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Beijing Film Festival tries for a higher profile

The Beijing Film Festival's Zhao Zhiyong: 'We want to be No. 1 in Asia'

With the arrival of celebrities including Arnold Schwarzenegger and noted directors such as Darren Aronofsky and Luc Besson, the Beijing International Film Festival this week will strive to turn a struggling 5-year-old event into a serious stop on the global movie circuit.

The Beijing festival has tried to establish a coherent and compelling identity in the shadow of the more-established Shanghai International Film Festival, which started in 1993.

In June, the Shanghai event attracted an international bevy of producers, writers and directors, and the event showcased new domestic and foreign films including the mainland China premiere of "Transformers: Age of Extinction," which went on to become the top-grossing movie in the country's history. Meanwhile, Beijing's programming was largely composed of popular films that had screened in other countries long ago or relatively obscure art-house titles.

But those in charge of the Beijing fest are aiming to catch up.

"We want to be No. 1 in Asia," said Zhao Zhiyong, executive deputy secretary general of the festival's organizing committee. "We have strong support from Beijing authorities and the central government's film bureau. We have a strong base of international media here, and 80% of the country's filmmaking talents, like stars and directors, live here in Beijing."

In February, organizers recruited the former director of the Venice, Locarno and Rome film festivals, Marco Mueller, to serve as special consultant and to program the international portion of the Beijing event.

Given just 40 days to come up with a 15-title competition slate, Mueller and his team managed to land three world premieres: "Love & Peace" from Japanese director Sono Sion, "Gruber Geht" by Austrian director Marie Kreutzer and "Children" from Slovakian helmer Jaroslav Vojtek. Michael Almereyda's "Experimenter," a stylized biopic of social scientist Stanley Milgram that debuted at Sundance in January and stars Winona Ryder and Peter Saarsgard, is the sole U.S. film screening in competition.

Besson, whose 2014 film "Lucy" starring Scarlett Johansson was a hit in China, will chair the jury.

The opening film will be Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's "Wondrous Boccaccio," a re-imagining of the 14th century Italian literary classic "The Decameron."

Mueller said he helped entice the Tavianis' producers to allow the movie, which premiered in Italy in February, to screen in China through his personal connections to the directors as well as the promise that the film could secure a coveted quota distribution slot.

China limits imported foreign films to about 70 per year in mainland theaters, and only 34 of those are brought in under "revenue sharing" quota arrangements. Such a carrot may prove a major draw to lure international productions to future festivals.

Given the time frame, Mueller said, he knew it would be hard to get a major U.S. film as the opener, given that American studios make their release and marketing plans many months or even years in advance. "But in the future, this could be a serious possibility," he said.

He said he wanted to discuss with organizers the idea of moving the event to another time of year so it would not be so close to the Cannes Film Festival, held every May.

"If you want to have a festival that would like to expand, grow and be a major platform," he said, "doing it right before Cannes, it's almost impossible to realize."

Beijing has its eye on international and domestic competition. It is seeking to raise its profile as the Chinese real estate and entertainment giant Dalian Wanda, owner of the AMC cinema chain, prepares to launch its own festival in Qingdao in 2017.

To head up its effort, Dalian Wanda has hired Rose Kuo, former artistic director of the American Film Institute's Los Angeles-based AFI Fest and former executive director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which presents the New York Film Festival. Hollywood movers and shakers, including former film academy President Hawk Koch, have been serving as advisors to Wanda.

Robert Cain, a writer-producer and a longtime observer of the Chinese film market who runs the Chinafilmbiz blog, said that the Beijing fest was still not a "must" to attend, but that there was "no question" organizers wanted to upstage Shanghai.

Cain said that with China's movie market rapidly expanding — the country's box office revenue is about half the size of North America's and has been growing more than 30% annually — there is plenty of room for three major festivals in China.

"The U.S. has Sundance, AFM [American Film Market], Telluride, Tribeca, SXSW [South by Southwest], Palm Springs, Santa Barbara, Austin, Los Angeles and hundreds of smaller festivals," Cain said, "while China is rapidly ascending to challenge U.S. dominance in the movie business."

One of the key questions hanging over all festivals in China, present and future, is whether the country's strong censorship system will thwart a true sense of artistic legitimacy among international filmmakers.

Mueller, who studied in China in the 1970s and speaks fluent Chinese, said he accepted the job knowing that "it can only be a gradual process to see slightly bolder things that could be included and pass the censorship."

Mueller said he had negotiated with the festival organizers to bypass the traditional multi-layered selection committee process and take his programming team's picks directly to an executive committee of producers, directors and academics. That, he said, practically amounted to discussing films directly with the censors. The executive committee, he said, often agreed to put forth "slightly bolder" movies to censors. "Very often they said, 'We should try. It might not work, but we should try.'"

Chinese authorities' aversion to explicit sex scenes is fairly clear-cut, Mueller said, adding, "Where it really becomes difficult is to fathom the political correctness or incorrectness of certain films."

However, he was satisfied with the ultimate lineup.

"In terms of variety of experiences that are represented, it's very different from what has been presented in the past," he said.

Although Mueller's section has landed some world premieres, the schedule contains no premieres of Chinese films; instead, the homegrown offerings include recent box-office hits such as Tsui Hark's "The Taking of Tiger Mountain" and French director Jean-Jacques Annaud's Mandarin-language "Wolf Totem."

Many festival events will be held in venues in the far north of Beijing, including some that hosted events for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in November. Audiences will get the rare chance to see in theaters recent Oscar-nominated films never imported to China, including "Whiplash," "American Sniper," "Still Alice" and "Ida."

Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

julie.makinen@latimes.com

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