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Shanghai Film Festival: China’s Ultimate Soft Power Fest

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Asia Life

Shanghai Film Festival: China’s Ultimate Soft Power Fest

China is taking center stage at the Shanghai International Film Festival.

Yesterday, at the 16th Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF), Hong Kong megastars Chow Yun-Fat, Donnie Yen and Aaron Kwok posed with three very flashy, custom motorbikes – each representing their respective characters in the film – to promote their new 3D fantasy flick, The Monkey King.

From June 15-23 cinematic movers and shakers from the world over are descending on Shanghai for the SIFF, now in its 16th year. And as the three Monkey King-themed choppers suggest, Chinese cinema is proudly showing the world what it’s got. As China’s only A-category international film festival accredited by the FIAPF (International Federation of Film Producers Associations), in many ways SIFF is the nation’s ultimate soft power fest.

Among the events and honors dedicated to cinema are the Golden Goblet and Asian New Talent awards; SIFF Mart, which links film projects with potential investors; the SIFFORUM series of lectures and workshops; and the International Film Panorama, which presents a smorgasbord of world cinema screenings.

A selection of the nominees for the Golden Goblet Award – a truly global line-up – can be seen here. Asian New Talent Award nominees can be seen here. Academy Award-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) heads the festival’s jury, alongside French critic Michel Ciment, German director Chris Kraus and Chinese director Ning Hao.

“A jury led by an internationally acclaimed filmmaker such as Mr Hooper will make the awards more authentic,” said Ren Zhonglun, vice-president of the festival.

Drawing more excitement to the lively agenda was director Oliver Stone, well known as a provocateur. When an audience member accused the United States of “eavesdropping on the world” Stone replied by calling NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden a “hero”. The director went on to further praise WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, before calling out the Obama administration for its persecution of those who leak official secrets.

It would seem that Stone was in good company. He is being given the Outstanding Achievement Award and seven of his often politically loaded films are being screened at the festival, including JFK, Wall Street, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and Savages.

Yet, there were detractors such as China Daily film critic Raymond Zhou, who told Stone he sounded “like one of China’s angry young men”.

To which Stone replied: "Movies that glorify war give permission to the leaders to make war. In 2013, we simply cannot allow war to exist. No war on drugs, on terrorism, poverty, or immigration. It does not work." He made the comments in the context of pointing towards The Untold History of the United States, his recent documentary project.

The exchange between Zhou and Stone played out during a Master Class, titled “How Does Film Have Its Influence on Real Life?”, also attended by the madly prolific Hong Kong director Johnnie To.

To, an acclaimed director known for his crime and action films set against the rapidly changing backdrop of his native Hong Kong, offered a counter perspective.

“Movies are not textbooks or teaching tools,” said To, whose film Drug War will also screen at the fest. “We each have our own opinions and ending movie violence will not remove violence in the real world.”

Ultimately, To’s comments point towards SIFF’s soft power focus, further seen on the red carpet unfurled for a lengthy list of mainland and Hong Kong celebrities, wearing chic ensembles by top designers like Giorgio Armani, Michael Kors and Christian Dior. Local favorites include Chow Yun-Fat and Jay Chou, while the list of foreign names also includes Keanu Reeves (promoting his thematically appropriate directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi).

The reason is clear: China’s equally staggering growth.

“The rise of the Chinese film market, absolutely, is why the Shanghai Film Festival is becoming increasingly popular and important in the eyes of film makers,” Teng Jimeng, professor of film at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told AFP.

The numbers speak for themselves. By the end of this year, China will build 45 more IMAX theaters, bringing the nation’s total up to 150. The nation’s box office receipts – rising 30 percent per year – are expected to match those of the current U.S. in 2018 at $10 billion. Further, some 100 billion yuan ($15.9 billion) is being pumped into the PRC’s film industry annually.

The investment seems to be paying off.

SIFF vice-president Ren Zhonglun said, “Everybody is taking a close look at the Chinese market and more countries and projects are coming into China.”

Reflecting on the festivals growth since its first year, Stone added, "You're bigger and more exorbitant”.