'Zonad' leads Irish vanguard in Shanghai

Ireland brings largest ever presence to SIFF

SHANGHAI -- “Zonad,” a madcap physical comedy about two alcoholics escaping rehab during a costume party by director John Carney ("Once"), is one of the two Irish films in competition that bring an offering of cultural exchange to the 13th Shanghai International Film Festival this week.

Neil Jordan’s “Ondine,” starring Colin Farrell, is the other Irish film in a field of 16 films from around the world competing for the Jin Jue (Golden Goblet) award at the festival that’s never before had such a large Irish delegation.

This is the first time that an Irish film has been nominated for the accolade, to be awarded this year by a jury led by Chinese director John Woo (“Red Cliff”).

In total, there are 21 Irish films at the festival, which happens to coincide with the arrival in China’s trade capital of Irish president Mary McAleese for EXPO 2010 to mark Ireland's National Day on June 17.

“Just as the rest of the world is staggering under the economic downturn, it’s remarkable how much optimism there is in China,” said “Zonad” producer Andrew Lowe of Element Pictures, a first-time visitor to China like the much of the rest of the Irish delegation, which also includes Grainne Humphreys, director of the Dublin International Film Festival.

Like filmmakers from many other countries, the Irish are just now turning their eyes eastward, unlike, say, the French who have long trained their focus on China, a fact reflected Sunday night in director Luc Besson winning the SIFF lifetime achievement award.

But Ireland, a country of 4.4 million (including about 50,000 Chinese who live mostly in Dublin), appears already to have a few of the ingredients for a bubbling Sino-Irish pie.

Director Brian O’Malley is developing a film about the triads of Dublin for Parallel Films, Lowe said, and Carney and Simon Delaney, who stars as Zonad, both remember as kids watching religiously a series called “Monkey,” based on the Chinese classical novel “Journey to the West.”

“It went on a tea time, at six in the evening, and it was a bit broad, in the Irish sense. Nobody was quite sure who the target audience was, us kids or the parents,” said Carney, hopeful that bawdy “Zonad” will appeal in China despite censors’ reputation for prudishness about sex, violence and free-thinking politics.

“’Zonad’ is not quite clean, but it’s all in good fun,” said Carney. The film was warmly welcomed at the TriBeCa Film Festival in May and has its Asian premiere on Thursday at SIFF.

Lowe, executive producer of “The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” the 2006 Cannes Palm d’Or-winning Ken Loach movie about the Irish fight for independence from the United Kingdom, said there’s room for Chinese movies in Irish theaters.

SIFF jury president Woo’s “Red Cliff” recently ran in Ireland, as did “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Hero,” and “House of Flying Daggers,” before that. There’s room for Chinese art house cinema, too, said Lowe, who brings an uncensored 35mm print of  “Barley” to SIFF as a part of the Irish retrospective.

“Whether they’re French or Chinese or Polish or Irish, art house films have to share the screen in Ireland,” Lowe said, adding that his small distribution company wouldn’t rule out importing Chinese films in the future.

Lowe said he will leave Shanghai for home and try to open a discussion in Dublin about the possibility of a co-production treaty with China, something France recently signed and New Zealand is expected to do in July.

“Treaties are all very well, but a real link with China would have to be story-driven,” Lowe said -- citing a model example in director Daniel O’Hara’s 2003 short film “Yu Ming Is My Name,” about a Chinese student of Gaelic who is shocked to find that few Irish speak it themselves.

Patrice Poujol, a Frenchman who founded Box Promotions in Nov. 2009 to promote media exchange between the two countries, spearheaded the Irish delegation with Niall O’Reilly of Accurate Group Limited, a Hangzhou-based, Sino-Irish business consultancy.

“We are not just trying to sell Irish films in China but to build a real cultural bridge,” said Poujol, who brings a short film of his own to SIFF, “Taste,” an entirely digital musical noir about a chef whose dulled palate causes him to seek revenge against a restaurant critic.

The celebration of Irish film in China, including the premiere of “Triage,” starring Colin Farrell, is supported by Culture Ireland and presented in association with IFI Reel Ireland and the Irish Film Board.

The retrospective, both at SIFF and the Beijing International Movie Festival, June 7-30, includes “Five Minutes of Heaven,” “Once,” “The Secret of Kells,” “Michael Collins” and “My Left Foot.”
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