Tokyo Jury Member Zhao Wei: Without Film Festivals "There Would Only Be Box Office"

Zhao Wei - P 2017
Alibaba Pictures

"Festivals provide an opportunity for film fans and filmmakers like me to go back to that very first stage of falling in love with cinema," says the celebrated Chinese actress, director and investor.

Asian multihyphenate Zhao Wei is bringing some Chinese star power to the Tokyo International Film Festival this year.

The actress turned filmmaker — beloved in the Middle Kingdom for her starring roles in the films of Stephen Chow, John Woo, Johnny To and others; as well as her smash-hit directorial debut, So Young — is serving on the main competition jury at the Tokyo festival's 30th edition.

She spoke with THR about the vital role film festivals play in the global film industry and the encouraging signs of collaboration between the world's second- and third-largest movie markets — China and Japan. 

How do you feel about being on the Tokyo jury this year? What made you decide to accept the invite? 

Well, the Tokyo festival is a very successful one, and internationally it's well respected. A film I performed in and a film I directed were both selected by past editions of TIFF, so I've been here a number of times and I feel very close to the festival. I am happy to support them on their 30th anniversary.

You've also participated on the Venice film festival jury, and recently you lent your support to the upcoming inaugural Film Noir Film Festival in Corsica. Do film festivals hold a special importance to you?

Without film festivals the movie business would only be box office, and that's not why any of us fell in love with cinema in the first place. I've been on a number of film festival juries and occasionally the big awards go to films from lesser known regions, or to previously unknown directors. In these films — which are coming from outside the mainstream — you can find a very sincere expression, or a pure devotion to the craft of filmmaking. So festivals provide an opportunity for film fans and filmmakers like me to go back to that very first stage of falling in love with cinema — and to re-examine why we wanted to make films in the first place. Without these festival honors, these beautiful films probably wouldn't have been seen by many people.

Recently, there has been more collaboration between the Chinese and Japanese film industries, which represent the world's second- and third-largest film markets, respectively. The Japanese anime film Your Name, for example, was a huge success in China in 2016, and there is increased participation by Chinese films at the Tokyo festival this year. Do you think we'll see this trend continue? 

Well, I certainly think it's a positive thing. There are many great Japanese films, so of course it's good if Chinese audiences can see them in theaters. I really adore the work of director Hirokazu Kore-eda and Tetsuya Nakashima. I like many Japanese directors, and I believe if Chinese audiences get the chance to see their films on the big screen, they will enjoy them too. 

You've achieved success as an actress, as a director and also quite notably as an investor (Zhao is occasionally referred to as "China's lady Warren Buffett," thanks to an early investment in Jack Ma's Alibaba Pictures Group, which is believed to have netted her and her husband more than $1 billion when the studio went public). Which of these roles do you enjoy most these days? 

I enjoy acting and directing the most, definitely. Once you begin work on a film, it feels as if you are entering a different world. If you don't enter that world fully, it's hard to produce pure work. And once you have entered fully, the reality of the real world becomes less preferable, even less enjoyable. I love nothing more than this feeling of being at work inside a film. Making movies is also very collaborative and requires total teamwork — and I also love working side by side with people who all share the same goal and vision. 

What grabs you about the Tokyo lineup this year? 

Most of the films that were selected for the competition this year I wasn't previously familiar with. But having read all of the summaries, I think it's a dynamic and dramatic selection. I look forward to seeing them all. 

Anything you're looking forward to enjoying in Tokyo outside of your jury duties? 

I come to Tokyo so often, so this time it's going to be all about watching movies and enjoying the festival — which sounds wonderful to me.