April 28, 2011 – 5:35 am

As independent film festivals are exponentially growing across China, it’s an exciting time to see how audiences are being built. Philip Cheah travelled to Chongqing last year for their 4th Independent Film & Video Festival, and found a second-hand music store selling mint US vinyl pressings of John Coltrane’s Cosmic Music. You can never know the extent of culture in deepest China.

Who wouldn’t want to go to Chongqing? Name-checked in Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express and Wang Xiaoshuai’s Chongqing Blues, this is China’s emerging city. With a gargantuan population of over 30 million people, this is one of four centrally controlled municipalities (after Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin) and the only one located in Western China. Earmarked for rapid development (you have to remember that Chongqing was the first inland commercial port open to foreign trade in the 19th Century), the city ironically, has been holding a low-budget independent festival for the last four years.

The 4th Chongqing Independent Film & Video Festival (Nov 14-20, 2010) has a programme of 20 features and 60 shorts and due to its low budget, you can literally count the number of foreign guests in attendance. It was a grand total of just four people. To save money, the venues are located within the Chongqing University’s Film Library and Acting Academy.

But disadvantages can always be a matter of perception if you can see your half-empty cup, half-full. For example, many Chinese directors were in attendance. One principal intention of the festival is to engage the audience with the filmmakers and as the selection is 90 per cent from China, it’s simpler for them to travel to Chongqing.

For the first time, the festival became competitive through the introduction of the NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) Award. This is the first festival in China to host the award and also the first festival in the world to also give a NETPAC award to a short film. For features, the award was given to Fortune Teller by Xu Tong. His second documentary after his award-winning Wheat Harvest (2009), Fortune Teller is a gripping tale of a generation of low-wage earners who eke out a living telling fortunes. Traditionally, they were physically-handicapped in some way. Ironically, it is also the low-income earners who need this service.

Xu Tong shows two - a brothel owner, raped at an early age, and a man, who is wondering about his disintegrating marriage. Even the fortune teller himself is desperate. Being philosophical about karma, he marries a retarded woman out of compassion but many years on, the strain of looking after her has worn him down. Is fortune telling believable? That’s just one of the questions the film poses. In its reflection on poverty and the history of this underclass, the film suggests that some people need to know more of their future than others. Especially if you haven’t got much… of a future, that is.

The NETPAC award for a short film went to Taiwanese director Huang Yali’s The Unnamed, a subtly beautiful evocation of painting, where each frame is carefully lit and sensitively composed.

As independent film festivals are exponentially growing across China, it’s an exciting time to see how audiences are being built. Many of these films have been seen in Beijing in the 7th Chinese Documentary Film Festival in April, but the fact that they are traveling now to other Chinese cities is an encouraging sign that the independent sector plans to entrench itself.

Furthermore, each independent film festival leans in a different direction. Films not in competition in one may be in competition in another, as the festivals try to recognize the worthy ones that escaped attention. For example, Wang Wo’s Zhe Teng, out of competition in Beijing, is in competition in Chongqing. Basically a two-hour collage of TV and internet news reports during the year 2008, Zhe Teng is an alternately caustic and hilarious look at bureaucratic hypocrisy during the Olympics, earthquakes and other disasters. What’s more, they are all caught on camera and televised.

Was the whole world watching? Who knows? But you can now.

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