Boasting a centrally located Chinatown and a prominent Chinese presence throughout, the Dutch port city of Rotterdam has never offered too stern a test for people seeking a helping of Chinese culture. But even seasoned local sinophiles would have been surprised by what was on offer recently at De Doelen, the city's main central cultural centre. For nine days, visitors seated on rattan seats and mats could consume Chinese tea and an assortment of dim sum while watching martial arts, musical and theatrical performances unfold before them.
This is 'Tiger Water Inn', an installation which forms part of a programme of the same name dedicated to Chinese wuxia films at the 40th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, which ran from January 26 to February 6. The brainchild of one of the festival's programmers, the Taiwan-born but now Paris-based Chinlin Hsieh, the venue allows visitors to venture physically into one of the most visible locales in martial arts films - the tavern - and experience the many art forms which contribute to wuxia (the genre of chivalric martial arts). The five Taiwanese performers she recruited were experts in Peking opera, pingshu (storytelling), nanguan music, puppetry and martial arts.
Hsieh says this expanded segment of the 20-film programme - which ranges from silent fare of the 1920s and 30s to recent releases such as Ip Man and Reign of Assassins, via works by King Hu (the seminal Dragon Gate Inn and the three-hour director's cut of Legends from the Mountain) and Chang Cheh (Golden Swallow) - was designed to add another dimension to the exploration and discussion of what she deems as 'probably the most representative genre in Asian cinema'.
'Through this installation, I hope people will realise that wuxia has existed throughout the history of Chinese artistic and literary traditions, well before the invention of cinema,' she says.
The Tiger Water Inn programme is itself representative of the Rotterdam festival's dedication to the development of Chinese cinema. Founded in 1972 by Hubert Bals, a larger-than-life cinephile and film-industry mover well known for his enthusiasm for 'the masters of cinema' emerging from outside the Western hemisphere, the Rotterdam festival has provided the springboard for unsung filmmakers from Asia and Latin America through its long-held mission of showcasing work from outside the Euro-American mainstream. Specifically, it has also served as the platform for Chinese independent filmmakers who have found it difficult to get their voices heard at home. Among those who won the festival's Tiger Awards are He Jianjun (The Postman, 1995), Zhang Yuan (Sons, 1996), Lou Ye (Suzhou River, 2000) and Han Jie (Walk of the Wild Side, 2006).
According to the festival's director, Rutger Wolfson, the long-running relationship between the Rotterdam festival and Chinese independent filmmakers was intensified by the festival's 23-year-old Hubert Bals Fund (named for the festival's late founder), which accords grants of up to Euro30,000 (HK$317,000) for script development, post-production and distribution of projects from directors hailing from developing countries. 'We supported a lot of independent Chinese filmmakers, like Wang Bing,' says Wolfson, referring to the grant which facilitated Wang's completion of West of the Tracks, a three-part documentary about post-industrial decay on the mainland which propelled the director to international acclaim.
Despite the absence of Chinese entries in the Tiger Awards competition this year, the festival actively fostered discussion about Chinese cinema and China in this edition. In addition to the 'Water Tiger Inn' section, the festival played host to 'Raiding Africa', a programme in which the festival funded the visit of seven young African filmmakers to China. They spent weeks living in an artistic enclave outside Beijing and made short films in collaboration with Chinese technical crew and (non-professional) actors. This resulted in wildly varying end-products, ranging from documentaries chronicling the filmmakers' experiences to fictional tales about inter-cultural romance and the impact of Aids on everyday life.
Programmer Gertjan Zuilhof says the project is a continuation of the 'Forget Africa' series he curated last year, in which he travelled for months to the continent with a handful of young European directors seeking their local counterparts. 'Raiding Africa' stems from his first-hand observations about how the Chinese 'are taking over Africa'. 'All the time I was flying [between African cities], most of the people in the plane were Chinese,' he recalls. 'But when you are in a city like Nairobi or Dar es Salaam, you'd think, 'Where are the Chinese? They are not here.' You see them only in the airport. And then you realise they are in construction sites or gated communities or factories, and they don't have relationships with daily life there.' The programme also featured When China Met Africa, a documentary about the Chinese business presence in Zambia, whose British directors, Nick and Marc Francis, took part in a discussion on the festival's Raiding Africa Day on February 2.
Apart from his African programmes, Zuilhof has been responsible in the past decade for the programming of Southeast Asian films - an area in which the Rotterdam festival has thrived ever since the era of Simon Field, who presided over the festival from 1996 to 2004 and now is best known for his support of Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Indonesia's Garin Nugroho. Five films from the region have since won a Tiger Award. Malaysia's Tan Chui Mui and Liew Seng Tat triumphed in 2007 and 2008 with Love Conquers All and Flowers in the Pocket respectively, while Thailand's Aditya Assarat and Anocha Suwichakornpong also came out on top with Wonderful Town (2008) and Mundane History (2010). This year's three Tiger winners include Sivaroj Kongsakul's Eternity and the South Korean film The Journals of Musan, two of seven Asian films in the running for the prize.
'Rotterdam is a festival that pushes boundaries, which is what's great, because they explore these opportunities,' says Malaysian director Ho Yuhang, whose second film, Sanctuary, competed in Rotterdam and whose last film, At the End of Daybreak, received support from and featured at the festival. 'Southeast Asian films were not particularly active, they were more insular - films were made and consumed locally, and they didn't travel that much. And then this programmer [Zuilhof] started to come and see us, and they were curious about what the young generation are doing.
'And then it's word of mouth about how in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, there are these young people doing something. To be honest, a lot of our work in those days was very inferior in quality because of the technology. It was very raw. But they seem to like the direct aspect of our films.'
The Southeast Asian gang were back in Rotterdam in force this year. Anocha served on the short film jury and attended the screening of the portmanteau Breakfast Lunch Dinner, in which she directed one of the film's three segments (the other two helmed by the mainland's Wang Jing and Singapore's Kaz Cai). Tan returned to the festival for the premiere of her latest film Year Without A Summer, a Hubert Bal Funds project. And Ho unfurled two short films, Famous Last Words and No One Is Illegal - the latter the product of the festival's Cinema Reloaded project, in which members of the public were able to become a 'producer' by online contributions to the film's budget.
Ho says he wouldn't have made Illegal otherwise, given the short's sensitive content - a funny documentary in which the filmmaker probes the rationale behind an extremist Indonesian collective that advocates the annihilation of Malaysia. 'It's something I would not normally do,' he says. 'Financial constraints aside, people wouldn't encourage you to do something like that, something that political. Back home people don't usually touch on political things and, if it's sensitive, you'd get into trouble. But with this [Cinema Reloaded scheme], I could put myself in a more dangerous position and take risks.'