Asian films get Swiss support

Kaili Blues (above), by Chinese film-maker Bi Gan (below), had its world premiere at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland.
Kaili Blues (above), by Chinese film-maker Bi Gan, had its world premiere at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland.PHOTOS: NEW YORK TIMES
Kaili Blues (above), by Chinese film-maker Bi Gan (below), had its world premiere at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland.
Kaili Blues, by Chinese film-maker Bi Gan (above), had its world premiere at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland.PHOTOS: NEW YORK TIMES

The Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland gives little-known Asian film-makers an opportunity to be screened

LOCARNO, SWITZERLAND • Thanks largely to financing by a university teacher, Bi Gan was able to make his first feature film, Kaili Blues, an elliptical story about a man's family relationships and his journey through the lush rural hilltowns of Guizhou province in China.

The 26-year-old Chinese film-maker even received approval from official censors. But the movie's art-house techniques and narrative style guarantee a minuscule Chinese audience.

The film, however, has found a natural outlet: the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland, a top-tier festival at a lake resort town that has had a long relationship with Asian cinema.

Kaili Blues had its premiere there last Tuesday. The 10-day festival ended last Saturday.

Bi said: "I knew that my movie was good, but I didn't know there were that many people who shared the same views on this film before the Locarno film festival invited me."

"Now I think more people will be able to appreciate it."

Now in its 68th year, Locarno has emerged as one of the most important Western festivals to support Asian film, particularly works without big box-office prospects.

For mainland Chinese film- makers, that kind of affirmation from foreign industry insiders has become more crucial in recent years, as various levels of government under President Xi Jinping carry out the broadest crackdown on free expression since 1989.

A year ago, for example, police in the Beijing suburb of Songzhuang shut down one of China's most important independent film festivals.

So for a young Chinese film- maker, being selected for Locarno can be a critical step in building a career.

As recently as 2010, Locarno awarded its top prize, the Golden Leopard, to a Chinese work: Winter Vacation, a humorous non-commercial film by Li Hongqi, an unknown director.

Besides Bi's film, which was shown in a competition for first- and second-time feature film-makers, Locarno also screened Mr Zhang Believes, about a man's 23-year labour camp experience during the Mao years.

The film is based on a memoir. Its director, Qiu Jiongjiong, declined to be interviewed for this article, citing the political climate in China.

The festival gave Chinese film-makers another kind of boost this year.

Starting Aug 4, Locarno hosted a travelling workshop called Bridging The Dragon that aims to bolster co-production partnerships for both European and Chinese films.

Five projects from Europe and five from China have been selected.

Programmers this year have also selected films from South Korea, Japan, Cambodia and Iran.

Of the 33 films in the festival's main competitions, one-third are from the Middle East and Asia.

In the festival's signature locale, the Piazza Grande in the old centre of Locarno, an Indian film and a Taiwanese film were shown.

On Tuesday night, the Indian film, Bombay Velvet, a period gangster movie directed by Anurag Kashyap, drew more than 8,000 spectators, despite a steady drizzle of rain before the film began.

In introducing the film, Kashyap told the audience that he had come to Locarno with his early movie Black Friday 11 years ago.

"I was born here," he said.

Taiwanese film The Laundryman, directed by Lee Chung, is the only first-time feature being shown this year.

"It's a unique combination of different genres: the ghost story, the thriller story and melodrama," said Mr Carlo Chatrian, Locarno's artistic director.

"Visually, it's quite strong. It's filled with humour. I think they did something new."

Industry insiders point to Mr Marco Mueller, the artistic director from 1991 to 2000, as the figure who established Locarno as an important place for little-known Asian film-makers.

Mr Mueller studied Chinese while growing up in Rome and went to China as an exchange student in 1976, at the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Under him, Locarno helped bring to prominence mainland Chinese and Iranian film-makers.

In 2000, he showed the film Father, directed by the well-known novelist Wang Shuo, to the festival, despite its being banned from release for years in China.

The film won the Golden Leopard that year.

Earlier in Mr Mueller's tenure, the festival held the world premiere of Chungking Express, the 1994 film that made Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai into a critics' favourite across the West.

"I was keen to prove there was an audience for the most original directors from Chinese and Japanese genre cinema," Mr Mueller said in an e-mail.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2015, with the headline 'Asian films get Swiss support'. Print Edition | Subscribe