Programming China at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Shanghai International Film Festival

Ran Ma


In recent years, film festival studies have increasingly shifted its attention to looking at the curatorial agendas and programming practices at festivals. In the anthology Coming Soon to a Festival near You—Programming Film Festivals., Jeffrey Ruoff echoes Marijke de Valck1 by characterizing global film festivals as having a mode of “authored programming.” Here, the festival curator or programmer is celebrated as the “auteur, critic, historian” who would not only interact with an “ideal spectator” but also “intervene in the discourse of film history” by extending “archival endeavours” and identifying new trends in global cinemas.2 Nevertheless, if we could borrow Boris Groys’s insight into contemporary art curatorial practice that programming constitutes an illustration that makes the selected film works “become visible,”3 then this gesture involves complicated mechanisms of visibility that cannot be adequately addressed by simply exploring authorial motivations on the part of programmers, directors, and stakeholders who manage to “keep the show running.”4 Important

R. Ma (*)

Nagoya University, Nagoya, Japan © The Author(s) 2017

C. Berry, L. Robinson (eds.), Chinese Film Festivals, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-55016-3_12

though those motivations are, I propose that programming can also be understood as the dynamic, networked process through which a specific film festival articulates its politics of participation, agenda-setting, and positioning within the film festival circuit. This process is realized through its spatial and temporal manifestations, the choreography of events, and logistics. As film festivals have become highly institutionalized and professionalized within the global cultural economy, programming accordingly tends to index and negotiate these processes by diversifying the selection of films, enriching pre- and after-programming events and registering selfreferential cycles in, for instance, promoting “festival films.”5

“Programming China” examines how the mechanisms and politics of visibility are demonstrated and practiced in the programming of Chinese- language cinemas—specifically films from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at film festivals held at Hong Kong and Shanghai. The Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) is a unique case of a film festival that has navigated the British colonial era and redesigned itself since 1997 in the unparalleled polity, the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the PRC. Meanwhile, the Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF) was established in the early 1990s, when the Chinese film industry underwent intensified reform and restructuring into the market economy. Currently it figures as a model for other Chinese official film festivals to follow and compete with.

My survey, which focuses more on the HKIFF, first concerns how both festivals are institutionally and discursively connected with Chinese national cinema, or the lack thereof. Here, I understand programming as discourses and practices to “make visible” the festival’s entangled (dis) connections with the national in its “multiple, proliferating, contested, and overlapping” manifestations.6 As Chris Berry contends, “we face innumerable different Chinese senses and instances of the ‘national’ in Chinese cinema” and “any attempt to account for the national in Chinese cinema must engage with the potentially endless project of distinguishing and explaining each of these senses and instances.”7 Therefore, I turn to each festival’s fraught attempts and experiments in leveraging its connections to China in terms of three interrelated and sometimes overlapping aspects: (1) Chinese film culture, specifically embodied as the discursive trope and thematization of a certain body of Chinese-language films; (2) China, the party-state, grasped in the festival’s negotiation with the Chinese state’s ideological constraints and bureaucratic regulations; and (3) Chinese film industries, focusing on the festival’s role as marketplace and its integration into variously scaled industrial schemes.

This survey also interrogates how the festivals situate themselves in relation to regional as well as global festival networks, as manifested in their programming of PRC mainstream and independent films. Furthermore, this chapter draws attention to how each festival translates, modifies and strategizes international trends and norms for film selection and scheduling in enhancing its competitive edge regionally and globally. On one hand, programming at HKIFF and SIFF has indexed each festival’s encounter with the transforming trajectories of the global festival system by following the models and practices of the European and American festivals. For instance, HKIFF was originally modeled after London International Film Festival, known as “the Festival of Festivals.” In mainland China, however, it was not until late 1980s, with the intensification of the opening- up and economic reform, that film exhibition and screening events were officially launched, named, conceptualized and modeled as “ dianyingjie,” or “film festivals.”8 On the other hand, when international models and standards of programming are practiced locally, the dynamics of translation should not be simply evaluated in terms of sameness or equality. Rather, as Anna Tsing argues in another context, difference is “both a pre-established frame for connection and an unexpected medium in which connection must find local purchase.”9 I highlight difference in local programming practices; arguably, it is through negotiating these differences that the local has developed linkages with regional and global film festival networks.

Last, although not the focus of this chapter, “Programming China” also demonstrates that host cities such as Hong Kong and Shanghai (and also South Korea’s Busan) have used film festivals to strengthen their status as what Michael Curtin calls “media capitals”10 by structuring transnational flows of media and capital in this region.11 In his short note, Abe Markus Nornes interrogates the Eurocentrism of the international film festival circuit and concisely maps out why Asian film festivals matter. Although this chapter is not focused on HKIFF and SIFF’s contributions to the consolidation of “regional synergies and distribution networks” in Asia,12 the study of both festivals’ programming looks beyond China and Chinese film cultures to illustrate the value of Asian film festivals as crucial players in circulating and promoting Asian cinemas, which have also profoundly transformed local and regional film cultures.

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