The Pingyao Film Festival and how the 'boutique' model can help arthouse cinema in India

Baradwaj Rangan

Oct 04, 2018 09:21:12 IST

I’ve received an invitation to attend the 2nd Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival, in China. I know about the festival, of course. It was initiated by Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke (Pingyao is in the Shanxi province, which is his home, and where he shot films like Platform and A Touch of Sin) and veteran festival director Marco Müller, who has overseen film festivals in Locarno, Rotterdam, Venice and Rome. The name is intriguing (yes, it’s an homage to Ang Lee’s “Eastern” film that also conquered the “West”), and more intriguing is the question of whether the world really needs another film festival. Seen one way, the answer is yes. The Mumbai film festival (MAMI) allows people in that region to see the latest international films, which then travel to Chennai, so the people there can see these films, which then go to Bangalore...

 The Pingyao Film Festival and how the boutique model can help arthouse cinema in India

Pingyao Film Festival 2017. Twitter

But the major film festivals aren’t just about giving people an opportunity to watch films. They are platforms for world premieres. They’re to art-house films what Oscar night is to Hollywood (well, more or less). That’s why there are just a handful of major festivals: the ones at Cannes, Venice and Berlin and a few other places. Where, then, does the Pingyao Film Festival (PYIFF) fall? When interviewed by Cineuropa, Müller said the reason behind the festival was very simple. Jia Zhangke had asked him, “I’ve spent one-third of my life at foreign film festivals. Why can’t I have one in my hometown?” In other words, PYIFF is the world’s first film festival that was established to fulfill a filmmaker’s dream.

Jia added that all his films were set in Shanxi province, and told stories about the region. “This is the place I know and love the most. I always wanted to tell stories about it because we rarely see them on the big screen. China is growing so fast, but it’s an unbalanced growth, which is why in my films I want to go back to where it all begins, because those are the real people.” You can see this in Jia’s Ash Is Purest White, which was in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The film follows a gangster and his girl — Bin (Liao Fan) and Qiao (Zhao Tao) — from 2001 to 2018. As China changes, so does their relationship. The key line in the film comes when Bin tells Qiao why he has changed, why he is now with someone else. You cannot question the logic. He says, simply, “Being penniless changes you.”

Another reason Jia wanted a film festival is his feeling that no one seems to care about arthouse cinema anymore. “I hate going to multiplexes,” he said. “So I wanted to create an independent space for the audience and filmmakers to really immerse themselves in film. Pingyao is China’s best-preserved historical city; its history dates back some 2,700 years. If you combine all of that with cinema, you might end up with something truly magical.” PYIFF is a boutique festival, like the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Finland. As with PYIFF, the location is a major highlight. The sun shines round the clock, so films are screened without a break. And just like Jia seeks to “chat” with the festival guests – “exchange ideas,” as he puts it – the Kaurismäki brothers and other filmmakers make themselves available to Midnight Sun attendees.

Unlike the major film festivals, there’s no velvet rope. There are... tents. Yes tents. At the Midnight Sun festival, the venues are tents, and visitors can choose to camp near the site. You can watch movies in tents, go to sleep in tents. But the “quirkiness” conceals one of the major missions of these boutique festivals, which is to showcase local films. Chinese film festivals are bound, by law, to show as many Chinese films as films from outside. This may be a good model for India, which has always struggled with showcasing arthouse cinema. Year after year, amazing art films in Kannada and Marathi and Tamil are screened at the Goa Film Festival, and then no one can find them anymore. They disappear into a mysterious black hole, surfacing every now and then at a private screening.

In a feature titled 'Can Pingyao be China’s Sundance?', Liz Shackleton wrote, in Screen, “Through his various companies, [Jia] is also building arthouse cinemas, starting in Shanghai and his hometown of Fenyang, which is close to Pingyao in Shanxi province, and is a founding member of the National Alliance of Arthouse Cinemas (NAAC), which recently released Manchester By The Sea. But for arthouse cinema to flourish, it needs a high-profile showcase, where films can win awards and reach audiences, media and industry – and that is the mission for this new festival in Pingyao.” This may not be possible throughout India, but dedicated arthouse cinemas in at least the metros? Come on, Indian filmmakers. Consider it your CSR.

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (south).

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Updated Date: Oct 04, 2018 09:21:12 IST