An Interview with Jia Zhangke and Marco Müller:
Pingyao International Film Festival
by Giovanni Vimercati

Festivals’ mission statements are usually nothing more than marketing bait, catchy at best, ridiculous at worst, and rarely do they convey something more meaningful than the vague reassurance of cinema’s universal appeal. On the contrary, the mission of the first edition of the Pingyao International Film Festival, “Year Zero,” felt like a good omen, as it captured a possible, concrete beginning. Indeed it was “Year Zero” for PYIFF, an anomalous festival that served as a meeting point, both physical and imaginary, for non-aligned films, filmmakers, critics, and producers from both China and elsewhere. For local audiences, the festival was a unique occasion to discover and watch art-house films on the big screen in a country where multiplex fare rules, for foreign audiences it was just as special an opportunity to watch independent and genre Chinese films that would otherwise be hard if not impossible to come by. It was a festival in other words that demonstrated the need for its own existence, a convivial event that valued films as much as creating a space to discuss them, and which thankfully favored selection over saturation, screening a comparatively small number of films that catered to different kinds of audiences.

It was also a festival small enough to be gauged in its entirety but unpredictable enough to surprise the consummate festivalgoer. Highlights included Vivian Qu's Angels Wear White, possibly this year's best film on the systemic and structural nature of sexual abuse; Chloé Zhao's The Rider; the Italian B-movie pastiche Love & Bullets by the Manetti Brothers; and However by Li Jiaxi, a flamboyant bubblegum teen flick and the kind of film that rarely makes it to the international film circuit. The festival also dedicated a complete retrospective to Jean-Pierre Melville.

Reverse Shot talked to Jia Zhangke and Marco Müller, the founder and artistic director of the festival, respectively, to understand the intentions behind this event and its repercussions on local and international cinema.

Reverse Shot: Why did you start a film festival? What’s the vision behind it, and what would you like it to mean for independent Chinese cinema?

Jia Zhangke: I had been thinking about making a film festival for the last three or four years, because the number of Chinese films being made every year keeps on increasing. In recent years we went from 200 to 800 films produced yearly. Of all these films, the only ones that get any attention from the public are the big commercial features. A lot of valuable, interesting films simply get lost in this huge crowd, and it is very difficult for people to discover them. In this respect, I think it is very important to have a platform, a space where audiences, critics, and members of the industry can discover the amazing films that are being made right now in China. These days thanks to digital platforms we are submerged by multiple choices, we have unprecedented access to a vast variety of films. In the beginning, I thought, “Wow, that’s great,” we can watch all we want, we can watch foreign films too, but then I realized that without any sort of recommendation people just wouldn’t watch films from say Eastern Europe, Asia, South America, or Africa. I believe there is the need for a place dedicated to the discovery of these films that would otherwise go unnoticed, especially now that the marketplace is booming. At first I thought that film festivals are a bit outdated as a form, but actually in this digital era overloaded with virtual information and data, to have a festival is still a very efficient way to discover films and valorize them. I’ve been listening to conversation among people here: they’re talking about films like (Chloé Zhao’s) The Rider or (Elisaveta Shishova’s) Suleiman Mountain, I’m very happy people started to pay attention to these kinds of films thanks to the festival.

RS: What is the role and function of this festival for China but also for “western” cinema and audiences?

Marco Müller: For many years I’ve dreamt about creating here in China a designated place to nurture the desire for a different kind of cinema. It was a matter of creating an alternative to those gargantuan official festivals like the ones in Beijing (BJIFF) and Shanghai (SIFF). I was even offered to direct SIFF and my mandate would have been to bring 400 films in eight days, but I wasn’t interested in showing films that would have no life after the festival for the simple reason that none would even notice them. PYIFF on the contrary has consciously chosen to focus on a few films in which we strongly believe; we not only want audiences to know that there are these kinds of films out there, but we also want to create a demand around them. It was also a matter of “activating,” so to speak, films that maybe have been already acquired for the Chinese market but are not being used. We wanted to create a golden cage for films; the old city of Pingyao is so beautiful that once inside you don’t really feel the need to leave. It is only in such a context and space that you can create the conviviality thanks to which films are not only discovered but also discussed, nurtured. I’ve noticed a very intimate and convivial atmosphere in this festival that is hard to come by in bigger festivals these days, people talk to each other about what they’ve watched, about future projects. That to us is extremely important.

RS: So this festival is effectively an anomaly in China?

MM: Absolutely, even because Jia Zhangke has very intelligently managed to put together a private company that manages and runs this festival. This is the first film festival ever to be operated by a private entity instead of a municipal organ. This makes a huge difference, as it allows us to define our own range of action, which is of course still bound to governmental approval. I must say that Pingyao is of course no nest of cinephiles, and yet I was surprised by the warm reception many films got here by local spectators. Before this festival there were only two multiplexes showing Chinese and American blockbusters, now local audiences have the opportunity to watch completely different films on the big screen for the first time. I personally pressured Jia Zhangke to make sure the new venues had very big screens. It seems to have paid off, as audiences are positively impressed by the experience of watching a film on a huge screen as opposed to watching it on their phone.

RS: What about the Beijing Independent Film Festival and the one in Nanjing? Those too were not run by municipal organs, right?

MM: Yes, but those were illegal and are no more. PYIFF is the first officially approved independent film festival to be run by a private company.

RS: In your opinion, is the image of Chinese cinema abroad stereotyped? The variety of regional films PYIFF highlighted suggests a range of styles and cinematic approaches that festivals in Europe and America do not seem to reflect. Films like Li Jiaxi’s However would be very difficult to come across elsewhere. Is the aim of this festival also to widen the perception of Chinese cinema outside of China?

JZ: Obviously we cannot show all the different kinds of movies that are being made in China, but we try our best to highlight the best Chinese cinema has produced this year and we want these films to show the changes that are occurring within Chinese cinema. For instance, we have a slot dedicated to Chinese musicals and one of the films featured in that section, Xia Weiliang’s The Story of the Jade Bracelet, exemplifies how traditional forms like the Chinese Opera are being adapted and reinterpreted (the film exists in both 2D and 3D versions). We want people to know about this kind of cinema.

MM: I myself have to admit that watching 40 or 50 Chinese films per year, as I’ve always done, does not capture the complexity of a country that, cinematographically speaking, is becoming multi-centric. A film like However comes from this province, the Shanxi, which this year alone has produced 36 films that have been approved by the censors, plus another dozen that are still awaiting approval. Not only is it a comedy, it’s a regional comedy acted in dialect and full of references to popular culture. It’s the first regional pop movie I’ve seen in China! We’ll have to wait and see how many changes the censors will demand, but the variety of films being made is quite astonishing. For instance, I have discovered that in a Chinese region bordering Russia one can make a dystopian sci-fi movie (Purgatory by Tao Han), or that in Ningbo, 200 kilometers south of Shanghai, one can make a Wong Kar-wai type of film about the difficult transition of Shanghai from a cosmopolitan center in the late 1940s to a socialist metropolis. There is indeed a wide variety of films being made in China right now, and the festival wants to highlight that.

RS: There is a quota for profit-sharing foreign films that can be released in Mainland China yearly. Similar measures in countries like France are seen as a legitimate expedient to protect national cinema. In the case of China, conversely, it is often seen, at least in the west, as an act of censorship. What is your opinion regarding the quota, and is it an obstacle to the distribution of foreign films in China?

JZ: The vast majority of foreign films that get distributed in China are big Hollywood films. They surely have an audience here and there is a demand for them, but what we are trying to do here is to introduce to Chinese audiences another kind of cinema. We want to let them know that there are many different types of films that can be made and watched. Only when there is a demand for different kinds of films will the quota be changed. I obviously have my own opinion on the quota, but I don’t want to frame it as legitimate or not. What I am interested in the most is creating a demand for a different kind of cinema. Then maybe the authorities will realize it is time to change the rules.

MM: The birth of the Nationwide Alliance of Art-House Cinema in China last year should already add an additional ten independent features to the quota by the end of this year. This is big news. According to Jia, independent films could reach in the next couple of years as many as 50 million spectators, which for China is not that many but for art-house cinema is massive. With this festival we’re also giving local distributors a test audience for foreign films that they would otherwise ignore. Here they can see for themselves the audience reaction to independent films.

RS: Film censorship in China is perceived from the outside as pretty monolithic, but the Chinese films screened at PYIFF suggest a more nuanced picture. What is the reality on the field? Is there room for dialogue and negotiation with the authorities in charge of approving the films?

JZ: Sure, there is. As far as our film festival is concerned, for example, we did have some issues with a couple of films that were initially rejected, but through dialogue we eventually managed to get them approved. So, yes, there is definitely room for negotiation, and perhaps what we are also contributing to with this festival is the gradual loosening of censorship.

MM: What has changed over recent years is now you have to deal with local authorities when it comes to having the films approved, rather than with the central government. That has made things less centralized and bureaucratic, less intricate. For example, the only thing we were asked to change in Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts was a seven-second sequence with too many pubic hairs in close-up—in a film with several nude scenes. The censors said that they would have approved those films whose artistic quality is high enough to justify nudity, which goes to show that there is room for comprehension. Then of course there were films that were turned down, and other films that I did not even propose because I knew it would have been pointless. For me it was important to establish a relation of mutual trust and understanding with the censors, and I must say that it worked. We’re showing Takeshi Kitano’s last film in the big open-air arena, and that’s quite something.

RS: What is the state of cinephilia in China? Is there a growing need to watch, distribute, and write about independent cinema?

JZ: I believe there is more and more room for independent cinema in China; this year for instance some independent films have gotten great box-office results.

MM: Very much like in the rest of the world, film criticism—the most relevant forms of it at least—are to be found online rather than in print. The majority of mainstream media in China consider cinema a form of entertainment and nothing more, and consequently they tend to write about it only in terms of showbiz and celebrity culture. Film critics and reviewers are not to be found in mainstream publications.

RS: Jia, you’ve now branched out from direction into production, distribution, and festival-making, and now you are even planning to open an arts center. Can I ask you what motivated you to diversify your activities?

JZ: At the beginning I started to produce films for directors I wanted to help, whose talent I wanted to nurture. I realized that to do that you need time, energy, and resources, which is why I’ve set up these companies and institutions, so that younger people have an infrastructure to rely on, and I myself have more time to work on my own films.