmmaker Jianbin Chen’s drama The Eleventh Hour — is a world premiere. The rest — which run the gamut from the Julia Roberts starrer Ben Is Back to the Hungarian art house figure Laszlo Nemes’ Sunset — were released commercially or at other film festivals last year (the full competition lineup is listed below). Still, many of the films will be showing in China for the first time at the festival. The one glaring exception is the bizarre (and presumably honorary?) inclusion of the Chinese sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth, which opened in February in China and has already been seen by virtually every regular moviegoer in the country, having sold nearly $700 million worth of tickets to date. (The fest’s choice of The Wandering Earth is a bit like Telluride or Venice deciding to highlight the competitive artistic merits of Avengers: Endgame — months after its worldwide release.)
The winners of this year’s Tiantan Awards will be decided by a jury led by director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, The Forbidden Kingdom), who is becoming something of a Beijing regular, having served on the festival’s jury just two years ago. Joining Minkoff will be British filmmaker Simon West, best known as the helmer of the 1997 action flick Con Air; Russian filmmaker Sergei Dworzewoi, whose most recent film Ayka was co-produced by China; Chinese director Cao Baoping; Hong Kong icon Carina Lau; Iran’s Majid Majidi; and Chilean helmer Silvio Caiozzi.
Outside the competition section, the lineup is comprised of the event’s usual mix of popcorn fare, high-minded retrospectives and a scattershot survey of moviemaking from the past year.
Japan’s Akira Kurosawa will get the retrospective treatment, as will the beloved wuxia writer Louis Cha, who died in 2018. (A selection of classic martial arts films adapted from Cha’s books will be screened.)
The rationale behind other retrospectives is somewhat harder to discern, such as a section devoted to showing all five of Universal’s Jason Bourne films (even though they each received a wide release in China during their original runs). Alfonso Cuaron, perhaps in honor of his 2019 best director Oscar win, is also getting a small tribute in the form of special screenings of Gravity and Children of Men. (Roma, however, isn’t part of the program — two influential local distributors acquired the Chinese theatrical rights to the film over a year ago but are still awaiting the green light from Chinese regulators for a release.)
As ever in Beijing, there’s as much intrigue surrounding what’s missing from the lineup as what’s included. As The Hollywood Reporter reported last week, the Canadian film In God I Trust by director Maja Zdanowski was abruptly disinvited because of “political reasons.” The filmmaker was told that the content of the movie itself — a drama about race and faith in the U.S. Midwest — wasn’t the problem. Rather, its Canadian provenance was the issue: The film apparently was blocked as a small act of retribution over Canada’s decision to arrest Huawei Technologies CFO Meng Wanzhou at the request of U.S. authorities in December. The situation echoes Beijing’s de facto block on all Korean films in 2017, because of then-simmering diplomatic tensions over Seoul’s decision to install a U.S.-made missile defense system on the Korean peninsula.
Chinese regulators’ consistently inconsistent stance on filmmaking featuring gay characters is unmistakably on display in Beijing’s 2019 lineup, too. Yorgos Lathimos’ multi-Oscar winner The Favorite was unceremoniously dropped from the festival after appearing in early leaked versions of its program — resembling the fate of Call Me by Your Name last year, which was pulled after a senior government figure reportedly took issue with its idyllic gay love story. And yet, schizophrenically, Beijing does plan to screen 20th Century Fox’s well-received gay coming-of-age film Love, Simon, about a high school boy negotiating his coming-out, teen romance and a would-be blackmailer. (Meanwhile, controversy continues to swirl around the radically censored version of Fox’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which can currently be seen in cinemas across China, but without four full minutes of scenes that display the late frontman Freddie Mercury’s sexuality, with the cuts said to be so drastic that the pic is only semi-comprehensible.)
Political compromises and intrigues aside, the 2019 Beijing International Film Festival will offer a cinematic feast for local movie lovers hoping to see great work on the big screen. Among them: a selection of French New Wave classics (including the late, great Agnes Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7); Hollywood classics from across generations (2001, Schindler’s List, North by Northwest, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Magnificent Seven, Pulp Fiction); acclaimed recent documentaries (Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, Oscar-nominated Minding the Gap); an animation section of 20 films (including five from Japanese anime maestro Mamoru Hosoda); recent favorites from other festivals (Casey Affleck’s Light of My Life, Cannes Jury Prize winner Capernaum, Korean director Hong Sang-Soo’s Hotel by the River, Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, among others); and a plethora of Chinese-language filmmaking (ranging Hong Kong classics like Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time Redux and Tsui Hark’s The Swordsman to a selection of Chinese socialist realism works chosen in commemoration of this year’s 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC).
The festival will again play host to a small film market — a few marquee deals can be expected to be signed and timed for announcement during the proceedings — as well as a series of panel discussions covering such topics as the development of art house filmmaking in China, India-China co-production, developing film stories for streaming platforms, marketing and distribution strategies for China and a political forum about the 70th anniversary of the PRC’s founding. As in years past, the market and panel series will be headquartered at the Beijing International Hotel in the capital’s Financial Street district.
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