Sole Traders, Cultural Brokers, and Chinese- Language Film Festivals in the United Kingdom: The London Taiwan Cinefest and the Chinese Visual Festival

Luke Robinson

Introduction: Locating Chinese-Language Cinema in the United Kingdom

One of the more striking developments in London’s cinema scene over the past ten years has been the rapid growth of specialist film festivals dedicated to Chinese-language cinema. While the city has long been serviced by festivals screening a range of East Asian cinemas—the now-defunct London Pan-Asian Film Festival was launched in 1998, for instance— events exclusively dedicated to Chinese-language film are relatively new: the longest-standing example, the Filming East Festival, started in Oxford in 2007, and only moved to London the following year. These festivals are comparatively small in scale, rarely lasting more than a few days to a week. Usually annual events—some have fizzled out over time, while others keep going—they take place in a variety of venues, from commercial theatrical

L. Robinson (*)

University of Sussex, Brighton, UK © The Author(s) 2017

C. Berry, L. Robinson (eds.), Chinese Film Festivals, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-55016-3_10

chains, to smaller independent cinemas, to university lecture theaters; though they often charge for tickets, they are not-for-profit events. Finally, their programming is eclectic, encompassing fiction and nonfiction, experimental and more mainstream productions, with a balance between independent and commercial cinema largely from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, and Hong Kong.1

These festivals are conspicuous because they represent a departure from the ways in which Chinese-language cinema has usually reached a British audience. Theatrical release of contemporary Mandarin and Cantonese- language film in the United Kingdom (UK) has been, at best, uneven. Between 2005 and 2013, the number of annual cinema releases in both languages ranged between 11 films (in 2008) and one (in 2013, when apparently no Cantonese and one single film in Mandarin were released into British cinemas).2 The biggest box office successes during this period— Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, all of which rank among the UK’s top ten foreign-language film earners since 2001—give some sense of the kind of work receiving commercial distribution: blockbuster genre films, helmed by prominent directors, with plenty of visual effects and some recognizable (even to an Anglophone audience) stars.3 Other Chinese-language films have usually entered the country via international film festivals. Historically, the London Film Festival (LFF) has been a key conduit for Chinese-language art cinema.4 Further north, the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) has also been an important site of exhibition, with the festival’s most recent artistic director, Chris Fujiwara, championing contemporary independent Chinese auteurs, such as Wang Bing. But the new, specialist events are rather different from these established beasts. Quite aside from the scale and focus of their programming—in London and Edinburgh, Chinese-language cinema only ever appears as one element in a broader cinematic canvas—these new festivals have no formal institutional support.5 They are usually managed by one or two people who often work full time elsewhere and do not make a living running the event. While these people are assisted in their work by volunteers, they are usually involved in many different facets of festival organization, including day-to-day management, programming decisions, and sourcing films for the festival. Finally, although funding streams often vary, in practice considerable financial support for such festivals comes or has come out of the pockets of this handful of individuals. It is not just the programming, but also the managerial, financial, and operational structures of these specialist festivals, that sets them apart from London and Edinburgh. While as events they resemble what Mark Peranson terms “audience festivals,”6 or what Ruby Cheung calls “themed” or “specialised” festivals,7 those organizing them are perhaps more accurately described as “sole traders.”

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