New Films from China By Sasa Jankovic

in 56th International Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg

by Sasa Jankovic

The International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg is one of the best and the most respected festivals of author films in the world. It is by all means without equal in the European scope. Some of the greatest directors of today (Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch etc.) had won their first prizes at this particular festival. None of them had been previously known. It is because the festival, since its beginnings (in 1951) has been featuring only the films by unknown and new directors. It is the concept of the festival that made it recognizable and unique among thousands of other festivals worldwide. When a festival manages to maintain its originality for decades, then its awards have a particular meaning and significance.

This year’s 56th festival justified all expectations of the German audience and more than a thousand guests, film professionals from all over the world. And it was more than that. Along with 30 movies in two programs (the main competition and the International Discoveries program), the majority of which had their international and European premieres here, the festival focused on the new Chinese film. The long-standing president of the festival, Michael Kötz, had wisely chosen nine young Chinese film directors attempting to bring a completely new generation of Chinese directors to European audiences. It was undoubtedly the most effective part of the festival program. The Chinese New Wave suddenly and powerfully swept the peaceful banks of the beautiful Rhine and Necker rivers.

The Chinese film The Park (Gongyuan) by young director Yin Lichuan won the critics’ award. The Park, along with the rest of the Chinese films, represents a special discovery of this festival. Using precise and intelligent directing, Yin Lichuan separates and connects the two Chinese generations through the father-daughter relationship. Mao’s China, which has for a long time now been a part of the past, is completely swept away by new technology and modern civilization. A huge generation gap looks insurmountable. The old and the new generations in China are like two completely independent worlds. However, a nearby park celebrates life in its full strength, connecting the two worlds with that basic human emotion which is mutual and timeless. With pure, almost perfect style, extraordinary photography and a consistent story, The Park introduces an average European spectator to a completely new world showing human emotion as a universal thing, understandable to all worlds.

A few other Chinese films deserve to be mentioned. First of all, probably the best film of the festival: The Western Trunk Line (Xigandao) by Li Jixian. This film, which was in the non-competitive International Discoveries program, is one of the best examples of a completely new film style coming from the East that connects the best traditions of European film with the originality and the authentic Chinese approach to art and life and philosophy. In Jixian’s film we clearly recognize the influence of some of the best European directors, like Bergman and Tarkovsky and a completely new film poetics, which is not typical for Chinese films. Through the relationship of two brothers and a young girl who comes from Beijing to a far away Chinese ‘land of no return’ in the West, we see another autocratic world that lives its own life, by its own rules, far away from the rest of the civilization.

The Case (Xiang zi) by Cheng Zhang intrigued the audience of the festival, because it is a best blend of thriller and melodrama. We haven’t seen anything like this film, coming from the ever growing Chinese film production which produced a modest number of 120 films last year. However, an incredible, but true figure indicates that in this year, 2007, the Chinese produced about 400 new films. Bearing in mind this and also the new Chinese films shown in Mannheim and Heidelberg, there is no doubt we are dealing with a new film way which is yet to be discussed and written about. We must not forget, though, that many of the cinematographers were discovered and promoted here. Although they have a very old and important cinematography, the new and young Chinese authors could not have had a better place for their promotion than this festival. It was completely deserved and it deserves respect.

When we draw the line, we must say that the excellent program, perfect organization and a pleasant and cordial atmosphere make this festival a role model. Although it is only the No. 2 film festival in Germany after the Berlinale, as Germans often like to say, a long time ago it earned its unique place in the family of the best international film festivals. And it justified it once again.