First Film Festival Is Giving China's Arthouse Cinema a Platform to Shine

By Bryan Grogan, August 6, 2019

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First International Film Festival is one of China’s best-known film events. Based in Xining, the capital of Qinghai province in the west of China, the festival has a history of giving a platform to some of China’s most artistic and intelligent films. The festival wrapped up at the end of July, again offering a space for cinema fans and folks working in the industry to rub shoulders for a few days, while also raising awareness of some excellent movies. 

This year, Gu Xiaogang, director of the excellent Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains, came away with the Best Director Award. Other highly lauded directors to appear at the festival in the past have included Zhang Dalei, Cai Chengjie, Xin Yukun, Lhapal Gyal and others.

Image via @FIRST青年电影展/Weibo

Among the excellent titles to appear at the festival this year were Wang Lina’s tale of a Uyghur girl who loses her lamb, A First Farewell, which previously showed at the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival, as well as Spring Tide by Yang Lina, which also previously made waves at Shanghai International Film Festival earlier this year. 

While First does invite a few foreign directors, producers and films to show during their festival, the emphasis tends to stay focused on Chinese film. “It’s more important to influence and explore excellent writers and good film producers in your own region or in the field of cultural influence through the platform or means of the festival,” Duan Lian, director of programmes at First, tells us.

The festival is well-known in China, and in Asia, as a welcoming home for intelligent, artsy films. Duan, however, isn’t eager to pigeonhole First International Film Festival as anything of the sort. “I don't want to distinguish commercial movies from art film festivals. For me, they are all movies, they are works,” Duan tells us. 

Image via @FIRST青年电影展/Weibo

The landscape for film festivals, which have had success in the past, is changing, as heard during a panel discussion held at Shanghai International Film Festival in June. The more conventional and traditional format of film festivals is struggling to compete with the rise of digital formats; streaming platforms which give film fanatics the option of watching movies from the comfort of their own couches. 

These developments present an exciting conundrum for festivals. As Duan tells us, “this thing is irreversible, so it’s unnecessary to resist or reject it,” he opines on the changing landscape of film in both China and around the globe. 

The exact thing that distinguishes the festival for audience members is once again rising to surface. It is all about the event and the spectacle. As such First pushed an audience choice award for 2019, a signal of intent that they are moving forward and seeking to engage with the fans, the audience and breaking down the barrier and the mystique that so often leaves festivals like this shrouded in mystery. 

In another arena, Chinese films have struggled with censors at festivals both within and outside of the country. Perhaps the most glaring example was when highly-anticipated war epic The Eight Hundred was pulled as the opener at Shanghai International Film Festival. The Eight Hundred was expected to be a huge hit with cinephiles, and the abrupt nature in which it was pulled meant that the cinematic release date for the film was also postponed, causing much confusion in the film world. 

First International Film Festival wasn’t immune to these same troubles in 2019, as award-winning South Korean film, Parasite, was pulled as the closing film of the festival’s run. Again, the official reason given by the festival’s organizers for this cancellation was ‘technical issues.’

In essence, there are increasing difficulties for filmmakers, for festivals and even for folks who are simply keen to watch a good flick every now and again. 

But First International Film Festival is resilient. That has been shown down through the years, as the festival was forced to make the business decision to move out of Beijing after being cancelled for a year, then reinventing itself in Qinghai in 2011. Their move to Xining has, on the one hand, allowed the festival to find a more solid base, while, on the other hand, the move has also placed the festival in the largest, but also least populated, province in China. 

“For fans, because the festival is held in the city, it needs to have a relationship with the city. It needs to be rooted in this place.” Duan tells us, “As far as I can see, we radiate from the center of this circle, and so our choice of films also spread from the center of this area, which is also the goal of First.”

READ MORE: 2 Chinese Films to Compete at the 76th Venice Film Festival

[Cover image via @FIRST青年电影展/Weibo]

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