'Ocean' opens Shanghai Fest

Jet Li, John Woo, Adrien Brody attend event

SHANGHAI -- The world premiere of "Ocean Heaven," a Chinese film about a dying father's love for his autistic son, capped off a lively, star-studded red carpet gala Saturday night to open the 13th Shanghai International Film Festival.

Starring Jet Li and Wen Zhang as father and son, "Ocean" "is a simple story that we worked very hard to keep simple," writer and director Xue Xiaolu said during her introduction of the film, which is based on her years as a volunteer helping autistic children.

Shot by Christopher Doyle -- Wang Kar Wai's longtime director of photography -- in and around an aquarium in the port city of Qingdao, "Ocean" was made for seven million yuan ($1 million) and its slot as the festival opener was an open secret until Saturday.

Sixteen films from a dozen countries are competing at SIFF for nine Jin Jue awards to be handed out on June 20. (A full list of the competition titles can be seen here).

Before the well-attended screening, Wang Taihua, director of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, opened the festival with a reflection on the progress and challenges facing the Chinese film industry, long shackled by a board of censors tasked with promoting the ruling Communist Party's sense of what's right for ordinary Chinese to see on the silver screen.

"We hope that the Chinese film industry will learn from other countries while maintaining the quintessence of our profound culture," said Wang, who was followed on stage by veteran China and Hollywood director John Woo, who introduced the jury of three Chinese plus four guests.

Those guests are Oscar-winning directors Bill Guttentag ("You Don't Have to Die,") and Yojiro Takita ("Departures"), Israeli director Amos Gitai, and French director Leos Carax.

"It is a joy when friends come from afar," said Woo, citing the ancient Chinese sage Confucius. "It is a joy for me to welcome these friends and filmmakers to Shanghai from around the world for this exchange of cultures through film."

Shanghai Vice Mayor Tu Guangshao, chairman of the festival's organizing committee, said that since its inception in 1993, SIFF "through constant innovation has made major contributions to the world of film and helped to enhance the soft power of the city of Shanghai with its professionalism."

The opening night speeches were followed by a multicultural dance performance nodding to the ongoing international spotlight shining on Shanghai as host of the World Expo 2010, a six-month long event drawing millions of tourists.

At an earlier news conference, Guttentag, whose 2007 film "Nanking" was the highest grossing theatrical documentary China's ever seen said that with cheaper technology and strengthening industry networks around the globe, he sensed a trend of "democratization in film."

"The secret of making films is to get out and make the films," said Guttentag. "There are tremendous movies coming out of China today and I look forward to seeing more of them."

Chinese actress and juror Zhao Wei, back from maternity leave and drawing an explosion of photographers' flashes and fans' cheers throughout the day, said she was pleased to see such a good turnout from the press.

"This time in Shanghai we have 400 films screening all over the city and we hope the foreign press will begin to pay more attention," said Zhao, who last starred in Woo's "Red Cliff." Apart from Woo and Zhao, the third Chinese SIFF juror this year is recent Cannes nominee Wang Xiaohuai ("Chongqing Blues").

News of the SIFF opening, broadcast live and then recapped on Shanghai Television (which is owned by festival organizers the state-run Shanghai Media Group), featured footage of an hour-long parade of Chinese film royalty such as director Feng Xiaogang and actress Gong Li sharing the same red carpet as Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, actors John Cusack and Adrien Brody and French director Luc Besson.

During the ceremony inside, Besson was awarded the Jin Jue award for outstanding lifetime achievement for his "artistic reading of life and history" and for being a "French warrior for film," according to a SIFF montage of his work.

"In my country, I've never won an award, so I am very grateful," Besson quipped before praising John Woo as his "master" and teasing the audience. "My love for Chinese cinema is well, since forever, and I'm going to prove it," he said. "My next film's main actress will be a Chinese girl, but I won't tell you which one."

Besson, 51, the creator of the EuropaCorp film company and the "Transporter" series of films, among dozens of others, sashayed across the stage to receive the golden goblet-shaped Jin Jue award from Chinese ballerinas in blue tutus.

Wang earlier made several thousand Chinese-speaking guests erupt into laughter by saying that the festival was lucky to start "on the night you first make love," (chu ye zhe xia) mistakenly using a phrase of tonal Mandarin sounding much like one meaning "on a night in early summer" (chu xia zhe ye). A senior government official who often seems buttoned-down in public, Wang appeared to chuckle, then corrected himself.

Wang also presented the Jin Jue award for outstanding contribution to Chinese cinema to veteran director Chen Kaige, who, from his first film, "Yellow Earth" (1984), through to his Palme d'Or winning "Farewell My Concubine," was honored as a "sagacious" filmmaker for "portraying the complications of life."

There were 456 films made in China last year. A boom in movie theater construction and demand for entertainment from a swelling middle class helped to boost 2009 gross ticket sales 43% to 6.2 billion yuan ($909 million) -- a trend expected to improve this year.

American producer Chris Lee ("Superman Returns"), back at SIFF for the first time in a few years, said he was hopeful for China's film momentum.

"There are more voices and stories coming out of China now, which is a good thing," said Lee, allowing that the Chinese language remains a challenge, even for films as big as Woo's "Red Cliff," a blockbuster across Asia but a film that struggled in the U.S. because, said Lee, "American audiences are still not used to subtitling, which is a shame."