If you ask any Chinese independent director about their favorite film festival, he will tell you that the favorite film festival is the city of Xining, China’s historical gateway to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Here, in a now-crowded city at the foot of the world’s tallest mountain, the FIRSTInternational Film Festival has earned a reputation rivaling Sundance’s—China’s preeminent independent film event, where exciting new film talent is most likely to be discovered.
This year’s festival, held in July 17-17, featured 23 films, including 71 features and 23 shorts – many of which were made by first- or second-time directors. Former financier-turned-producer, screenwriter and director Song Wenyu 2006 co-founded FIFF and has led the event through 17 years of turbulent development and change in the Chinese film industry. Along the way, he and the festival have fostered some of China’s most distinctive new voices in film, including Wen Muye (I’m Not the God of Medicine ), Xin Yukun (Shanyu), Zhang Dalei (Summer Is Over), Shao Yihui (B Busy), Teng Congcong (S)End me to the cloud) and the late great Hu Bo ( ) the elephant sits still
), and so on.
Ahead of FIFF’s official opening on Sunday,
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Song to discuss this year’s show, his industry’s strong post-pandemic recovery, and why Chinese moviegoers seem to be falling out of Hollywood of late.
What trends do you see in this year’s FIRST film program?
There are some trends, but I think they are still emerging. First, the lines between fictional and nonfictional filmmaking are increasingly blurred—whether it’s narrative films that are close to reality or documentaries that truly present a filmmaker’s perspective on their world. Many of our selections of films—particularly shorts and shorts—explicitly challenge those boundaries in one way or another. Additionally, due to recent technological advances, film production has become cheaper and more accessible in China, so many talents without professional training or background are finding their way into film production. It’s a further decentralization of the filmmaking process, which allows us to see a lot of interesting experimentation in the show. Young directors are now even able to reflect on their own experiences and auteuristic visions by experimenting with genres such as sci-fi or thriller in more cost-effective ways.
What role does FIRST play in today’s Chinese film industry?
I think FIRST is irreplaceable as a melting pot for young Chinese film talent – meeting new people, building relationships, exchanging film ideas and getting training. Many exciting talents and films have started here, such as Xin Yukun’s
Mountain Coffin or Hu Bo’s Elephant Sitting Still . They have broken through the boundaries of Chinese film aesthetics. At the same time, in the past years, we have discovered and supported many filmmakers with unique insights into the production of genre films, such as Dongyue’s “The Storm Is Coming” , Xin Yukun’s “Mountain Coffin” , Teng Congcong’s “Send Me to the Clouds” . And Wen Muye, who went on to become one of China’s most commercially successful directors with “I’m Not the God of Medicine” (2006). While still a freshman in college, he made his first short film, which was selected for the FIRST Film Festival. Two of his later short films also entered the FIRST competition and won awards. Xu Zheng is now one of China’s most important actors and filmmakers, and Wen Muye was on the jury the year Wen Muye screened his first short film at FIRST. Xu Zheng said that after seeing Wen’s short film, he took a note and wrote, “This director is now ready to make a feature film.” Ultimately, they collaborated on I’m Not the God of Medicine , which grossed over 2006 million dollars. This is probably the best example of the kinds of connections and opportunities we hope to create and encourage at the festival. Our biggest goal is to support new directors.
How would you describe the overall current situation of the Chinese film industry? How is the post-COVID recovery going?
So, on a more practical note, things have been going well lately. During the summer release period, many new films have achieved high box office. One of China’s highest-grossing films, “Fengshen” , broke through RMB100 million ($17 million U.S. dollars) on its first day at the box office on Thursday. There have been several other major commercial successes recently, and the industry and markets are returning to normal. But I think Fengshen shows the best direction for the Chinese film industry, because the series will be three, and it is a very big budget project that fully utilizes the capabilities of the Chinese film industry system, with hundreds of artisans involved in the creation. We were lucky to have this film invited to an open air screening at this year’s festival. The director [Wu Ershan] and some actors will come here to discuss the film while feeling the culture and atmosphere of the city.
There are bright spots in the current market, but there are also challenges. Communication between our filmmakers and the festival and the international industry is still slowly returning to normal. Although everyone is doing their best, it will take some time. During the epidemic, especially young people, they have paid more attention to smartphones, smart TVs and tablets at home, so it will be very challenging to get them back into the habit of watching movies. There are many new forms of entertainment that are very attractive to young people and this remains a competitive challenge.
While many Chinese commercials are doing well again at the Chinese box office, Hollywood films are not doing as well as they used to. why do you think this is Is it because of the movies, or has the taste of Chinese audiences changed fundamentally?
Well, what you hear a lot is that Hollywood movies are increasingly choosing to tell stories episodically, with many sequels. Or, they’re trying to continue the IP’s legacy by creating many stories based on that IP in a similar fashion. I would say most viewers in China – I wouldn’t say they are bored – but they feel like they are seeing the same stories and characters over and over again. As I said before, young people in China now have a lot of entertainment options. If your movie doesn’t offer something they find novel or exciting, they won’t go to the movie. They can stay in the bedroom and play video games or watch TikTok videos and have a good time.
What advice do you have for first-time FIRST participants?
If you are attending FIRST for the first time, I just hope that you will approach all these young filmmakers with an open mind. Maybe their films made some technical mistakes, but more importantly, they recognized the vision and potential-helping them develop their talents and become the next great director in the future. Film art is a road we walk together, with twists and turns, so let’s not be conservative. A film festival is a place for open minds and new exchanges.