The veteran festival director Marco Muller stands behind the latest attempt to mount a Chinese film festival of independent production along the founder Jia Zhangke, Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival.
Muller, a fluent Mandarin Chinese speaker, has a rich resume rife with the experience of heading the Locarno, Rome, Venice, Beijing and Silk Road film festivals. ScreenAnarchy sat down for a behind-the-scenes chat about the Pingyao film festival inaugural edition, programming concept, censorship and expectations from the next edition.
ScreenAnarchy: What led you to accept this job?
Marco Muller: It took me a long time to sort of fathom to different possibilities for various festival platforms in this country. The first time I started discussing a possibility that I would become artistic director of Chinese festival was back in 2013 when I went to Shanghai to discuss my eventual position as a director there.
I was told my mission was to raise the number of films that the festival would present up to 400 so that it would become a bigger festival than the one in Toronto. I said no because it made no sense to show 400 films in eight days and to have each film clash with other 49. I could not really be responsible to people who make those films and to people who go to see those films. There was no way to understand the lines of the programme.
But at the same time I immediately accepted a proposal from Beijing. They said to me come and be the head programmer and if you want you can be responsible for something you could create. I told them I would create the official selection, the competition and the galas. I was happy how everything eventually took form because we had the official selection of 40 titles, all of them world or international premieres.
But then I saw that even such an exciting array of films did not attract the attention of local distributors so there was no life for those 40 films after the festival. And even the relationship with audience proved to be difficult to build. Everything was organized in such a way that it was such isolated environment for film delegations.
So I kept thinking maybe there could be another solution. I tested the Silk Road Film Festival as a director thinking maybe if we skip Western films and follow the political strategy One Road, One Belt that maybe we would have a working festival where things happen in terms of potential co-production plans and exchange because it would be within a large area but still something homogenous. But it did not work because it proved to be such insulated environment.
I thought the only solution is to create a Chinese festival in China that is not exactly like the rest of the country so I invented the Macao Film Festival. Since Macao is such a special place with casinos and offshore finance, the head of the tourist department of Macau told me as if it was completely secondary that they don´t have budget for Chinese subtitles for the films in the programme.
My aim was to show a limited number of films to the China distributors so that those films could finally raise an interest with them and gave the distributors a possibility to check audience response to those films and by audience I do not mean necessarily Macao audience but also people from Zhuhai city and people from the mainland China. And to tell what films could work in the domestic distribution.
Without Chinese subtitles, the attempt would be completely suicidal and at the same time I kept talking to my good friend Jia Zhangke about his dream to create a festival in his home province in the city that has been for him the cinematic city of his key works. I decided to visit Pingyao and I saw that to create a festival in this kind of contained environment could be finally the right angle to create a filmmaker´s festival in this country.
This is the general framework, Pingyao Film Festival is the filmmaker;s film festival.
Absolutely. By filmmaker´s film festival I mean a place where filmmakers can feel at home. I do not think that the mandate of Pingyao Film Festival should ever be to rival Busan or to impact the whole of East Asia. It would be pointless if our task is the penetration of different kind of films in China´s markets, to find possibilities for films to have a life after this festival and thanks to Art Cinema Alliance that Jia Zhangke has helped to create and that was launched in October last year.
The same formula applies to Western titles?
Absolutely. This is what is exceptional, I do not think I would ever accepted to be a part of this adventure if that specific alliance would not have been created. This project has been in discussion for over ten years so it was finally launched October last year. It makes a big difference.
Jia Zhangke has always stressed the fact that probably in four to five years the alliance could reach out to 45 million individuals. Even at the world level it would be the biggest mass audience for arthouse films but there would be multiplicators for films we want to protect and defend. That´s why the festival had to be called Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon because we want to prove that we merge different kind of experiences, different kind of films and different genres.
If I am not mistaken, a board of censors reviews content for domestic release that means each Western films in the programme had to be approved. Right?
Every film in the line-up.
And have you received any notes or were some films cut out of the final line-up?
I am not saying that we had to exert systematic self-censorship but of course I naturally avoided submitting films with extreme violence, explicit graphic sex, frontal nudity or political statements that would be impossible to circulate in this country. Out of the 90 films we have submitted, only two had been completely rejected. There have been observations and requests for revisions.
I can give you a very precise example, Arnaud Desplechin´s Ismael´s Ghosts we screened here. Even in a film as intricate as Desplechin´s film, the only cut that was requested was the cut of frontal nudity with pubic hair showing of 7 seconds. A solution has been found by the sales agent, the scene was re-framed so the cut was not necessary, we just had to leave the pubic hair out. And it worked, the film was screened intact with reframed 7 seconds.
It is something quite unprecedented I must say. The censors were very attentive, of course, to the quality of the films. In the case of Desplechin´s films, they said yes, there is quite often nudity in the film but the only moment we found offensive for the Chinese public is that special one because they would have been shocked but the quality of the film makes sure that even nudity can be accepted.
Chinese cinema might be perceived as a sort of schizophrenic, we have the official cinema on one hand and on the other, the unofficial – dissent – cinema. Was this special feature of Chinese cinema taken into consideration somehow? The most recent Locarno winner MRS. FANG is such an example.
For the time being, we are not allowed to show documentaries because it is a completely different system of censorship. It would be too difficult to blend narrative and documentary features for the first edition.
I can give you a very precise example of films that seemed controversial at the time they were revealed at foreign festivals but eventually became accepted. Have a Nice Day by Liu Jian. That´s a film that was hoping to pass the censorship before it premiered in Berlin this year. The censorship visa did not come on time so it was screened at Berlinale without them therefore it became more difficult for the film to obtain the visa retroactively because it is an offense.
But the film was here now. And it is the same film that was show in Berlin. You see that the Chinese red tape can work in many different ways that you have to find a way to go about it. This is what we did and that´s why we have such a wide spectrum of what is possible in this country from Feng Xiaogang´s film Youth within the framework of popular melodrama to smaller independent and very personal films that we showed in two competition line-ups to very spectacular but very special auteur entertainment. Sky Hunter by Li Chen is a good example of unorthodox entertainment cinema.
For the Hidden Dragons sidebar, you also picked Italian musical action-comedy LOVE AND BULLETS by Antonio and Marco Manetti. Given the nature of the film, I can imagine it on a midnight madness slate. I wonder what is the concept behind this particular pick.
If I return to my past experiments in Macau, I had invented this series of East-West encounters called Crossfire. It did not really work because when I resigned most of the directors refused to come. Johnnie To was supposed to introduced two different prints of Sergio Leone´s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and talk about the impact that spaghetti westerns had on Hong Kong filmmakers.
I really wanted to show the Manetti brothers film because both of them always insisted that their absolute reference, the reference that has always state as a living framework for their films were Johnnie To´s films. Love and Bullets is in the intention a tribute to John Woo. Sadly, the film was so successful in Italy that it got stuck there and arrived on October 29 so they did not arrive on time to meet with John here. Now, they will be going to Beijing to meet with him and of course, in the press conference, they insisted on strong connection between the films they make and the Chinese films and filmmakers they love.
There is currently a trend of mounting series in the film festival line-up and you are one of the pioneers who brought MILDRED PIERCE to Venice…
…I was the very first of the three major film festivals to attempt that. And I was sanctioned and criticized and media killed me for that. I mean, even here, that should be possible.
Anurag Kashyap whose film The Brawler we shown here is now shooting a series for Netflix that would be a very strong political statement with a make-up of genre film. I would love to bring this series to Pingyao, even more so than Mildred Pierce.
The good example would be what I did in Rome, to show Soderbergh´s The Knick as just one film with only a few pauses for sandwiches, coffee and cigarettes because it is also a good way to say that what we used to call film has already become a something different. We can still continue to call them films but we would do much better if we could include all the angles that could be explored also thanks to television and cable television.
Will Pingyao also reflect the emerging trends such as virtual reality?
Well, there was a big discussion. Forty kilometers from here, in the provincial capital city of Taiyuan, you have the first 7D cinema in the world. You are in a small theatre, each viewer has a remote and they choose the narrative line they prefer. So I was afraid that this could become like a videogame instead of exploring the future horizons of cinema.
I have seen most of the VR films picked for Venice. I still think the only film that would make is Inarritu´s Carne y Arena but to show that completely out of context. VR is a big thing in China. Even in the most commercial lanes in Pingyao, they already have VR.
This year´s edition bore the title Year Zero. Are there already any observations for the upcoming edition?
Of course there are. I think the most important element to be developed is the presence of the cinephile population.
The festival as it is now is still a little too expensive for young cinephiles, students. You see, the theaters were finished literally days before the festival. At that point, colleges have already started and you would have to make sure that there is a very precise agreement with all the key film schools, film institutes, media faculties, art institutes in this country so the teachers can even send students to Pingyao as it would be part of the curriculum. They would have opportunity to be exposed to such a special selection of films.