MIFF weighs future of Chinese pics

"10 Conditions of Love" at center of controversy

SYDNEY -- The Melbourne International Film Festival is reconsidering how it will program Chinese movies in coming years after a quintet of pictures were withdrawn from this week's festival and the festival's website was partially disabled by hackers.

The hacking -- which involved posting of a Chinese flag on the festival's homepage and hundreds of messages containing slogans -- and the withdrawals were in protest at the festival's screening of an Australian-produced documentary "10 Conditions of Love," about exiled Uighur activist Rebiyah Kadeer. (Ethnic Uighurs have recently been involved in bloody clashes with the police and Han Chinese groups in the southwest region of Xinjiang.)

Much of the festival's website was still inaccessible Monday, though its ticketing section, hosted on a separate more secure server, was largely functional.

A festival spokeswoman Monday said MIFF was already reconsidering how it will handle Chinese films at its 2010 edition. It may follow the lead of the Venice festival which has often organized 'surprise' screenings, offering slots to the filmmakers without publicizing what the films are before they are screened.

Venice's 'surprise' screenings have mainly been reserved for underground Chinese films which were made without state approval or which could spark controversy. However, extending the tactic to films that passed the normal censorship and approvals system underlines the extraordinary sensitivity with which festivals must handle all things Chinese -- especially as China is increasingly willing to use the growing political influence that comes with its new global superpower status.

The latest film to be withdrawn from Melbourne was "Claustrophobia," a drama about an office romance made by a Hong Kong-Japanese film fund. The picture had been programmed by the festival as a replacement for one of the earlier pullouts, but while the print was en route its producers changed their minds and asked for it not to be screened.

"Miao Miao," another replacement for one of the first three withdrawals (Jia Zhangke's short film "Cry Me a River," Emily Tang's "Perfect Life" and Zhao Liang's "Petition") was subsequently withdrawn. Its sales agent confirmed that it was acting on the instructions of the Hong Kong-Taiwanese-Chinese film's producers.

The withdrawals followed repeated requests from the Chinese consular office in Melbourne for "10 Conditions" to be dropped from the festival that festival programmer Richard Moore said amounted to bullying. He also said that "it is hard to come to any other conclusion," than the withdrawals were organized by Beijing.

Earlier this month, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said "(China is) firmly opposed to any foreign country providing (Kadeer) with a stage for her anti-China separatist activities." But the festival remains unrepentant.

"You never bow down to pressure like this. I think you've got to stick to your guns. There was no other reaction that we could have had," Moore said. "It was just a work by new Australian documentary makers and it's about a subject that's relevant and topical, and obviously of great interest to our public, and obviously of interest to other people as well. No, we're not going to NOT screen it."

A spokesperson for the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Sydney denied reports that its sponsorship of the Melbourne festival had been withdrawn as part of the protest action -- rather that its subsidies for freight are not provided if a film is withdrawn -- and that it would be assisting Derek Kwok's "The Moss," the festival's last remaining Chinese film from.

Producers at Edko, Irresistible Films, Jettone and X Stream Pictures were all unavailable for comment, though parts of a letter to the festival from "Perfect Life" and "Cry Me a River" producer Chow Keung have been published. Chow said that families of those who died in recent violence between Uighurs and Han Chinese believed that Kadeer's World Uighur Congress was involved. "I am not here to identify the murderer, however in such sorrowful circumstances, it really offends my sense of morals to participate in (the festival) this year."

It is unclear what effect the projection of domestic political issues beyond China's borders will have on other festivals. Two years ago Chinese film-maker Lou Ye screened his "Summer Palace" at Cannes without permission from China's Film Bureau and as a result received a five-year ban. This year the screening of "Spring Fever," which Lou made within China but with foreign financing and without official permission, passed off with scarcely a murmur.

"The Venice Film Festival has no plans to change the way it selects and evaluates films because of issues elsewhere," the Venice festival told THR on Monday. "The festival has long had strong ties to the Chinese film industry in particular and to Asian industries in general, and there's no reason to believe that will change." The spokesman also noted that Chinese or Taiwanese films had won the main prizes in three of the last four years and four times in the last decade.

Nor is it clear that the Chinese tactics will silence the country's critics. "10 Conditions" is set to receive its formal premiere on Aug 8 with Kadeer in attendance. The film showed Sunday as a piece of extra scheduling that reflected overwhelming public demand. The festival brought in extra security, but the event passed off peacefully.

Kadeer is set to hold press conferences this week in Tokyo where she will meet leaders of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and in Sydney prior to the film's Melbourne screening.

Eric Lyman in Rome, Jonathan Landreth in Beijing and Karen Chu in Hong Kong contributed to this report.