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BRIDGING THE DRAGON 2021

Benjamin Illos • Correspondant pour l'Asie, Quinzaine des Réalisateurs

"Je suis convaincu que les films qui nous sont soumis ont l’ambition de susciter un authentique enthousiasme de la part des cinéphiles partout dans le monde"

par 

- Entretien entre Bridging the Dragon et le correspondant pour l'Asie de l'Est et du Sud-Est de la section parallèle indépendante du Festival de Cannes

Benjamin Illos  • Correspondant pour l'Asie, Quinzaine des Réalisateurs

Cet article est disponible en anglais.

Benjamin Illos is the East and South-East Asian correspondent for the Directors’ Fortnight, an independent selection of the Cannes Film Festival, home of daring and adventurous new cinema. He has contributed to several publications as a film critic, worked as a film editor, and collaborated for a decade with Pierre Rissient in promoting films and directors. Bridging the Dragon caught up with him for a chat.

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Bridging the Dragon: You have been selecting Asian films for the Directors’ Fortnight, and you have been to China many times in recent years. What is your impression of Chinese films in general? How do you see the development of Chinese cinema in recent years in terms of content creation?
Benjamin Illos:
Since its inception in 1968, the Directors’ Fortnight, an independent programme of the Cannes Film Festival, has championed director-driven films and original voices. Every year we put together a programme that blends all forms and genres, newcomers and experienced filmmakers from all horizons, introducing films that keep a creative approach at their core. The Fortnight always paid careful attention to directors from Asia, and China represents a major chunk of that output. I can’t enumerate here the staggering numbers that boosted over the last decade in the Chinese film industry, nor can I dissect oppositions and intersections behind the abundance of small-budget or tent-pole movies. Suffice to say, the ever-increasing number of screens and films produced, almost mathematically, give Chinese filmmakers more opportunities and, naturally, more chances to release every now and then a feature film that has the unique spark film lovers wait for when lights go down.

This year, Wei Shujun’s layered, hilarious and heart wrenching tale of cinema Ripples of Life amazed us. We tend to put individuals first over market trends and films over content, so the best way to answer your question might simply be for me to acknowledge that the fact that such an ambitious, sophisticated film can surface today makes me pretty optimistic.

The Cannes Film Festival has always been one of the most important international stages for Chinese cinema. How do you think international festivals like Cannes play a role in promoting Chinese films?
Marketing is handled with amazing competence in China, so I believe the films submitted to us have ambition to meet genuine enthusiasm from worldwide cinema aficionados to start with. Is there a better place for that than Cannes?

I was lucky to work many years with Pierre Rissient, a man of many skills and longtime Cannes advisor. He was key in the international recognition of King Hu, Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige or Edward Yang amongst many, many others. He helped legions of directors’ careers, uncountable films to be seen, but I don’t remember hearing him say he was “promoting” anything. He was more unequivocally “fighting” for the films he liked, the directors he thought were worthy of his enthusiasm. It was almost as a duty for the objects of his admirations. He often succeeded in giving justice to those filmmakers, but success wasn’t the ultimate goal. Some obscure, unseen or unfairly dismissed films or artists had an even greater importance in his eyes.

Many Chinese films that win awards at international festivals or are critically acclaimed would meet their Waterloo in the local market, while films that are big hits in China do not often get the same amount of attention in the international market. What do you think about this phenomenon? How do you think Chinese filmmaking can raise its ability to strike a balance between local and global audiences?
I feel such affirmation is biased by a short-term perspective. Just look at Cannes — you have to remember the likes of Zang Yimou, Chen Kaige, but also Ann Hui, Wong Kar-Wai, Jiang Wen, Diao Yinan… They have all been distinguished here. They are not at all figures resting at the margins of the industry. Even if the local audience is taking more time to embrace some films, the enthusiasm they meet with international critics leaves me no doubt that they will stand the test of time.

Now, if you ask me if there is a lack of recognition for some worthy popular films outside of China, I would heartily answer that it is true. The polar oppositions that separate ambitious cinema and popular films only exist in theory, but they sure are deep rooted in the mind of a few decision makers. It sometimes takes a courageous producer, or a director with drive, to expand an already complex distribution campaign with a festival strategy. But a rapid look at our previous selections can demonstrate that we certainly don’t disregard popular genre films or comedies.

"Co-production" is a topic often mentioned by Chinese and European filmmakers, and many Chinese films selected for Cannes are produced and distributed with the participation of European talents and capital. How do you see the impact of this Sino-European co-operation on Chinese films? And what do you think about the future of collaborations between Europe and China?
I shall first stress that most of the Chinese films showing in Cannes this year weren’t shot under such co-production schemes.

Co-production is often wrongly perceived as the easy path to establish one’s career internationally, but the truth is that to find trustworthy partners abroad, you’ll most likely need to first prove your value. It could be with a previous film internationally distributed, or maybe programmed at a noteworthy festival… The most illustrious examples amongst Chinese directors all fit that frame, which then offered them a steady tool to further enrich their work.

However, such international collaborations can be time-consuming and often require patience. China’s rapid production tempo may not necessarily allow it, although it is obvious that to include international perspective and strategy from the very start of a project can broaden its potential, if it is done with the right ambitions and expectations.

I am not a producer, but I suspect it is probably more serious to work from local to global. Too often, alas, such an approach is misunderstood, superficial and misguided. “Let’s list the historical connections between Asia and Europe and randomly pick one, for local colour… Let’s over-pay that widely known foreign actor for 10 seconds of screen presence, hoping it will unlock international markets…”

This said, there are well-intentioned and experienced professionals working miracles across continents and languages. One can’t ignore the fact that the world is facing intimidating new challenges. After the pandemic, the sudden rise of borders only accentuated a movement of increasing tensions. I certainly hope those film luminaries will continue to fight that movement, using international collaborations to build collective representations.

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