Postcard: Melbourne

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 6:47pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 6:47pm

Sichuan-born, Hong Kong- and Beijing-based filmmaker Emily Tang Xiaobai was so thrilled that her third feature was showing on the big screen at one of Australia's quirkiest film festivals that she and lead actress Yang Shuting arranged their own travel to the Melbourne opening-night screening.

All Apologies also screened at the Sydney and Brisbane legs of the 2014 Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival, which began in Melbourne on January 31 and came to a close in Brisbane yesterday. The Jury Prize winner at last year's Hong Kong International Film Festival also previously screened in Tokyo and at the San Sebastian International Film Festival.

In general, however, the director has struggled to get screenings of her powerful drama, particularly on the mainland. But that is not because of its controversial subject matter: the impact of the one-child policy if the family loses its only child.

"It is going to be screened in 2014, we have the licence, but it is not commercial, so [it] will have a very small [number of screens]," Tang said. "Because of the Chinese climate getting more commercial, it is becoming more and more difficult to be an independent filmmaker. We have been trying to get a screening [slot], but have had to wait for a long time."

All Apologies was one of 14 feature films and eight shorts eligible for the festival awards. All are from emerging directors - any filmmaker who has made more than three films is not eligible - with festival executive president Ray Z. Shen aiming for a programme of 10, but reluctant to turn down any director who approaches him.

Unusually, not all those films were screened at the fest this year. Some of those omitted were not of a suitable format or resolution for the big screen or were adults-only, but mostly their exclusion was down to a lack of sponsors, said Shen.

Melbourne, where the city council is a long-time partner, had 10 screenings at the downtown Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Brisbane, also with city council support, saw six movies screened at a multiplex over the course of six days. But in Sydney, where sponsors were in short supply, most films - three features and five shorts - screened on the same day in an outdoor venue in North Rocks.

Shen, who studied film and television in Australia and was concerned about the lack of exposure for Chinese films, began Golden Koala, previously a mainland-only festival, in 2011. This year, however, the Golden Koala featured films from Hong Kong (including Cold War and A Complicated Story) and Taiwan as well as the mainland, and its sponsors included the Hong Kong Trade and Economic Office.

This time around and in 2013, admissions to the screenings, except the awards night held in Sydney, were free. "I want local people to come. I think people will not come if they are not free," Shen said. Still the screenings were rarely full - possibly because Australia's state capitals have year-round film festivals, but more likely because of the lack of publicity.

Everything, from the website to the programme, is done by volunteers, but the reach is small and the standard of translation in both leaves a lot to be desired. For his part, Shen works full-time on the Golden Koala, arranging sponsors, jury, an advisory committee to help with film choice, guests - this year actor Guo Tao and director Xie Fei were brought by sponsor Air China - and the screenings.

Shen has managed to attract some prominent names to the Golden Koala. Heading this year's jury was Australian Directors Guild president Ray Argall. Other jury members included: award-winning advertising and music video director Kimble Rendall, whose 3-D film, Bait, was the most commercially successful Australian film of 2012; filmmaker Samantha Lang, whose 1997 feature debut, The Well, was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes; and Tony Davidson, the Australian Directors Guild's New South Wales chapter head.

In good news for Tang, the Golden Koala jury favoured All Apologies: it took the awards for best film, best director and best actress. Mainland director Li Ruijun's Fly with the Crane came away with the other major festival honours. The touching drama, which stars Ma Xingchun as an old man who fears for his soul because the government is no longer allowing traditional burials, won the jury and the best actor prizes.