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BEIJING – Jackie Chan and Zhang Ziyi joined an array of Chinese government officials to welcome global movie industry guests to the opening night of the 1st Beijing International Film Festival on Saturday at the National Center for the Performing Arts.
On the red carpet inside the glass and steel structure known informally as “the Egg,” director John Woo also helped wave in a select group of international film festival directors, trade delegates, heavy hitting producers and a handful of Hollywood studio representatives.
The six-day BJIFF will mix the screenings of 100 imported and 60 Chinese films, including such Hollywood blockbusters as The Social Network and acclaimed recent Chinese fare such as Buddha Mountain by director Li Yu.
The festival opens at a time when China’s sales of movie tickets are strong – up 64% last year to $1.5 billion – but few Chinese films sell overseas. Organizers in the Beijing government now are keen to bring their city’s cinema culture and movie business up to par with the global reputation the capital gained in sports in 2008.
Guest of honor, Liu Qi, president of the erstwhile Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee and a member of China’s Politburo, declared the festival open and Co-Chairmen Beijing Mayor Guo Jinlong and Cai Fuchao, minister of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, offered welcoming remarks that were super-titled for non-Chinese speaking guests.
Each politician emphasized to the nearly full house of about 5,000 guests seated just a few hundred yards west of the symbolic heart of China’s one-party government in Tiananmen Square, that Beijing is the center of China’s film industry.
To help them drive their point home, the night’s third speaker, Marco Mueller, director of the Venice International Film Festival, addressed the crowd in both English and, to the crowd’s delight, good Mandarin.
“The birth of BJIFF is a great event for the international film industry,” Mueller said, noting that China’s capital was “well on the path to becoming one of the world’s great modern metropolises, yet it still possesses an irresistible charm.”
The hasty organization of the BJIFF, first publicized internationally in February at the Berlin International Film Festival, had some observers wondering if it was designed to steal a march on the Shanghai International Film Festival, held each June, and refocus in the hands of the central government control of an industry deemed a key part of the Chinese Communist Party’s plans to use all media to improve China’s image around the world.
“As one of the historical cornerstones of China’s film industry, Beijing possesses the financial and creative resources to become a film capital,” Mueller said. Estimates show that about 200 million Chinese now can afford to go the movies on a regular basis.
In attendance and hoping to find good Chinese films to take home, were more than a dozen international film festival directors, including, among others, Cameron Bailey from Toronto, Lee Yong Kwan from Busan, John Cooper from Sundance, Wilfred Wong from Hong Kong, Tom Yoda from Tokyo and Maxine Williamson from the Asia Pacific Screen Awards.
“Beijing always provides a great networking opportunity,” Chuck Boller, director of the Hawaii International Film Festival said. “I’m so pleased to see how many people I know who also are here.”
No films showing at the festival will be making a world premiere and, as festival image ambassador actress Zhang, one of China’s most exportable film stars, pointed out, it’s unusual relative to other festivals.
“It’s already my favorite because there’s no competition — no winner, no losers — only beautiful films,” Zhang said. “I wish the Beijing International Film Festival will be better and better and develop into a top-class festival.”
Some guests wondered aloud how the new event might be affected by its timing considering its competition for attention with the ongoing Tribeca Film Festival and the annual industry rush to prepare for the granddaddy of all festivals in Cannes in May.
“The fact that the Shanghai International Film Festival has succeeded over thirteen years each June and has inspired Beijing makes sense. Beijing is a major city and it should have its own event,” said Michael Werner, the chairman of Hong Kong-based sales and investment company Fortissimo Films. “Is this festival in the best time in the calendar? Probably not.”
Still, healthy contingents of executives from Japan, Korea, Europe, Australia and New Zealand turned up at the festival and for the concurrent and longer-established Beijing Screenings market event, now folded into the BJIFF from its previous date in September.
Cristiano Bortone of Orisa Productions in Rome was at the BJIFF with hopes of co-producing a romance in China to teach the country’s swelling middle class what Italy’s really about: “The beauty of our land, our food and our simple way of life,” said Bortone, adding, “And about tourism. “Many in the West don’t realize just how developed China has become. Rather than blaming China for our ills, we must find ways to work together to make movies that exploit mutual understanding.”
The event’s two-hour opening ceremony was punctuated by multi-themed dance routines to lip-synched singing and canned drum music that seemed to have little to do with film.
By contrast, the appearance on stage of Italy’s Orchestra del Cinema, playing the themes from everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Chinese classic My Mother, My Father to Fellini’s 8-1/2, was a stroke of relevant and truly international programming.
In the absence of a narrative feature film competition, organizers gave over one section of the evening to sing the praises of 10 commercially successful Chinese films of the last 12 months and show their trailers cut down to just a few seconds each.
These films honored were Aftershock, Confucius, Bodyguards and Assassins, Sacrifice, Ip Man 2, the animated The Killing of Milu Deer, Walking to School, Shaolin, 72 Tenets of Prosperity and Reign of Assassins.
Nearly two-dozen key men and women behind these 10 hits took to the stage to receive a scroll and a clear, crystal-like objet d’arte. They included, among others, Aftershock director Feng Xiaogang, actress Zhang Jingchu and producer James Wang, the head of Huayi Brothers Pictures and Yu Dong, CEO of Nasdaq listed Bona Film Group.
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