'Ghost Town' to bow at NYFF

Documentary only Chinese film selected for this year's edition

BEIJING -- Director Zhao Dayong's "Ghost Town," the only Chinese film selected for the 2009 New York Film Festival, documents a world far removed from east coast China's urban boom.

Zhao's three-hour, nonfiction revelation, shot in a remote Chinese town on the border between Yunnan province, Tibet and Myanmar, will have its world premiere at the 47th NYFF on Sunday.

The film reminds the audience that contemporary rural China is driven as much by spirituality as urban China is by money, producer David Bandurski told The Hollywood Reporter.

Zhiziluo, the former seat of a mountainous backwater county in Yunnan province was dissolved in 1986 by China's cabinet. Since then, it has been taken over by peasants of the ethnic Lisu and Nu minorities who squat in old communist government buildings to raise pigs and, among other things, practice Christianity.

"Even though this is a kind of ghost town, it's a place with lots of life stories," said Bandurski, co-founder with Zhao of Lantern Films in Hong Kong in 2008.

Zhao, a Guangzhou native, said that from 1966-76 China lost sight of "the most fundamental understanding of the value of human life."

"In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, as Chinese busied themselves with becoming materially prosperous to the point of sacrificing even their own well being, they once again lost sight of the cultural and spiritual meaning of life, and what little was left of our culture again faced extinction," he said on Lantern's Web site.

"In this film I wanted to explore the idea of these lost histories and ravaged cultures," Zhao said.

"Ghost Town" was a labor of "pure dedication" by Zhao, who left his family for more than a year to make the entirely self-funded film.

"Ghost Town" won an Independent Spirit Award at the fifth China Documentary Film Festival in Beijing in May 2008. It won't likely ever get distribution in China, Zhao said in an e-mail. "I won't kiss the ass of the Film Bureau," he said, referring to the media regulators who must approve all scripts and films intended for theatrical release. "Shooting the film was smooth because the government didn't know what I was doing."

NYFF program director Richard Pena said that the film was selected because it is a "moving, insightful chronicle about one Chinese town that was beautifully crafted and full of surprises."

"What I liked most was the respect that I believe Zhao Dayong has for these people. He allows them to come across as complex, fully rounded and contradictory individuals, not mere social types," Pena said in an e-mail to THR.

Zhao, who occasionally makes money shooting television commercials, also has a premiere upcoming at this October's Vancouver International Film Festival, of "Rough Poetry," a 50-minute art house featurette set in a jail cell, for where a policeman provokes conversation by sharing his verse with his captive audience.

Zhao's other films include "Street Life," about poor bottle collectors in Shanghai, and "My Father's House," currently in postproduction. About an underground Nigerian church in the south China boom town of Guangzhou, "My Father's House" is a film that Bandurski said will never be shown in media-restrictive China because "it's complete with police raids."

Zhao and Bandurski now are seeking funding for another, unannounced, documentary film project.