'The Good Neighbor' Leads the German Charge at the Shanghai International Film Festival

The next-door drama hopes to follow in the footsteps of 2007 winner 'Four Minutes.'

SHANGHAI – The Good Neighbor, the debut feature drama from director Stephan Rick competes this week for the top prize at the 14th Shanghai International Film Festival in the shadow of a handful of previous German winners of the Golden Goblet here, such as Four Minutes, which took the top prize back in 2006.

Both films had no distributors coming into China’s largest film festival and Berlin-based Rick, a 36-year-old director of a successful children’s television series and his producers -- Daniel Reich and Christoph Holtof of Kurhaus Production – are feeling the pressure.

Four Minutes, by director Chris Kraus, had its world premiere in Shanghai and went on to get distribution from Europa Corp., win the German Film Award and sell to Senator International in the United States. Not bad for a film that got its start at a festival that was barely on the map five years ago.

Now, China’s is the world’s fastest-growing movie market and seasoned Hollywood movie men such as Barry Levinson and Mike Medavoy are strolling the halls in Shanghai, judging films and announcing deals.

Rick says that The Good Neighbor, a thriller about a new friendship between two men that takes a dark turn, was influenced by The Talented Mr. Ripley. “I’m a big fan of that film, about the love between two men, but my film is about the intensity of friendship. It’s not so homoerotic.”

Rick co-wrote the film with Silja Clemens, drawing on the experience of wondering what it would be like if a neighbor of his caught him doing something bad. “I’d have to become his friend, I thought,” Rick said. “I think this is the sort of story that might work well in China.”

Actors Maxim Mehmet and Charly Huebner are up and comers in Germany and the $1.3 million production budget could get The Good Neighbor noticed if the initial reaction of China’s newly movie-mad audience is any gauge.

Rick said the first screening at a suburban Shanghai theater on Sunday sold out and local festivalgoers gasped in all the right places. “That’s why we’re here. Putting our film into an up-and-coming A-list festival like Shanghai could help us get the attention we need,” Rick said. “We thought about taking it to Moscow, but people told us Shanghai was the better bet. Shanghai likes German films.”

To wit, Alive And Ticking by André Rogenhage also competes here this week, and there are a total of 16 German films screening, including a Wim Wenders 3D film about choreographer Pina Bausch.

At SIFF 2007, the German film According to Plan by Franziska Meletzy won the Golden Goblet for Best Feature Film and its four leading ladies shared the best actress award. In 2008, My Mother’s Tears won at Shanghai for Best Cinematography, and last year Christian Ulmen won the Best Actor award for his performance in Wedding Fever Campobello.

Beyond the awards, there are modest inroads at China’s box office. U.S.-German co-production Resident Evil: Afterlife, from Constantin Film, grossed $20 million at the Chinese box office to become the ninth most successful box office import, according to Beijing-based media consultancy CMMI, an advisor to industry body German Films. German street racing film Fast Track: No Limits from production company Action Concept made around $2.2 million when it screened in China from May to August 2008. Most other German films of the last three years grossed at most $1.2 million, CMMI said.

Rick knows that a slot in the Shanghai competition is no guarantee of distribution in China and that even if an import license is secured producers may not recoup much. China’s box office jumped 64 percent last year to $1.5 billion, but most of the government’s 20 import licenses allowing films a share of ticket sales went to big Hollywood films. Avatar, for instance, grossed more than $200 million in China.

Meanwhile, Rick and producers Reich and Holthof got The Good Neighbor made for television with half its funding coming from German broadcaster ARD’s SWR unit and from the film fund of Baden-Wuerttemberg. After Shanghai, the film will screen at the Hofer Filmtage in Hof, Germany. “We have from now until late October to find a sales agent and a distributor,” Reich said.

Of Shanghai, Rick expressed marvel at his first visit to the city of 23 million. He admitted his visit had thus far blown away his concerns about China’s lack of freedom of expression in film (an exposed female nipple appears in The Good Neighbor), even if it had reinforced other reservations.

“When nobody told me about our screening on Sunday I thought maybe it was a censorship issue, but it turned out the film screened uncut and it was just that the theater projection was bad and the sound was awful. I think the festival didn’t want me to see that. I can’t think of any other explanation,” he said.