A New York film festival showcases independent Chinese film

Society & Culture

Chinese independent film is, amazingly, very much alive, and CineCina aims to help young filmmakers find a path to success.

Still from Stanley Kwan’s Lan Yu.

The CineCina film festival is a New York festival of Chinese independent film that started in April 2019. The organizers aim to “become an incubator for Chinese art-house cinema,” and aside from the festival, also do educational events and cross-cultural exchanges. 

“The 2020 edition was planned for March and supposed to feature a band providing live accompaniment for classic silent Chinese films, but obviously because of the pandemic, we had to cancel everything,” said Frank Yan, the director of programming. 

But this past September, CineCina resumed in-person screenings with a week of Chinese film at the SVA Theater in Manhattan. 

The festival is run by a nonprofit, and showcases films by younger generation Chinese-language filmmakers, and directors from China. Many of them struggle to fund, screen, or sometimes even produce their work in China because of their works’ political subject matter or non-commercial nature. It’s also difficult for such filmmakers to get their work seen outside of China: There is no easy distribution pipeline in the U.S. and other markets for art-house Chinese movies.   

CineCina 2021 featured 10 films over three days. This year’s lineup included six Uyghur-language short films, including two by Tawfiq Nizamidin, including Maria by the Sea (2019), which was shot in South Korea, and The Night of Arzu (2017), which was filmed in Beijing and nominated for a Golden Horse Award in Taipei in 2017. Nizamidin is currently based in France, where he is planning his first feature.

The other Uyghur films, from directors who are all still apparently working in China, were: 

  • Alikis, which tells of the relationship between a man and his pet dog, and Blessed Winter, a comedy about a mother trying to stop her daughter from getting into a relationship with a boy deemed unsuitable, by Kashgar native Emetjan Memet.
  • Friends, by Mirzat Abduqadir, shot in Mandarin and Uyghur, portrays a group of students from all over China who gather at a bar in Beijing to celebrate the birthday of Kamran, “the only gay person among them.” The film shows them gradually falling out as they “openly discuss various topics including men, women, sex, adultery, incest, racial discrimination, and other thorny issues.”
  • Elephant in the Car, by Ikram Nurmehmet, about a Beijing woman who finds herself sharing an on-demand carpool ride with two Uyghurs. 

The biggest name in the festival was a new 4K digital restoration of Lan Yu 蓝宇, a queer classic by Stanley Kwan (關錦鵬 Guān Jǐnpéng) set in 1980s Beijing, based on a 1990s internet novel, and first released in 2001. The new digital film will be screened in theaters in Taiwan in December

Other notable films screened at CineCina 2021 included: 

  • Striding Into the Wild 野马分鬃, directed by Wèi Shūjūn 魏书钧, an autobiographical road movie featuring a rebellious film school student that was included in the Cannes 2020 Official Selection. 
  • Tracing Her Shadow 又见奈良, by Péng Féi 鹏飞, a 2021 China-Japan co-production of a story of a Japanese orphan who was adopted by a family in Northeast China after WWII. (The whole film is currently available on YouTube here, but it’s not clear if that is a pirate version.) 
  • Drifting 浊水漂流, by Jun Li (李骏硕 Lǐ Jùnshuò), a portrait of a homeless man in Hong Kong, in Cantonese. The film gained 12 nominations at the 2021 Golden Horse Awards in Taipei.

Optimistic about independent Chinese film

The CineCina staff. Image courtesy CineCina.

Around 1,000 people attended CineCina 2021. Many of them were celebrating the return, if slow, of cultural life in New York, and also the rare chance to see Chinese films in a theater. “I missed the feeling of watching a Mandarin-spoken film on the big screen, especially titles we cannot find on Netflix,” said one moviegoer.  

Organizer Frank Yan said that their “greatest achievement” this year was simply getting the event together: “We actually held an in-person-only film festival, and [it was] one of the first film festivals to do that in New York, after a whole year of pandemic and lockdown!”

Despite an increasingly strict environment for cultural products, Yan is sunny about the future of independent filmmaking in China. “Almost all the films we showed this year are either feature debut or sophomore works and I think this is a strong statement about the new generation of filmmakers and their creativity,” he said.

“These new filmmakers are of course facing a lot of challenges, both financially and politically, but I’m very optimistic about their future and can’t wait to see their new works.”

CineCina is already “in the early process of looking for films for next year’s festival.” It’s also looking for “collaborating venues” in New York to do encore screenings. 

quan zhang