When Southern Afternoon, a short film directed by Chinese filmmaker Lan Tian, won the Sonje Award at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea on October 14, many thought China’s short film industry had already ended the year on a good note.
And then, three days later, another Chinese short film, I Have No Legs, And I Must Run by Li Yue, won the Short Film Award at the London Film Festival.
It seems that short films from China are rushing for their crowning of late. Awards for Lan and Li’s work follow several others who have made their mark.
The highlight came earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, where three Chinese short films won awards.
The Water Murmurs, directed by Chen Jianying, won the Short Film Palme d’Or – the festival’s highest award for short films. Huang Shuli’s Will You Look At Me received the first Queer Palm – awarded for brilliance in LGBT+ relevant films – after China. Li Jiahe’s Somewhere won second prize in La Cinef, a category for short films from film schools around the world.
Meanwhile, three short films by mainland Chinese directors will compete in Taiwan’s upcoming Golden Horse Awards — despite Beijing’s continued boycott of the event.
The remarkable success of short films by Chinese filmmakers stands in stark contrast to the subdued state of the country’s feature film production, which appears to be having a particularly quiet time on the international stage.
“The achievements of Chinese short films over these years are indeed remarkable,” Vivi Fan, a professor at the Communication University of China — a Beijing-based institution that focuses on education in broadcasting and communications — told the Post.
“Through short films, young Chinese filmmakers are showing world audiences and critics the new flame of Chinese cinema.”
According to Fan, who is also an adviser to the Busan International Film Festival, the strength of Chinese short filmmaking lies in the freedom young directors have to express themselves.
“[Short film production] is not restricted by investors, in terms of [films’] length, genre, audience and ideology. So we can see that our young creators are very strong at expressing what they think.”
Lei Shan, a film professor in Beijing and an advisor to the Cannes Film Festival, points out that the large number of film students in China is an advantage at the festivals.
“The number of film students in China is very large. [The film schools] would analyze the characteristics of a festival in detail and then create short films that fit the festival’s attributes and tastes,” says Lei.
Besides the numerical advantage, Lei believes the quality of China’s new generation of filmmakers is also improving.
“If the market enters the film industry, it can lead to an ‘industrialization’ of these young people’s filmmaking. He gives them access to a professional team and some very good, quality actors in the creative group.”
Southern Afternoon director Lan says young Chinese filmmakers are passionate about making short films. “From my point of view, a lot of people are flocking to short films with a lot of passion, which is very moving.”
Lan’s work previously won the Best Short Film award at China’s First International Film Festival – which focuses on nurturing young film talent in China – where it had to compete with other strong entries such as Li’s I Have No Legs, And I Must Run.
Song Wen, co-founder of the First Festival, believes that the style of young Chinese filmmakers is evolving. “No more boasting. These works overall focus more on humanistic temperament. More importantly, most of them focus on social issues, family relationships, and people’s problems.”
“A lot of people in the younger generation, like us, see ourselves as ‘a missionary,'” Lan adds.
Although short films from China are enjoying their moment in the sun, the shadow casting over the country’s feature films has not lifted.
The tightening of censorship is an important factor. “The number of feature films entering the international stage has declined sharply,” said He Xuan, a Chinese film producer.
“It’s getting harder and harder to get a ‘dragon mark,'” he continues, referring to the public screening license required for films to enter international festivals, “and the overall rating time [for the films to be vetted by officials] is getting longer. Details are also missing in the comments on revisions.”
Another important factor is the decline in commercial filmmaking under China’s strict “dynamic zero” Covid-19 policy. “From a national perspective, the environment for the industry during the pandemic is far from ideal. This has led to many young director teams going into hibernation for up to three years,” says Lei.
When the pandemic environment finally eases, the young directors behind these critically acclaimed short films of recent years may well represent the future of Chinese feature filmmaking.
Wei Shujun is one of the young filmmakers who turned to making feature films. After his short film On the Border was awarded at Cannes in 2018, Wei’s first two feature films Striding into the Wind (2020) and Ripples of Life (2021) were both selected by Cannes.
During his interview with the Post, Lan also says he plans to expand his short Southern Afternoon into a feature-length film. It is one of two feature films he is currently developing.
However, Shi Chuan, vice chairman of the Shanghai Film Association, believes that many of these young filmmakers still have a long way to go to establish themselves as feature film directors.
“When they enter the workplace, they first have to face market acceptance, so it’s very different from making short films. Critics mainly look at the creativity and personal style of short films; those are the elements that can win awards, but they may not be the most commercially viable,” he says.
Lei points out that the pace and scale of feature film production are very different from those of short films. “We still need venture capital and the film festivals to give creators the opportunity to gradually make their short films into feature films.”
Compared to the heyday of Chinese cinema at the international film festivals some 20 years ago, the rapid development of commercial filmmaking in China has seen an unmistakable departure from the industry’s worship of the festivals.
“From a practical point of view, most Chinese films these days take commercial value into account [first] and sacrifice some personal style and artistry,” says Shi.
“Therefore, international film festivals alone cannot judge whether Chinese films are no longer as good as they used to be. The environment today is different than it was then, and film development strategies are changing.”
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This article was first published in the South China Morning Post.