Why Ann Hui’s Hong Kong war film lost its opening slot at Shanghai festival

Politics trumps art as Hui’s Our Time Will Come is trumped by another film set in wartime China made by a director from Denmark, which China is wooing to support its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 June, 2017, 12:48pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 June, 2017, 12:48pm

It’s rare for a well-organised film festival to replace its opening film a week before it begins. But the Shanghai International Film Festival did just that, when it bumped up Bille August’s The Chinese Widow from a mere competition entry to curtain-raiser – despite having unveiled Hong Kong director Ann Hui On-wah’s Our Time Will Come as its opening film in a high-profile press launch at Cannes last month.

The festival, which opens on June 17, offered no explanation for the change, and media in China have kept silent about this latest twist. In fact, even official media outlets like the Beijing Youth Daily were caught unawares, with the Communist Youth League-backed newspaper running a celebratory piece about Our Time Will Come’s standing as the Shanghai festival’s curtain-raiser just two days before it was stripped of the honour.

Hui’s film revolves around a Hong Kong woman’s selfless work for the city’s anti-Japanese resistance fighters during the second world war, and remains in the running for the festival’s Golden Goblet prize. So the problem is not Our Time Will Come’s lack of poltical correctness; it’s just that The Chinese Widow seems to be an even better fit for China’s national narrative right now. August’s film reads like Our Time Will Come writ large: set in a coastal village in Zhejiang province during the second world war, The Chinese Widow portrays the wartime romance between a brave young local woman and the US fighter pilot she manages to hide and save from the Japanese occupiers.

In pictures: Ann Hui, officially the most celebrated director in Hong Kong film history, turns 70

The story itself already ticks all the right ideological boxes, and the film boasts of an international cast and crew: August, a Dane, is an Oscar winner and two-time recipient of the Cannes film festival’s top honour, the Palme d’Or, and his cast includes the US actor Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild), China’s Crystal Liu Yifei (The Forbidden Kingdom, Outcast) and the Shanghai-born Vivian Wu (The Joy Luck Club, The Soong Sisters).

More importantly, The Chinese Widow is the first film completed after the signing on May 3 of a film co-production treaty between China and Denmark during Danish premier Lars Lokke Rasmussen’s visit to Beijing. Just over a fortnight later, August delivered a speech to diplomats, entrepreneurs and guests at a very exclusive screening of The Chinese Widow in the Danish capital – a sign, perhaps, of the importance of the film beyond its remit as a cultural or business product.

The Chinese Widow’s rise to prominence could also be seen as part of Beijing’s push for its ambitious, transcontinental “Belt and Road” investment initiative.

In his meeting with Rasmussen, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke about how China and Denmark could “actively explore” co-operation within the investment framework, which Denmark - like its Nordic neighbours - is not a part of. Denmark is, though, a member of the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which finances “Belt and Road” projects.

The Danish director is not the first international superstar to have played an inadvertent part in boosting the “Belt and Road” initiative, and is unlikely to be the last.

The Bollywood actor-producer Aamir Khan, for example, has seen his stock in China rise stratospherically with the success of Dangal. The film, which revolves around a retired wrestler’s near-fanatical attempts to prepare his daughters to take over his mantle, outperformed Guardians of the Galaxy 2 during its extraordinary run in Chinese cinemas, generating earnings of 1.24 billion yuan, a box office record for Indian films in China.

The key to Dangal’s success lies with the authorities: whereas in the past imported films were mostly only allowed a one-month run in Chinese cinemas, the Indian family drama is still screening nearly six weeks after it opened on May 5, and is filling nearly 10 per cent of screening slots nationwide.

The ultimate official endorsement of Dangal came last week when Xi reportedly said he enjoyed the film during a conversation with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in the Kazakh capital, Astana.

It’s perhaps telling that India joined the international security and economic grouping at the event; Xi’s praise of Dangal could be interpreted as his backing of Bollywood as a whole, and of India’s trade relations with China in general.

If Khan comes across as an unlikely cheerleader for the “Belt and Road Initiative”, the thought of Mike Tyson and Steven Seagal playing a part in this geopolitical game must seem downright bizarre. Yet their latest action thriller, The China Salesman by screenwriter-director Tan Bing, is more than just entertainment. The film, which opens today, chimes with the investment scheme’s emphasis on China’s economic links with East Africa – railways funded and built by China have opened in Ethiopia and Kenya in the past year – and has plenty of lines designed to articulate Beijing’s world view.

In a trailer for the film, its Chinese protagonist resorts to history to try to win a heated argument: when the Ming dynasty admiral Zheng He reached Africa seven centuries ago, “no single person was made a slave”, he says. The intent of the film’s backers, among them the state-run China Film Company, to promote the “Belt and Road Initiative” couldn’t be more obvious.

As a well-known cinephile, the Chinese president would certainly approve.