Chinese filmmakers help next-gen features get Berlin Film Festival premieres

Yang Mingming, Lhapal Gyal and Hu Bo will have films showing at the Berlinale thanks to support from established Chinese directors who served as producers for their projects

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 February, 2018, 1:03pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 February, 2018, 1:13pm

Feature films by three young Chinese filmmakers – Yang Mingming, Lhapal Gyal and Hu Bo – will receive their premieres at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. All have been produced by established Chinese filmmakers.

Their inclusion in an A-list festival such as the Berlinale, the 67th edition of which begins today, shows such auteurs now want to be known as practical producers – something at which some have had more success than others.

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The 31-year-old Yang’s Girls Always Happy, for instance, is the first feature film for which veteran director Yang Chao has served as an executive producer. His only previous credit as a producer was for Yang Mingming’s first short film, Female Directors, in 2012.

Set in a house in one of Beijing’s rickety hutongs, Yang’s work revolves around the fractious relationship between a frustrated young writer and her equally literary-minded mother. The film is being shown in the Berlin festival’s Panorama section.

Yang Chao’s effortshave found favour at the festival before; it selected his previous film, Crosscurrents, for its official competition in 2015.

Lhapal Gyal has worked as an assistant to director Pema Tseden; the duo reunited for Wangdrak’s Rain Boots, the 28-year-old’s first feature film.

A graduate of the Northwest University for Nationalities in Lanzhou, in China’s northwestern Gansu province, and of the Beijing Film Academy, Lhapal Gyal completed a few short films before signing up as assistant director on Pema Tseden’s 2015 film Tharlo.

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Their partnership started at a time when the veteran Tibetan filmmakerhad begun using his clout to help young directors get their films made. With its premiere in the Berlin festival’s youth-oriented Generation section, Wangdrak’s Rain Boots follows in the footsteps of other Pema Tseden-produced titles that have made it on to the film festival circuit.

They include Sonthar Gyal’s River (a Berlin Generation title in 2015), Wang Xuebo’s Knife in the Clear Water (a prizewinner at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea in 2016) and Zhou Dalei’s The Summer Is Gone (the recipient of the prize for best film at the Golden Horse Awards in Taipei in 2016).

While films such as Girls Always Happy and Wangdrak’s Rain Boots are evidence of fruitful collaborations between experienced filmmakers-turned-producers and their young protégés, such partnerships do not always work out so well. The film An Elephant Sitting Still offers a stark reminder of how such collaborative efforts can go horribly awry.

The film’s 29-year-old director, novelist Hu Bo, did not live to see his film’s premiere in Berlin: he killed himself last October amid reports of ceaseless conflicts between him and his producer Wang Xiaoshuai.

The story of this production begins in July 2016, when Hu took his screenplay – then called Golden Fleece –which revolves around three troubled young people and a pensioner struggling with their inner demons in a small town, to a financing forum at the FIRST Film Festival in Xining, Qinghai province, in northwest China.

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The project caught the attention of producer Liu Xuan, who in turn recommended it to her husband, Wang, with whom she co-founded and managed the indie outfit Dongchun Films.

Hu and Wang subsequently signed an agreement, but after the now renamed film had been completed, Hu committed suicide.

He didn’t leave a will and nobody was exactly sure what made him kill himself. However, his friends told Chinese movie portals about the struggles he had maintaining control of his own films and earning enough money to live.

According to reports, Hu’s relationship with Wang and Liu began to disintegrate when Hu ignored his producers’ request to trim his 230-minute cut of the film down to two hours, and was faced with having to give up his directorial credit because of this.

In a July entry on his Weibo page, Hu described filmmaking as “humiliation, despair and powerlessness”; in September, he wrote of having not received a cent for his work on his own film.

After Hu’s death, a screenshot of a WeChat conversation said to have been between the young director and Wang found its way into social media. In it, Wang trashed Hu’s work, suggested the young director should see a doctor for his “mess”, and said he would willingly withdraw from the project if Hu could find another financier to release the four-hour cut.

Wang and Liu have declined to comment further on the issue. While Dongchun Films is still credited as the film’s producer on the website of the Berlin Film Festival, the official press kit no longer mentions the company or the participation of Wang and Liu.

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The production of An Elephant Sitting Still serves as a cautionary tale about the challenges for mentors and protégés alike.