Chinese Auteur Jia Zhangke Talks Future of Pingyao Festival, His First Lead Acting Role

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Jia Zhangke

As the third edition of the Pingyao International Film Festival reached its conclusion, its founder talked about his plans for the event and his own movie career.

October is a busy month on the Asian film festival circuit with Mumbai, Busan and Tokyo all competing for attention. Over the last three years, a new name has emerged on the landscape, that of the Pingyao International Film Festival (PYIFF), set in the picaresque Chinese town that has UNESCO world heritage status.

PYIFF's founder, Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke, alongside his veteran festival artistic director Marco Müller, were here, there and everywhere across the festl's 10-day run. Jia hosted Q&As with filmmakers onstage, chaired press conference and quizzed the likes of veteran Chinese director Zhang Yimou and actress Joan Chen in seminars that were standing-room only.

The 49-year-old Jia even found time to promote his upcoming acting turn — as the lead, no less — in what is being described as a film about a "middle-aged artist who makes new discoveries about himself, life and art by probing his feelings during the process of creation." 

In a country that is little exposed to art house and independent world cinema, PYIFF's mission statement is to introduce more of those things to Chinese audiences. That the awards this year were handed out to representatives from Brazil (The Fever), Guatemala (Our Mothers), Singapore (Wet Season) and China (A Trophy on the Sea), among others, might suggest that mission is already being accomplished.

The breadth of content this year also covered horror — once unheard of in China — and topics previously considered sensitive by the ever-watchful censorship board.

Before the curtain came down on this year's edition on Saturday, Jia found time to talk to The Hollywood Reporter about the future of his fledgling festival as well as branching out into acting. 

There’s been no escaping you on the big screen, as the trailer for Pseudo Idealist has played before every film here. What can you tell us about what will be your first lead role?

There is so much pressure on my shoulders. The director is Cheng Er (2016's The Wasted Times), and we were classmates in college. He asked me to star in his film as a joke, but now the joke has become more and more serious. The story is about a film director. I accepted his offer, but I am very nervous. I am used to 30-second cameos. This is the first time I need to create a character. We start shooting in Japan next month, and what people here have been seeing on the big screen is not really a trailer, it is my screen test. We shot it over one day. My wife [actress Zhao Tao] asked me why I wanted to do this, as there are so many films waiting for me to direct. Seriously, though, she is being very supportive.

Is it true you got the idea for this festival after using a backroom at your Mountains May Depart restaurant in Fenyang for screenings?

I’d always wanted to run a festival, but yes, I started with weekly screenings at my restaurant in my hometown. These attracted a lot of viewers. That assured me that if a film festival operated in Shanxi Province, there would be people who would come. The idea came before the restaurant, but the restaurant helped me decide. It is very expensive to build a cinema, so I have not been able to do it all at once. It has taken me so many years to have six screens in Pingyao and nine screens in Fenyang. I am not a businessman, so things with me tend to move slowly.

What are you happiest about as the fest draws to a close?

We’ve seen a continuous growth of audience numbers across the three festivals. This year there was a huge demand for tickets and we saw packed cinemas. People couldn’t get tickets. It was a problem, but not a bad one to have. We’ve also seem a change in the demographic. In the first and second editions, the audience was mostly industry professionals and what you could call professional fans, or die-hard cinema fans. This year we have seen more residents from Pingyao and their families, and a lot of younger people have made the trip down from Beijing. It’s like they have discovered us.

You said before the festival that you hoped Chinese distributors would come to look at the world premieres of international films. How did that pan out?

At least four of the films have found a Chinese distributor, although no formal announcements have been made. You could see after the screenings that there was much interest in Bull’s Eye [India], Howling Village [Japan] and Furtive [Argentina] were getting a lot of attention.

The festival had a three-year funding deal with the Pingyao government. What are the plans you have now, going forward?

I’m very optimistic about the future. Across the three years so far, the funding from the government has declined year by year. This year funding was just a small fraction of the budget, so I am confident we can survive. There are many willing partners joining us. One side is established brands in China, the other is industry players — they are very passionate. For the Work-in-Progress Lab and the Pingyao Project Promotion, we had 11 cash awards from studios, so I don’t feel much pressure about financing our future. Our commercial department also put together an observer team that has hosted brands here so they can come and experience the festival and the feedback has been very positive.

What about any plans for expansion? As you said, tickets for most screenings were at a premium.

Personally, I hope to maintain this size and not scale up. We would like to differentiate ourselves from the huge festivals in Shanghai and Beijing. We want to maintain ourselves as a boutique festival where communication is easy. I hope that we will screen less than 60 films because this is rather a small town. You could see with the audiences this year we need new facilities, so we are planning to add two screens. We can do a 300-seater because we heard many viewers failed to get tickets for retrospective screenings. So a 300-seater can cover the retrospectives in comfort. Then we want to build a cinema that is a 100-seater exclusively for industry professionals to watch the WIP films, and that means we don’t need to take a screen away from the public.

Is there also a worry that if you go too big you will get more attention not only on the event but on the kinds of films, and the topics they cover, you are screening here?

We would like to keep the festival a boutique festival not because we are worried about the challenge of censorship. There are pros and cons of running a huge film festival. Our aim is to introduce more diverse films to the Chinese audience. If there were too many films for 10 days, then the focus would be everywhere, like if there were 400 films. We want to showcase the films we screen, to put them in the limelight of the public, the media and the industry. So less films, more focus. This year we achieved a breakthrough in programming. Howling Village [from director Takashi Shimizu] was a world premiere here, in front of 1,000 people, which is a first for a Japanese horror movie in China. Wet Season [from Singaporean director Anthony Chen] was a breakthrough in terms of the topics it discussed. We have managed to program and screen many such films in Pingyao because we have very patiently communicated these topics with the content reviewers in pursuit of their understanding. If 400 films were to be screened, we would not have the energy to cover them all like this.

Have you been able to cast your eye as a producer over the emerging Chinese talent screened this year?

The colleagues in charge of production at my company have reviewed everything, but I haven’t had time to discuss things with them. I will, and I will sit back afterwards and watch all the films to see if any arouse my passion for future cooperation.

The venue here is vast, overall. Have you thought about ways to use it 12 months of the year?

It’s a huge compound, but we are making use of what has been signed over to us. There are still a lot of facilities that are closed. But we are overlooking the expansion of the compound to more diverse business models. Films screen here every day, every month we curate activities, every half-year we hold an exhibition. There are plans for the vacant facilities to be put into use as galleries or performance venues.