Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The change within

Feb 18. 2019
Chinese actors Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei pose with their Silver Bears for Best Actors in the film “Di Jiu Tian Chang?” (“So Long, My Son”) at the 69th Berlinale film festival./AFP Photo
Chinese actors Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei pose with their Silver Bears for Best Actors in the film “Di Jiu Tian Chang?” (“So Long, My Son”) at the 69th Berlinale film festival./AFP Photo
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True-to-life tales resonate with judge and audiences at this year's Berlin International Film Festival

For almost 70 years, the Berlin International Film Festival has been one of the best platforms for world and Asian cinema. And this year was no exception. Its 69th edition wrapped at the weekend with a major triumph for director Nadav Lapid whose film “Synonyms” became the first Israeli movie to win the prestigious Golden Bear. 

The Franco-Israeli co-production is the third feature film directed by Lapid, who was praised as the rising star of Israeli cinema for his 2014 film “The Kindergarten Teacher”, which premiered at the Critic’s Week in Cannes and was later remade in an American version. This year was also the first time Lapid had been invited to screen his film in Berlin, with “Synonyms” taking home not only praise from film critics, but also one of the biggest awards in cinema.

“‘Synonyms’ might be a scandal in Israel and even in France, but for me the film is a big celebration of cinema,” Lapid said in his acceptance speech.

In the film, which is set in Paris, Lapid instils his own experiences, feelings and anger in his main character Yoav, a man who escapes from Israel to Paris and finds his way to an empty apartment and has his clothes stolen while he is taking a shower. Despite being saved by a young couple, Yoav struggles in the foreign city, and tries to get rid of his identity by speaking only French. But all too often, his Israeli persona comes back to haunt him in a Europe where migrants are not always warmly welcomed.

Francois Ozon’s latest film “By The Grace of God”, in which the main character decides to confront the priest who sexually abused him when he was a boy, won Grand Jury Prize, while German filmmaker Angela Schanelac won the Silver Bear for Best Director for her latest film “I Was a Home, But...”.

Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai /AFP Photo

Chinese cinema also enjoyed another big year at the Berlinale, with Wang Xiaoshuai’s latest outing “So Long, My Son” winning both the Silver Bear for Best Actor and Silver Bear for Best Actress.

“Five years ago, I was down there in the audience. Today I am standing right here,” actor Wang Jingchun noted during his acceptance speech for the Silver Bear. A familiar face in Chinese cinema, he has starred in many successful films including “Black Coal, Thin Ice”, which won the Golden Bear in 2014. 

“I had no idea that I would win this award,” added an emotional Yong Mei, who was in Berlin for the first time.

“I’d like to thank Berlin International Film Festival, |and the cast and crew of ‘So Long, My Son’.”

Wang Xiaoshuai has long regarded Berlin as the place where he started his career. His first feature film “The Days” was screened in the festival’s Forum section back in 1994. He has won a top prize twice: the Grand Jury Prize in 2001 for “Beijing Bicycle” and the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay for 2007’s “In Love We Trust”.

“People who grew up in China will see the changes very clearly in ‘So Long, My Son’. I don’t know if it is lucky or unlucky to go through that. As a creative artist, I am able to take that huge span of time and put a subjective angle on it. I guess the most extensive change is that people don’t recognise the place they use to live in,” he said. 

Yong Mei and Wang Jingchun in a scene from the movie “So Long, My Son”.

“So Long, My Son”, which takes place over 30 years, starts with the death of Xing Xing, the only son of Yaojun and Liyun, then explores the lives of the couple before and after the loss of their only son in an period when Chinese citizens were allowed to have only one child or face persecution and even forced abortion.

Liyun is a victim of the One-Child Policy and was forced to have an abortion when the family planning department of her factory found out that she was expecting a second child. The abortion leaves her sterile and she and her husband are traumatised when they discover that the person who forced her to do abort caused the death of Xing Xing.

“During the cultural revolution, we had a saying, ‘Look forward and don’t think about the past’. At the time it was all about forgetting the economy and caring about ideology. An improved economy has changed all that. But even if we look back at the whole process, we still need to keep looking ahead and take lessons from the past to avoid certain mistakes,” Wang Xiaoshuai added.

“Our generation and our parents’ generation were really at the forefront of that change and they have experienced both the old society and new society. It gave me an opportunity as a director to try and show everything the Chinese have experienced. There are lots of people who want to go back to Chairman Mao’s era, which is fine, but society does need to develop. There are lots of problems in China, which you have to deal with during the process of development, but we also need a film to tell us the story of the past to avoid the mistakes of the future,” the director added.

Although the film touches on the dark history of China, it also allows a glimpse of how people can and do go on with their lives after traumatic events, of how they deal with guilt and let go of a grudge. 

“The special policy that changed us is unavoidable because that was what we lived through, but what I am more interested in as an artist is people’s flexibility and their ability to love. My parents and grandparents underwent so many changes but they are still very brave and optimistic in the way they approach life and how they have tried to achieve the best out of life. I hope that message has come out from my film.”

But while “So Long, My Son” and “Ondog”, the Mongolian film by Chinese filmmaker Wang Quan-An both enjoyed successful screenings in Berlin, Zhang Yimou’s latest film “One Second” was mysteriously withdrawn from the festival’s competition line-up. Rumours indicated that this might have something to do with the strict censorship in China.

“It was very unexpected. I was getting off the plane when I heard the news and I was quite shocked. It was very tough process for any filmmaker so I feel a great deal of sympathy for Zhang Yimou. His first film came to Berlin and we’ve all been influenced by him. I was really looking forward to showing my film alongside his. I don’t know what happened but I am very sorry about it,” Wang Xiaoshuai continued, adding that young filmmaker Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang’s “Better Days”, which was expected to screen in the Generation section, was also pulled.

The 69th edition of Berlin International Film Festival marked the last edition for Dieter Kosslick, the festival director who has been in this position since 2002 and who received a standing ovation during the closing ceremony.

For the 70th edition of the festival, Carlo Chatrian of the Locarno Film Festival will move to Berlin as artistic director, while Mariette Rissenbeek, managing director of German Films has been appointed as executive director of the Berlin International Film Festival.


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