Silk Road cinema
Cinematic event builds cultural exchanges along old trade routes.
The five-day Silk Road International Film Festival wrapped up on Sept 23 in Shaanxi’s provincial capital Xi’an. Xi’an, which was known as Chang’an during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) when it was China’s capital, was the starting point of the Silk Road, which went across Central Asia and all the way to Rome. The film festival named after this ancient network of trade routes is an attempt to reinvigorate cultural exchanges among countries along this road and beyond it.
For this third edition of the festival, 676 films were in competition, of which two dozen received various nominations.
The best picture winners were The Oldman Dogs, a made-in-Xi’an film (but with a story set in Xinjiang) about an old man and his dogs; Money, an American-Spanish coproduction; and Xuan Zang, a thematically relevant bio-pic about the Tang Dynasty monk whose pilgrimage to India for Buddhist scriptures has spawned the fantasy retelling of the Monkey King tale, now a staple of the Chinese screen.
The festival had such lavish opening and closing ceremonies that Kellan Lutz, the American actor who accepted both the best picture and the best actress awards for Money on behalf of his colleagues, says he could not believe his eyes even though “I’m from Los Angeles”.
Kia Jam, a Hollywood producer who sat on the 11-person jury, joked that the budget for the festival could be enough to fund all the projects in competition.
“Film is indispensable in the Belt and Road Initiative,” says Hou Guangming, Party secretary of the Beijing Film Academy.
“Film should be the connecting tissue in carrying on the spirit of the Silk Road, promoting mutual benefits among different cultures, increasing China’s international influence and creating a collective sense of belonging for countries along this road.”
Li Zhen, chairman of the Shaanxi Critics Association, pointing to the contrast between the economies and cultures along the Silk Road, says: “From Xi’an to Rome, countries along the ancient Silk Road are mostly economic lowland, but culturally speaking they boast some of the greatest ancient civilizations in the world, and film can be an effective pioneer in turning it into an economic hotbed.”
When Chinese talk about “western films”, they are not the Chinese equivalent of the Hollywood western.
Rather, they are referring to movies made in the 1980s by the Xi’an Film Studio, with stories set on the dusty plateau of northwestern China.
Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum, Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth and Wu Tianming’s Old Well are some representatives of this category.
As a matter of fact, most of the masterpieces of the so-called “Fifth Generation” belong to this group of films.
Not only have these movies left an indelible imprint on the festival, but they are the pride of Xi’an, or Shaanxi province in general.
So, for the closing ceremony, Red Sorghum had a gathering of a dozen of its cast and crew, belting out the now famous drinking song while downing bowls of liquor.
Director Zhang, who could not participate, recalled the good old days in a video clip.
Wu Tianming, whoas studio chief was the force behind the Fifth Generation and died two years ago, still cast a larger-than-life presence at the event.
Song of the Phoenix, his swan song, was a surprise hit early this year, and his heirs came to the stage at the closing ceremony and donated all the proceeds of the film to a foundation that nourishes young talents.
Huang Jianxin, who presided over this year’s jury, is also amemberof the Fifth-Generation.
His works of dark humor, such as The Black Cannon Incident and Stand Straight, Don’t Bend Over, were way before their time and are seeing their status in cinematic history grow over the years.
But the Chinese western category has “fragmented”, to use Xiao Yunru’s words.
The cultural scholar noted that Shaanxi talents had been lured to bigger cities like Beijing and Shanghai and the Xi’an studio had to organize reunions in Beijing rather than in Xi’an.
“China’s western region covers 12 province-level administrations, which encompass a plethora of geographical settings and subjectmatter.”
In 2014, Xiao said he drove along the Silk Road to Rome and was impressed by “the opportunities history has again presented itself”.
According to a 2015 study of Chinese films’ international clout, done by the Beijing Normal University, kung fu films still constitute the most popular genre of Chinese cinema as perceived by people along the Belt and Road Initiative countries.
But other genres such as drama, comedy and documentary are also gaining favor.
This festival also saw special screenings and forums for participants from the Silk Road countries, including the Maritime Silk Road that went through Southeast Asia.
A mini-festival of 10 ASEAN nations was held to highlight the region’s achievements on the big screen.
But the platform has to be market driven, say several experts, including Qi Yongfeng, a professor with Communication University of China.
And, it also has to stimulate tourism and other culture-related industries, says Jiao Hongfen, chairman of the China Film Group.
The festival is China’s third international film festival, after Shanghai and Beijing.
The venue alternates between Xi’an and Fuzhou, which is the starting point for the Maritime Silk Road.
Stars who attend the closing ceremony of the Third Silk Road International Film Festival in Xi’an include, clockwise from top left, kung fu star Jackie Chan, French filmmaker Jacques Perrin (center in top right photo), director and cinematographer Gu Changwei, actress Yan Ni, actor Huang Xiaoming and French actress Sophie Marceau.
Top: Actor Tao Zeru and actress Chi Peng inWu Tianming’s SongofthePhoenix, the director’s swan song. Above: Zhang Yimou’s RedSorghum starring Gong Li.