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New blockbusters and rare classics show in Chinese film festival

New blockbusters and rare classics show in Chinese film festival

The China Onscreen Biennial will host the West Coast premiere of the restored, 3-D version of “The Monkey King,” a beloved children’s movie from the early ‘60s. All images courtesy of the China Onscreen Biennial.

By Alison Hewitt

Movie stars and top film directors from China will appear in Los Angeles for the next few weeks as the UCLA Confucius Institute and several partner organizations host premieres and special showings of more than two dozen Chinese films.

Lacuna.  All images courtesy of the China Onscreen Biennial.

The first China Onscreen Biennial includes rare screenings of classic films and new releases like “Double Xposure,” which came out in China the first week of this month. The Biennial is hosting the film’s international premiere, which will double as the official Golden Globes screening for the Hollywood Foreign Press.

The festival opens to the public Saturday, Oct. 13, with the North American premiere of “Lacuna,” a youthful romantic comedy. Running through Oct. 31, the biennial will showcase documentaries, shorts, rare and restored classics, animations, a ghostly fantasy film for Halloween and more. All of the films include English subtitles.

“They’re all so different. Each one is like a jewel,” said Susan Pertel Jain, the executive director of UCLA’s Confucius Institute, the lead host among eight groups presenting the 25 films. Most are showing for the first time in North America or even outside of China.

Ballerinas wield swords and rifles in the film The Red Detachment of Women. All images courtesy of the China Onscreen Biennial.
Ballerinas wield swords and rifles in "The Red Detachment of Women."

Along with new movies, the festival will also present films like “The Red Detachment of Women,” a state film made in 1970 during the Cultural Revolution and a historically important piece that hasn’t had permission from the China Film Archive to screen in the U.S. in more than 20 years. The film “The Monkey King,” a beloved animated classic from the early ‘60s, has been restored and converted to 3-D for a screening by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

It’s not just a great opportunity to see movies that aren’t available anywhere else, Jain said. It’s a unique window through which Americans will be able to see what’s been happening in China “firsthand, without the filter of American media.” And getting to know China is growing ever more important, she added.

“In 2016, China’s economy will surpass the U.S. economy,” she said. “At UCLA, we already have more and more Chinese students, tourists and visitors, and Los Angeles is home to the largest Chinese-speaking community in the United States.”

The films are also paired with panel discussions and audience Q-and-As to provide cultural and historical context. On opening night, “Lacuna” co-director Derek Tsang will speak, and the audience will hear from director Li Yu at the premiere of her psychological thriller “Double Xposure.”

Other screenings will include panel discussions. The organizers noted that being able to provide cultural and historical context is the only way they would want to present the complex state-sponsored film, “The Red Detachment of Women,” a film version of the ballet about a women’s militia performed 40 years ago during President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China. Speakers will include UCLA Chinese cinema Professor Robert Chi; renowned opera director and UCLA Professor Peter Sellars, who recently staged the John Adam's opera “Nixon in China”; Beijing opera master Qi Shufang; and Professor Yan Yunxiang, director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies.

“Audiences will hear from some of the most innovative voices working in contemporary Chinese film, while also learning about the historical and cultural roots of their work,” Jain said.

Chief Curator Cheng-Sim Lim, formerly of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, headed a curatorial team selecting the movies for the biennial from dozens of films, working with the Confucius Institute and its partners: UCLA’s Film & Television Archive, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Film at REDCAT, Pomona College, the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, and the Confucius Institutes at George Mason University and at the University of Maryland. At UCLA, the Center for Chinese Studies and three Anderson School of Management programs are also sponsors.

“We watched a lot of movies and debated which would be essential to form a big-picture view of the most exciting trends and important dynamics in Chinese cinema,” said Shannon Kelley, the head of public programs for UCLA's Film and Television Archive.

The biennial highlights a relatively new trend in Chinese film: breaking genre barriers.

“Audiences have been encouraged to think about Chinese films in set categories, and now it’s all getting scrambled,” Kelley said. “There were rural dramas; action and adventure movies; documentaries, and they were separate. Now, we’re showing one documentary and one feature film by the same director, but because he works with non-professional actors for the scripted movie, you have to ask whether the movie isn’t also in some ways a documentary.”

Films chosen for the biennial are all technically stunning, but American audiences will also find the stories very accessible and, in some cases, perhaps unexpectedly relatable, Kelley said.

“These films have a different version of modern life in China than the more sentimental, literary style Chinese film can often offer,” he said. “They have a nice ring of authenticity, and globalization is making us more similar, so we’re starting to come to the realization that we’re looking each other in the face.”

Painted Skin, a sci-fi/fantasy film with elements of horror, airs on Halloween. All images courtesy of the China Onscreen Biennial.
"Painted Skin," a sci-fi/fantasy film with elements of horror, airs on Halloween.

The stories range from a sci-fi epic of spirits and demons, “Painted Skin,” to the “completely dazzling, strange, beautiful film” about a brothel in Macao called “Sauna on Moon.” The high-energy rom-com “Lacuna” will give audiences a glimpse of Chinese youth culture, full of slang and texting, but with a familiar “Dude, Where’s My Car?” element, Kelley said.

Another film, “The Cremator,” puts a twist on an old Chinese folk practice of providing “ghost wives” for sons who died without getting married, while “Beijing Flickers” looks at the frustration of young Beijing urbanites passed over by the prosperity of globalization.

For Jain, the opening this weekend will also mark her first glimpse of many of the movies. She’s holding out to see them for the first time in the theater with everyone else.

“When I go to a film, I feel like I’ve spent personal time with the director, understanding their life and vision,” she said. “It’s a very personal way to engage with another country.”

complete calendar is available online.

UCLA International Institute