The 2nd New York Chinese Film Festival

Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, NY – The same site that hosted the opening of many leading film festivals, among other illustrious milestone events, also marked the opening of the 2nd New York Chinese Film Festival. Amidst the cheers of adoring fans, the likes of Chinese A-list actors such as Vivian Hsu, Leon Lai, Qin Hailu and Wang Baoqiang graced the red carpet and made their way onto the shallow stage. This year, the logos of the Chinese American Arts Council (CAAC),  Chinese Central Television Movie Channel 6 (CCTV-6), Tsingtao Beer and Mengniu Zhenguoli Fruit Milk Drink decorated the backdrop on which the celebrities added their signatures.

In the opening remarks, CCTV-6 vice-president Jia Qi described the festival as a showcase of representative works by famous filmmakers and a reflection of the past, present and rapid changes taking place in China. She mentioned how the American film “The Sound of Music” had moved her. She hopes the audiences will be similarly moved by Chinese movies in this festival, while at the same time, learn about the dreams, ideals and pursuits of the Chinese people. A representative from the Chinese Consulate recalled the 32 years of diplomatic relationship between the United States and China, and the important role the film industry plays to deepen “the friendship between our two peoples and for Americans to experience what Chinese peoples’ life really is.” Chinese American Arts Council chairman Alan Chow charmed the crowd with his charismatically delivered less-is-more-speech of thanks – “Thank you, everyone!” reminiscent of the previous year.

A sneak preview of the colors chosen for the festival presented itself among the celebrities at the ribbon cutting ceremony. While Vivian Hsu made the audiences swoon by introducing herself in halting English topped with a winsome smile, Director Gao Xiaosong expounded cryptically “every single thing I want to say is in the movie”. Co-hosts CCTV-6 television presenter Jiang Xiaohan and Feng Chen from the United Nations switched with considerable ease between English and Mandarin and held their grounds via minor hiccups.

The festival kicked off with The Sorcerer and the White Snake (director Ching Siu-tung, starring Jet Li and Eva Huang) – the timeless Chinese fable of love between two belonging in the separate realms of human and demon. Director Ching took the audience through a range of emotions with this blend of modern CGI techniques, classical story and fairy-tale elements. Rather like a lighter version of Pan’s Labyrinth with an Asian twist, the movie was enjoyable because of its universal themes and uncontrived peppering of special effects. Several characters were endearing, such as Brother Neng Ren played by Zhang Wen, who provided much comic relief with suggestions of a romance threatening to develop, in contrast to the full-fledged relationship between White Snake and her lover. A good choice of opening movie for a festival mildly self-conscious of its goal in promoting cultural exchanges.

After a showing of no less than 13 films in 5 days, the 2nd New York Chinese Film Festival held its award and closing ceremony at the historical Capitale ballroom right in the heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown. The cocktail reception was chock-a-block with a who’s who from the entertainment industry across continents. (Our crew spotted quite a few!)

Several awards were presented on the closing evening, including the New Asian Director award to Gao Xiaosong and Jiang Tao, Most Popular Asian Artist award to Wang Baoqiang and Han Geng, Most Outstanding Asian Director award to Tony Ching Siu-tung, and Most Outstanding Asian Artist award to Qin Hailu and Vivian Hsu. Veteran director Ching modestly remarked that such an award is still an encouragement to a long-time director such as himself. He went on to thank the festival for the platform it provides for Chinese filmmakers. Despite a few no-shows for promised interviews, the Asian Fusion team chatted with several personalities at the festival:

Ravishing in a figure-flattering silver toga dress, Vivian Hsu was as vivacious as her name suggests. 

Since your arrival for the festival, where else have you visited in New York so far? I saw Spiderman on Broadway. I ate fresh lobsters at Chelsea Market and Crepes at Soho. The lobsters were really fresh. They’re cooked on the spot and we just sat at a table to eat it. It was very casual. I liked it!

Broadly speaking, how are movie audiences different in China and in New York? I don’t think there are many differences. While an audience is watching a movie, they are appreciating different cultures and learning new things. I like this kind of cultural exchanging.

What are your favorite American movies?
I really like Kill Bill. In fact, I watch it repeatedly. Generally, action-movies are very male-oriented. But Kill Bill makes women look sexy and beautiful. I think there should be more of such movies. I want to act in such a movie.

Which American actors would you like to act alongside with?
Can I pick a comedy? I want to act with Ben Stiller. And Johnny Depp. I like happy films, and I like actors with range. Recipient of the Most Outstanding Asian Artist award Vivian Hsu will expand her acting range with three new movies lined up for 2012 – a comedy, a thriller and an action film.

Asian Fusion found a soft-spoken and straightforward lad behind Han Geng’s unassuming good looks.

Is this your first time visiting New York?
No, it’s my second time. The first time I visited was 1999. I was sixteen years old. I represented the Chinese Minority Youth for an event, as an ethnic minority of Hezhe descent.

Where have you visited in New York so far?
It’s the third day since I have arrived. The hotel is right in Times Square. I also went to Fifth Avenue, did some shopping and bought some clothes by the local designers.

As a performer, what roles would you like to play?
My first love is acting – though, by accident, I became a singer first.
My Kingdom is my first movie. I feel very honored to be included as a performer, and so did not think too far ahead in terms of what roles I would like to play. I think there is a lot for me to learn. I need more experiences and training.

What are your favorite American movies?
Red Violin, Mozart and Moulin Rouge.

Which American directors would you like to work with?
I hope to work with all of them. As a new performer, I hope to learn from all of them, and absorb all their experiences, so that I can be an outstanding performer. I hope to be an outstanding performer.

Han Geng is the only non-Korean member of the of popular Korean 13-member boy band – Super Junior. My Kingdom marks Han Geng’s debut film. He is also an ambassador of Mengniu Zhenguoli Fruit Milk Drink. With a shout out to all the struggling actors in NY, Wang Baoqiang is a story of rags to riches and an acting dream come true. Trained in martial arts, Wang worked as a film extra and took on odd jobs until a director spotted him.

You did not train as an actor. Do you think this has helped or hindered your career?
My first role was in the movie Blind Shaft. The director was looking for a non-actor because he wanted something very truthful. At that time, I was casted because I was only a film extra and did not have any training. The film went on to win a lot of awards, including a French film festival, and Best Newcomer in the Golden Horse Awards. In my next movie, there was also no need for much training. What was needed was truthfulness. So I would say, luck has helped my career. After that, I was offered more films. After acting in more films, I began to have some concepts of acting, some idea of a methodology. An actor has to have some of his own ideas; he cannot merely depend on the director. It should be a collaborative process.

What kinds of roles do you like to play?
I like characters with personality. For instance, the character I play in Hello, Mr Tree! This character does not have many lines, but in fact, conveys more with merely his body language. I find such characters more challenging to play. I want to express truthfulness in my works. I think the audiences are very sensitive. They can sense truthfulness. So when I prepare for a role, I enter into the world of the character. For example, I neither smoke nor drink, but in order to enter the world of Mr Tree, I have to smoke and drink. I am no longer Wang Baoqiang, but Mr Tree – or, whatever character I am playing. The actor has to believe in the character. In this way, there is no acting. It is truthful, and the audience will be captivated.

Would you say something to the hundreds of struggling actors in New York City?
I hope all of them will be able to realize their dreams via their hard work. Even if they are only playing a bit part or as an extra, they should always put in effort. One can never tell but a director might notice.

Wang Baoqiang is a popular Chinese actor, who has appeared in several blockbuster films and television series. His new film Hello, Mr Tree! plays at the 2nd New York Chinese Film Festival (9-13th November). Warm and candid, director Gao Xiaosong strikes one as a deep and serious thinker beneath his affectious sense of humor.

Congratulations on the New Asian Director award. How does it feel?
Feels good. But I’ve been in this line for over 20 yrs. I’ve received many prizes before. I’m not as excited about the award as I would have been when I was younger. When I was younger, it felt marvelous each time I received a prize. Now, getting awards just means that I’m still working. There’s still work for me. There’s no fixed retirement age for us. If you don’t receive any calls for a year or so, your agent might tell you it’s time to retire. Sometimes it may be at 29, sometimes 59. So, now that I have an award, it probably means that I’ll have still have a job next year.

You were awarded New Asian Director (the title of this award connotes “new and cutting-edge” in the Mandarin language). What do you think is “new” and “cutting-edge” in your work?
Maybe just new, not cutting edge. Actually, this is my fourth movie. I received this same prize for my first movie, too. So it means I have not improved! But, after three movies, this is my first big budget commercial film. In September, it came in second at the box office. I think this is quite good.

How do you think Chinese movies compare with movies in the west?
I think one cannot begin to speak about “movies in the west”, because this category comprises movies in every genre. The west invented movies. The east learned to make movies from the west. For instance, how can you ask about the guitars in the east and the guitars in the west? If the Chinese played the guitar, they learned it from the west. It’s the same guitar. There’s no difference. Maybe we are not as good.

Not as good?
Of course not. In the west, over 200 years ago, they started to protect industry rights. They had the guilds. Copyrights is still a big issue in China today. How can we be as good? I’m not saying there is no Chinese talent. I’m saying there is no law protecting the structure. Everyone in the industry is working for love. It’s like love without the institution of marriage. The family unit becomes a problem. Love is only one aspect. It needs to be protected by a system. There is not much difference. We are still learning slowly.

What changes would you like to see in the Chinese film industry?
Protection of intellectual property and copyrights is important. The system of guild and union, etc, these will take more time. But with proper protection of copyrights, I think it will already be a great improvement.
I don’t think there is much to say about the artistic aspect. Perhaps, having lived in the United States for a few years, I noticed that the west tend to look for a truth, whereas the east prefer to search for a norm. Culture-wise, it is as if the east does not believe in one absolute truth and the west is seeking one certain clear truth. This is sort of abstract, of course. Let me give an example. The Americans abide by traffic rules, especially in California. They stop at the stop signs, etc. Chinese people do not follow traffic rules, but they will all arrive home at 7:30pm. They meander through the traffic here and there, but they do not get into accidents. They do not follow the traffic rules, but they all arrive home at 7:30pm. That is their norm. It’s a culture difference. The others do not understand why we don’t follow traffic rules. But we still arrive home at 7:30pm. Elsewhere, there may be a lot of debate about the rules, but it’s not as if anyone arrives home at 6:30pm. Continue to make music. Movies. The same wife. The same children. (laughs).

Any advice for budding filmmakers?
There’s a success rate of 5%.
Film director Gao Xiaosong is also renowned as a music composer, lyricist and producer. He shot to fame at a young age when his debut album won numerous awards. He is also known as personality and judge on the reality show China’s Got Talent.

Kiat-Sing Teo is a New York based actress from Singapore. Her short film Basket Bronx garnered 23 international nominations and awards. Kiat-Sing holds an MFA from Columbia University and a black belt in Taekwondo.