China’s movie industry and its burgeoning box office are often making headlines, yet very little attention is given to short films, many of which are made by the country’s next generation of young filmmakers.
Distribution for these short films is difficult in China and the chance for accolades is rare. One recent exception is Hu Wei’s Chinese-French drama Butter Lamp, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 2015 as well as numerous other awards.
Nevertheless, thinking of awards is futile when a Chinese short film has little possibility of being screened for a cinema audience and has limited opportunities to appear at a domestic film festival. The Chinese government also regulates social video websites that broadcast short films without state permission.
One avenue that is being utilised more is the international film festival circuit thanks to the increased interest in Chinese cinema and offering audiences the chance to see China through the eyes of its native filmmakers, thereby breaking down stereotypes and prejudices.
Finland’s Tampere Film Festival is one such outlet and has featured a program of Chinese short films, documentaries and animation for the past couple of years. The short film festival is one of the oldest and most respected in northern Europe, plus it is a possible road for Academy Award consideration.
Ten Chinese submissions were screened in the Chinema programme at the 2016 Tampere Film Festival and some of the people involved in their production attended the festival. One of the directors in attendance was Leo Ling, 26, from Shanghai, who spoke to gbtimes about the challenges of making short films in China.
Leo Ling said that it had taken more than a year to make Spring in South City, before expressing his excitement at watching it for the first time on a cinema screen. He added that he had been very confident about the reception of film, since they had used professional equipment during production.
Tackling themes of family, redemption and dignity, Spring in South City tells the fictional story of a divorced urban management officer who has problems at work, struggles to raise his young son alone and has little self-respect.
Speaking about the poor reputation of urban management officers in China, Leo Ling admitted that the theme of his film was “a bit dangerous because it can be restricted”. However, he states that if you are afraid of difficulties then you won’t achieve anything.
“For Chinese filmmakers, they have to consider some issues…” says Leo Ling diplomatically of China’s tight censorship laws. “They might avoid something they really want to say and they will get back to it later, maybe in editing. It is a very long process.”
Long before Chinese filmmakers negotiate those tight censorship regulations, they have to tackle the far greater challenge of successfully financing the production. Finding a budget is not easy in China due to a lack of sponsors and no government subsidies meaning most short films are self-funded.
Yang Bin, 26, producer of the short film A Homeless Man screened at last year’s Tampere Film festival, told gbtimes that he blames the current environment. “China is not short of creative, capable and ambitious filmmakers, but the industry just isn’t as mature as in Western countries such as the US,” he observes.
A Homeless Man, directed by Chen Kai, was made among the snow-covered landscapes of Mohe on the border of NE China and Russia, 1,800 kilometres from Beijing and the production team’s base. With a budget of 50,000 yuan (US$7,200), this presented some serious budget problems, recalls Yang Bin.
“The cost of food, housing and transportation for 20 people was 40,000 yuan (US$5,800)–80 percent of our budget,” explains Yang Bin, adding that the shoot was only two-and-a-half days. “It was a very difficult process.”
Despite the difficulties, Yang Bin felt honoured to have been part of A Homeless Man and was proud to see his film go beyond China’s border and be screened at an international festival. “I hope that people from different countries and cultures can understand my film from a different perspective,” he concluded.