It was always going to be a difficult year for the Shanghai International Film Festival (Siff). The festival is striving to re-invent itself but China has recently suffered a series of calamities, both man-made and natural, that inevitably cast a shadow over this year's event.
Chief among these was the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan province, which claimed the lives of 70,000 people, making any kind of glamour or celebration during Siff seem inappropriate. Both the opening and closing ceremonies were toned down, and in contrast to previous editions, where stars such as Hugh Jackman and Sharon Stone appeared, no foreign talent graced the red carpet.
There were also some poignant moments when the festival honoured the late Anthony Minghella, a highly respected figure in China, who had been appointed jury president before he passed away in March. He was replaced by an equally esteemed film-maker, Shanghai-born Wong Kar Wai, heading a seven-strong international jury that also included Bille August and Joan Chen.
Despite the sombre mood, the Siff organising committee made good on its promise to make the event more of an industry platform and a forum to nurture new Chinese film-making talent.
A platform for new film-makers
'Encouraging new film-makers from China and the rest of Asia, is one of our major aims, which we hope to achieve through three programmes - the Asian New Talent Award, China Film Pitch & Catch and the International Student Shorts Award,' says festival director Tang Lijune.
The second edition of projects market China Film Pitch & Catch (Cfpc) was a spirited event that demonstrated the enthusiasm of the country's young film-makers. A total of 40 projects were presented by a mix of newcomers, established directors such as Wang Chao and Zhu Wen, and a smattering of overseas film-makers. Several projects secured financing at the event, including Ju Anqi's $5.8m Peking Duck, which will be fully financed by Beijing-based Asian Union Film.
The seminar programme, Siff Forum, also showed big improvements. In contrast to past years, where government officials dominated the podium, the panels featured local and international industry figures discussing topics such as talent management, co-production and capital investment.
China Film chairman Han Sanping talked up growth in the Chinese film market and its huge potential to venture capitalists and other investors. 'Now that market forces have been introduced, the capital markets need to play a greater role,' Han said. Film Bureau deputy director Jiang Ping reiterated that China is open for co-productions.
However, the elephant in the room was China's censorship climate, which is making it tricky to do business with the country. Local film censors were already on high alert at the beginning of China's Olympic year, but following riots in Tibet and the controversial torch relay, the country is more sensitive than ever about its international image. It is understood there has been a significant slowdown in the approval process for both local and co-production projects, although this was only briefly touched on at the festival.
'Some people are concerned that the policy was tightened in 2008, but that's a misunderstanding,' Jiang said, but despite his assurances, most delegates came away believing it is probably wise to wait for the Olympics to finish before attempting anything ambitious in China.
Meanwhile, the second edition of Siff's film market had grown in size but featured mostly local companies and was deathly quiet. Taking place so soon after Cannes, Siff has much more value in educating guests about the China market, and in its much-needed projects market.
After all, China is brimming with talent, but badly needs a platform for film-makers to connect with producers, investors and ultimately the box office. Only when they are able to do that, will the authorities feel more comfortable about widening the quotas for foreign films.
European films regularly win prizes in Siff's main competition section, the Jin Jue Awards. This year, Russian drama Mukha took best film and a special mention for its actress Alexandra Tyuftey. But in general, the festival is not renowned for the quality of its international programming. Nor does it present a comprehensive overview of Chinese film-making year on year.
Indeed, Siff's line-up is often criticised as not being strong enough to justify its Fiapf accreditation. Fiapf responds the rating is based on the fact Siff is a competitive festival and is not meant to imply a ranking.
In fairness, the festival has many obstacles to overcome. It aims for a high level of world premieres in the Jin Jue and Asian New Talent sections, but does not have much to choose from at the end of the spring festival season. Selected films also have to go through a two-step censorship process - first with Shanghai city censors and then the Film Bureau in Beijing - which makes it difficult to present the latest films.
'Ideally, we plan to showcase 30% blockbusters, 40% arthouse films and 30% debut films from new film-makers. We are still half way to the ideal,' says one programmer.
However, the festival sometimes proves useful as a launchpad for foreign films into the China market - this year it held the premiere of Kung Fu Panda which went on to gross an impressive $5.5m on its opening weekend.
Winds Of September (pictured), directed by Taiwan's Lin Shu-yu, was one of the most talked about titles due to its simple, lyrical storytelling and the strong performance of its young cast. The film won the top prize in the Asian New Talent competition. Other interesting Chinese films to emerge included Gao Qunshu's competition entry Old Fish, about a police officer's fight against a serial bomber; Wang Jing's End Of The Year, a humorous tale about China's lower-classes dealing with Chinese New Year peak traffic, and Zhang Meng's Lucky Dog; about a retired railway worker whose luck appears to have run out.