Pingyao Festival: Director Guan Hu on China's "Fearless" New Generation of Filmmakers

Courtesy of the Pingyao International Film Festival
Guan Hu at the 2019 Pingyao International Film Festival

Serving on the competition jury at the Pingyao International Film Festival has opened the veteran filmmaker's eyes to exciting trends in contemporary Chinese cinema.

When the work of Guan Hu emerged on the international festival circuit in the early 1990s, the Chinese film industry was, much like the director, still finding its feet.

"We were making more than 100 films [per year], but hardly any of them every made it into cinemas," says the 51-year-old filmmaker. "I didn’t really know if anyone would see anything I made."

Things have moved fast. China now boasts the second-largest theatrical film market in the world, with an output stretching into the many hundreds of titles per year.

Across the same time, Guan’s career has crossed almost every genre imaginable. As a leading member of China's “Sixth Generation” of directors, he delivered festival favorites like his breakthrough, The Cow (2009), a weirdly wonderful rumination on life and allegiances during wartime. Later, he would try his hand — to acclaim and box office success — at action (The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel, 2013) and gritty drama (Mr Six, 2015), as well as helming several popular TV series.

This past week, the now-veteran filmmaker has been casting his gaze across the latest work from China’s new generation of directors in his role as a jury member for the third Pingyao International Film Festival’s Roberto Rossellini Awards. He says the subject matter he’s witnessing — as much as the raw talent on display — reflects how far the Chinese industry has come over a remarkably short period of time.

But some things are taking longer to evolve, as evidenced, by the fact that Guan’s $80 million WWII epic The Eight Hundred was pulled from its opening slot at the Shanghai International Film Festival this past June. Expected to be one of China's biggest releases of the summer, the abruptly censored film has yet to hit cinemas. Such are the vagaries of an industry closely watched and regulated by an increasingly repressive government. Both the Pingyao festival and Guan's team insisted that no questions be asked about The Eight Hundred, stating only that it "will soon launch."

On every other matter, Guan is open to the point of being effusive as he sits down on the sidelines of the PYIFF to dig into his own past and the future of Chinese cinema. And just in case anyone had forgotten we're at an arthouse festival, the director arrives dressed entirely in black, from T-shirt to Prada sneakers.

First, let’s talk about your role here on the jury at Pingyao. What experience have you brought to town?

I’ve done a few similar roles, but only at very small international festivals. I also am part of the annual assessment done by the Chinese directors association for our annual awards. It is a role that can bring a lot of pressure.

So why did you sign on?

I feel there is a unique atmosphere here in Pingyao because there are so many young filmmakers here. The founders [director Jia Zhangke and artistic director Marco Muller] are my close friends also, so I want to help them. I also have self-interest as a motivation, as I believe here I will get to watch the work from a lot of young filmmakers, get to know them and maybe one day work with them. In recent years, I have been helping young filmmakers, and in this way I hope I can make use of the energy I have for filmmaking for more than just my own work.

Anything you call tell us about the work you have been producing with young filmmakers?

Nothing has been released, and these directors are not known. One film is a crime thriller, and we have just finished post-production. The other we are about to start is a look at the life of elderly citizens. I don’t want to say much more at this stage, but what excites me is that these young filmmakers are really expanding the ideas of Chinese cinema. They are fearless.

Between that work and what you have seen so far in Pingyao, are you seeing any trends emerge among the new generation of Chinese filmmakers?

There’s no denying that young filmmakers like to start with either genre films, like crime films, or with stories that are very personal, like stories about children coming of age, or about small towns. I think this is pretty normal everywhere. But this year there is one film we have seen that won’t win an award, and it is not really refined, but it is very truthful. It’s called Summer Is the Coldest Season, from director Zhou Sun, and it is very true to her heart. In terms of skill or technique, it is very young — but it is so true to her heart. We are seeing more of that from this new generation.

What sort of role is Pingyao playing in terms of providing a platform for this talent?

At this stage of their career they need confidence, and a festival like this gives new filmmakers that. It can drive you on to further your career, once you see your film play at a festival and be watched film lovers and other filmmakers.

In what way is the filmmaking landscape in China different today compared to when you started out in the 1990s?

The change has been so big. I wasn’t exactly unlucky back then, but there was no established market in China, so not many people saw my films. There were no other filmmakers to help us, really, and no festivals. The survival rate among young filmmakers was very low. You felt like you were fighting alone. These days, we older filmmakers try to help young filmmakers, having experienced that. We don’t want them to switch to other jobs. So more and more are now sticking to it.

How important was it that your early films traveled to international festivals?

It was more than important, it was vital. It was all we had. Small films wouldn’t make it to our cinemas, and if they did, no one saw them. So festivals gave us an audience and the sole channel through which we could become known and hopefully keep making films in the future. I remember when my first film played at a festival in Vienna, and I was there and the audience all applauded for three or four minutes. I think they were just being nice to me, but it meant everything to my young mind. There were better filmmakers around than me, but this gave me confidence that I was getting somewhere in life. I was filled with pride, and it powered me to overcome all the difficulties.

What are you witnessing in China in terms of how streaming platforms and the likes of mobile content are remaking the landscape all over again?

It’s been explosive, as has the whole film market. But we are having problems with quality. At the moment, we are questioning whether we really need such a big volume of production every year. There are not enough quality films and productions, and until there are, China will not be a real powerhouse. It’s a double-edged sword. My production company has explored TV series, mobile content and short-form video that is more suited to these platforms — and it's quite profitable. These have increased the interest of young filmmakers, too. But at the same time, it has brought quality down, and it has also affected how people view directors. Directing is no longer seen as a remarkable job, when it really is. It is very tough. So the challenge is to keep standards high, keep the quality high and keep people professional.

Is there anything you’d like to share about where you see your own career headed?

I’m exploring internet dramas. These have a long and profitable future in China. Filmmaking is quite volatile, but if you succeed with an internet drama you can have some security. I want to look at helping some young filmmakers who are unlike me — those with different styles to me, even more feminine ones. I want to show people an alternative side to myself. I would simply like to surprise people.