The festival’s jury will be headed by U.S. director Rob Minkoff, with ‘Con Air’ director Simon West, Chinese filmmaker Cao Baoping and Hong Kong icon Carina Lau also joining to help decide the winners of the event’s Tiantan Awards.
The Beijing International Film Festival unveiled its complete 2019 lineup Wednesday — and, as per usual for the state-backed event, the selection is as eccentric as it is sprawling.
Some 261 films are set to be screened over the course of the Beijing festival’s ninth annual edition, which runs April 13 to 20 at venues across the Chinese capital.
The festival will open with The Composer, a period drama directed by Kazak filmmaker Xirzat Yahup, and close with Bollywood tentpole Zero, starring Shah Rukh Khan.
The Composer is the first project to emerge from a co-production treaty signed by China and Kazakhstan in 2017, part of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative. The film’s story centers on the real-life travails of a Chinese composer who was stranded in Kazakhstan in the 1940s; the film’s positioning as the festival’s opening title, meanwhile, perhaps offers its own real-life story about Beijing’s propaganda priorities in the current historical moment.
The Composer also was included in Beijing’s main international competition section, which includes a total of 15 titles that will face off for the Tiantan Awards, which include trophies for best picture, directing, acting, writing and technical achievements. But if the relative prestige of such prizes tends to be determined by the number of high-profile world premieres a given festival can attract and host, Beijing’s 2019 selection makes clear that the event is either losing that game badly or playing by different rules altogether.
Among the 15 titles in competition, only one other — Chinese filmmaker Jianbin Chen’s drama The Eleventh Hour — is a world premiere. The rest — which run the gamut from Julia Roberts starrer Ben Is Back to Hungarian art-house figure Laszlo Nemes’ Sunset — were released commercially or at other film festivals last year (the full competition lineup is listed below). Still, many of the films will be showing in China for the first time at the festival. The one glaring exception is the bizarre — presumably honorary? — inclusion of Chinese sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth, which opened in China in February and has already been seen by virtually every regular moviegoer in the country, having sold nearly $700 million worth of tickets to date. (Beijing picking The Wandering Earth is a bit like Telluride or Venice deciding to highlight the competitive artistic merits of Avengers: Endgame — months after its worldwide release).
The Tiantan Award winners this year will be decided by a jury lead by U.S. director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, The Forbidden Kingdom), who is becoming something of a Beijing regular, having served on the festival’s jury just two years ago for its 2017 edition. Joining Minkoff on the jury is British filmmaker Simon West, best known as the director of the 1990s action flick Con Air (1997); Russian filmmaker Sergei Dworzewoi, whose most recent film Ayka was co-produced by China; Chinese director Cao Baoping; Hong Kong icon Carina Lau; Iran’s Majid Majidi; and Chilean director Silvio Caiozzi.
Outside the competition section, the lineup is comprised of the event’s usual mix of popcorn fare, high-minded retrospectives and a scattershot survey of movie-making from the past year.
Japan’s Akira Kurosawa will get the retrospective treatment, as will the beloved wuxia writer Louis Cha, who passed away last year. A selection of classic martial arts films adapted from Cha’s books will be screened.
The rationale behind other retrospectives is somewhat harder to discern, such as a section devoted to showing all five of Universal’s Jason Bourne films (even though they each received a wide release in China during their recent original runs). Alfonso Cuaron, perhaps in tribute to his 2019 Oscar best director win, is also getting a small tribute in the form of special screenings of Gravity and Children of Men (Roma, however, isn’t part of the program — two influential local distributors acquired the Chinese theatrical rights to the film over a year ago, but they are still awaiting the green light from Chinese regulators for a release).
As ever in Beijing, there’s as much intrigue surrounding what’s missing from the lineup as what’s included. As The Hollywood Reporter reported last week, the Canadian film In God I Trust by director Maja Zdanowski was abruptly disinvited because of “political reasons.” The director was told that the content of the film itself — a drama about race and faith in the U.S. midwest — wasn’t the problem. Rather, its Canadian provenance was the issue: The film apparently was blocked as a small act of retribution over Canada’s decision to arrest Huawei Technologies CFO Meng Wanzhou at the request of U.S. authorities last December. The situation echoes Beijing’s de facto block on all Korean films in 2017, because of then simmering diplomatic tensions over Seoul’s decision to install a U.S. made missile defense system on the Korean peninsula.
Chinese regulators’ consistently inconsistent stance on filmmaking featuring gay characters is unmistakably on display in Beijing’s 2019 lineup, too. Yorgos Lathimos’s multi-Oscar winner The Favorite was unceremoniously dropped from the festival after appearing in early leaked versions of its program — resembling the fate of Call Me By Your Name last year, which was pulled after a senior government figure reportedly took issue with its idyllic gay love story. And yet, schizophrenically, Beijing does plan to screen 20th Century Fox’s well received gay coming-of-age film Love, Simon, about a high school boy negotiating his coming-out, teen romance and a would-be blackmailer. (Meanwhile, controversy continues to swirl around the radically censored version of Fox’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which can currently be seen in cinemas across China, but without four full minutes of scenes that display Freddy Mercury’s sexuality, with the cuts said to be so drastic that the film is only semi-comprehensible).
Political compromises and intrigues aside, the 2019 Beijing film festival still offers a cinematic feast for local movie lovers hoping to see great work on the big screen. Among them: a selection of French New Wave classics (including the late, great Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7), Hollywood classics from across generations (2001, Schindler’s List, North by Northwest, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Magnificent Seven, Pulp Fiction), acclaimed recent documentaries (Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, Oscar-nominated Minding the Gap), and animation section of 20 films (including five from Japanese anime maestro Mamoru Hosoda), recent favorites from other festivals (Casey Affleck’s Light of My Life, Cannes’ 2018 Jury Prize winner Capernaum, Korean director Hong Sang-Soo’s Hotel by the River, Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, others), and a plethora of Chinese-language filmmaking (ranging Hong Kong classics like Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time Redux and Tsui Hark’s The Swordsman to a selection of Chinese socialist realism works chosen in commemoration of this year’s 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC).
The festival will again play host to a small film market — a few marquee deals can be expected to be signed and timed for announcement during the proceedings — as well as a series of panel discussions covering topics like: the development of art-house filmmaking in China, India-China co-production, developing film stories for streaming platforms, marketing and distribution strategies for China, and a political forum about the 70th anniversary of the PRC’s founding. As in year’s past, the market and panel series will be headquartered at the Beijing International Hotel in the capital’s Financial Street district.