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Spectacle, Controversy and the Septic: Pingyao International Film Festival 2019

Pingyao Film Palace

This is a strange place to have a revelation.

I’m sitting in a movie theatre in Pingyao, Shanxi Province, China. I have shrunken into a cosy corporate space which, once the house lights are put out, is soothingly anonymous. I’m briefly hidden from the startling and imposing hubbub of the Pingyao International Film Festival, a “boutique” film festival founded by the great Jia Zhangke in 2017; hiding, as it were, in plain sight. All this festival’s state-sponsored glitz, its overproduced sleekness, the ubiquity of its many, many attendees, the drone of voices in the street, the scooters caroming by—all of it is temporarily pushed to the back of my mind.

There are many movies playing at PYIFF. All of them, due at least in part to an insane demand for tickets early every morning, are well-attended or sold out. There are several sessions every day, many sidebars and sections and two main competitions, with half the principal films competing as Crouching Tigers and the other half as Hidden Dragons. It really isn’t hard to sneak into the dark space of the cinema to hide from an overwhelming outside world—anybody with a festival pass can do that. Yet when I try that, time and again I find that the films onscreen remind me of the very thing I’m hiding from: spectacle, drabness, excessive good taste and polish.

I’m peering up at the screen at a young man reading Jean Genet on a long train journey. He lowers his book to chew over a passage. He looks at the woman opposite him. She is veiled, sat beside a stern but indifferent husband. The young man quietly studies her, the train rocking uncomfortably on the tracks as it chugs through the countryside. She lifts her veil and, unaware of his gaze, pops a snack into her mouth. The young man lingers on this scene for a second, processing the warm and intimate gesture he has been privy to. He looks away, smiling to himself.

As I watch this unfurl, I’m struck by the overwhelming cultural irrelevance of 99% of what we—supposedly enlightened viewers—consume. While the open wounds of debate and viewership that today constitute our media culture calcify and coagulate, sealing themselves off from the outside world, it is clear that moments like the one I’m describing burst from the screen with an even greater force. The same, infinitely reiterated subjects spread across the surface of our discourse like an infectious skin condition impervious to antibiotics. What cuts through is this quiet moment of reflection, one that resonated with me in a private and intangible way. How is it that this image, this tender, almost secret moment in a fiction, shared fleetingly between audience and character—in which a thought forms and percolates in the latter’s mind—resonates with me so strongly, so far from home, so divorced from my surroundings, so agitated by situational absurdities, so far both geographically and culturally from what is being depicted onscreen?

Against expectations for a foreign journalist who has been brought to China to write about movies, I’m not—at least in this moment—at a premiere with an adulatory introduction, nestled eagerly amongst a rapt audience of spectators. I’m not furiously note-taking at one of the professional and well-produced press conferences staged as an encounter with a Chinese star or star filmmaker. I’m not being snapped by the menacing facial recognition cameras that lurk from on high like Triffids at the exit of Pingyao’s Ancient City. Instead I duck out of sight of their watchful gaze, fatigued by serious jetlag, and hungry from an inability to find anything I can eat. I then slip into one of the smaller cinemas to bask in the glow of a neglected masterpiece, one revivified, reanimated, restored before my eyes on this single screen in smog-laced Pingyao.

I encounter this image, this movie as part of a twelve-film retrospective of New Indian Cinema, a bold gift from the festival to an audience whose enthusiasm I’m unable to gauge even tentatively, primarily because of the intractable language barrier but also because, as a foreigner, you are naturally relegated into a rarefied space, cultural or otherwise, away from regular spectators. That these screenings are well-attended, as I mentioned before, means next to nothing in terms of engagement—the effect these awe-inspiring films have over my fellow viewers is to me, a non-Chinese, anybody’s guess. Nevertheless what ought to be noted and championed is the gesture of putting on the show itself: Uttarayanam (1975, translated in English as Throne of Capricorn), the movie in question, is one at best underseen and at worst unknown outside the home state (Kerala) and home country (India) of its maker, the great painter, cartoonist, theatre director and filmmaker Govindan Aravindan. Showing this movie in this place means that this single moment lives on in the minds of some people for some time, however difficult it is to quantify and catalogue. In its opening scene—the one I just described—a fleeting moment of personality and humanity flares up at the boundary of a tradition that would—benignly or not—restrict and limit such displays of humanity. Aravindan depicts it with measure and clarity, inaugurating the whole movie’s concerns about the often stultifying but sporadically satisfying work that a lifelong, human commitment to social change necessarily begets.

Devoting time and ink to discussing the issue of censorship in China and its effect on PYIFF is almost slavish: you will find yourself trowelling familiar ground, burrowing into well-explored trenches of thought and unearthing the same results. You’ll find that the most prominent scars left by state-imposed censorship are depressing, ugly, but predictable. You could talk about the opening film, withdrawn at the last second for “technical reasons related to special effects work,” prompting a flurry of apologetic emails to delegates and a catalogue that had to be reprinted well into the festival. Or the bizarre case of Kleber Mendonça Filho, brought to PYIFF to give a masterclass following a film—Bacurau—that, once the festival had begun, didn’t make it past the impenetrable wall of the censorship boards, leaving him stranded: A major filmmaker at a film festival without a film.

However interesting these are to note in themselves, doing so also tends to fuel an unhelpful and restricting feedback loop of discussion, directing focus on the spectacle of a villainous state and the salaciousness of scandal. The obvious odiousness of censorship overwhelmingly becomes, during the PYIFF, the subject of discussion, its evident awfulness the topic to be turned over again and again in the minds—and in the conversation—of mortified Westerners. More noteworthy is the effect this blunt censorship has on the range of films presented during the festival. Even the good films in the line-up at PYIFF tend to be of a safer, less offensive stripe. The kinds of movies that find their way to the screens before us tend to shrink from controversial subjects or otherwise treat them with a vague distance and ambiguity. Of course, it isn’t necessary for all movies to be controversial or even progressive, but it is difficult to ignore in times when these attributes take the form of a programme-wide modus operandi.

As a gesture, censorship not only asserts an opposition to certain kinds of temperaments and subjects but dams and redirects the free-flowing stream of movies that otherwise might flood festival line-ups. When considering many of the foreign films brought to PYIFF, it was hard for me not to think: “I could be sleepily watching this at one in the morning on Netflix,” so tame was their treatment of even the most pressing of subjects. Just about the best Chinese movie I manage to see in Pingyao, Liang Ming’s impressive Wisdom Tooth, still colors between the lines, considering that its subject and milieu is the disaffected and utterly lost Chinese youth of the 1990s. Instead the major pleasures of the film, which skirts social critique but withdraws from its more troubling implications, are the pleasures of good, unpretentious directing. Ming—who isn’t without his flaws as a director—sensitively handles the central three-way relationship, balancing its tumultuous and unpredictable currents without destabilising his restrained, precise formal style.

What distinguishes him from his companions in the PYIFF main slate is the way he can boil a scene down to its essence as a gesture. Not only does he have the skill to build scenes around simple, memorable moments but also the discipline to isolate and distil them and then to cut before they become overbearing or, worse, metaphorical. Too many of the films on offer in Pingyao belabor their point at any and every opportunity; the decent, small moments nestled within scenes are blown up and dragged out by overbearing directors keen to rinse the sequence for everything it is worth. Quite a change, then, with Wisdom Tooth to find a director with the confidence to trust his material. In one scene, a frustrated character uses the long end of a chopstick to crush garlic while hurriedly cooking herself a meal. The gesture of pressing down on the garlic cloves in such an unusual way is striking, yet Ming—confident in his style—immediately moves on from it. It is as if these moments for him are merely ways to assemble a character’s inner life from disparate, discreet flourishes, like a mosaic.

One final Cassavetes-like karaoke scene ends with a screaming match between two women that we as an audience have long seen coming. But the mood and the tone of the scene are amplified and pushed into new territory when the protagonist screams, almost campily, “Spare me your crocodile tears!” at her rival. The other woman pauses. The outburst utterly disrupts the scene. The music cuts out. Everybody is quiet. Ming lingers on the protagonist’s face as she boils with rage—teeth gritted, wheezing with fury like an injured dog. Her face becomes the scene in a way; the rage evident in every twitch of her cheek and every flush of blood beneath her skin is more mysterious and more disturbing than anything in the argument itself. Ming’s eye for detail like this one—and his good sense to focus on these details, even just for a few seconds—extends the shelf life of the moment: it is no longer simply about the quarrel itself, but about these unpredictable physical imprints that are left once that quarrel has erupted and slipped into dormancy.

The New Indian Cinema retrospective at PYIFF garners understandably less attention than the main slate during the festival yet surpasses it tenfold in its brilliance and invention, perhaps due to the first- or second-hand effects of censorship on the main slate. For whatever reason, these movies weather the tempestuous demands of state and provincial censors and therefore have little competition elsewhere in the program for their radicality or frankness. No other image outside this series gloms onto my psyche in quite the way the aforementioned moment from Aravindan’s film does, and the range of work presented in this programme—covering the period of 1957-1978 in subcontinental Indian cinema, through many varied regions and artistic temperaments—is astonishing in itself.

The breadth of this series, dominating the entire festival programme like a wide, elusive, snaking plains river, manages to encompass Mani Kaul, Aravindan and Kumar Shahani (whose beguiling Maya Darpan Robert Bresson reportedly called “the slowest movie ever”) as much as it does more “commercial” artists Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Yet the latter two’s inclusion points to a path through the period. Absorbing these films as a whole, it is possible to move from the goofiness of Ghatak’s early Ajantrik through the stark modernism of his The Cloud-Capped Star, towards the stunning invention, looseness, and tonal range of Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, which in turn paves a way over to the loose, light-on-its-feet avant-garde satire Donkey in a Brahmin Village by the Kerali filmmaker John Abraham, a colleague and comrade of Kaul’s.

While the more experimental wonders by Kaul, Abraham and Shahani are the greatest departures from the rest of the offerings at PYIFF, it is the more direct narrative pleasures of Sen’s sublime Bhuvan Shome that linger in my mind once I return home to Europe. Like many Western cinephiles, my ignorance of Indian cinema knows no bounds, and not from any lack of trying. Each time I timidly advance further into the thicket, the more daunted and impatient I get peering out at the mountain of unknown pleasures before me. I’m forced to ponder the depths of my ignorance, to reflect on the sheer amount of work—no matter how pleasurable that work might be to undertake—that would be required for me to string together even a remedial understanding of this vast country’s many rich cinematic histories. One such manifestation of this is my embarrassing ignorance of such a major artist as Sen’s work.

In Bhuvan Shome, Sen—like Quentin Tarantino, his only modern analogue—is seemingly able to impose whatever tone he wants on any given sequence, no matter its subject. The eponymous railway manager Shome, despised by his employees for his heartlessness, takes a hunting trip. While vacationing, he comes up against the limits of his personality. He realises he dislikes himself, even in circumstances of his own design. While goofily stalking a bird in the wild—and failing at the role of hunter—he encounters a fiery local young woman who lives with her father. Her compassion and vigour begin to dissolve those immovable pillars of his personality—bitter and hateful pillars that his employees have all tried and failed to blast through—and set an interior transformation in motion. Like Tarantino, Sen takes obvious delight in breaking the flow of narrative logic with formal tricks like animation, freezeframe and voiceover (by the incomparable Amitabh Bachchan), suggesting a self-consciousness that he can then harness to reform the film’s trajectory.

Most characteristically, in Sen’s hands the girl (Suhasini Mulay) resists the generic forces that would shape her into an archetype and make her character a pawn on the chessboard of narrative. Instead she is liberated, free to be mercurial and fast-moving and not always psychologically comprehensible. Her joy at life, therefore, strikes us as real and not symbolic. Parallel to that, Sen is able to depict Shome’s inner life as being shaped by his encounter with the girl—a requirement of the story—as well as gift her a respectful mystery as a character. In one miraculous sequence towards the end of the film, Shome returns to her hut after their final farewell proved to be anti-climactic. He had taken the bird she gave him as a prize and rode away on his cart. After some time on the road, he felt the courage of his convictions, turned it around and raced back to her.

But Sen doesn’t go to the places suggested by the material: Shome arrives back at her home, sees the girl for the vision of loveliness she is, and quietly hands her the bird. Sen intervenes by downplaying the scene against our expectations. There is no romantic resolution. Characters exist independent of anticipated generic roles. Shome and the girl have an uneventful but piercingly tender conversation, and he sets off again on the cart, revitalised by a final goodbye on his own terms. We feel too that the girl understands the situation yet faces these difficult feelings with a relaxed good humour.


There has been ample time throughout the festival to wander in the Ancient City—the heart of Pingyao—which is about the only area of the town easily accessible to tourists by foot. Otherwise, Pingyao is much like Florida: if you want to see the place, you have to get your hands on a car. The sprawling and modern festival centre takes up a sizeable portion of the northwest corner of the Ancient City. If you find yourself with some time on your hands between movies, you can walk the length and breadth of this enormous ancient compound in just a few hours. Straight outside the gates to the festival is a long road buzzing with scooters and tourist buggies that, when you are walking along it, seems to stretch on into eternity—no doubt the smog that obscures the gates and towers in the distance adds to the effect. Walking along it you encounter vinegar shop after vinegar shop, steaming restaurant after steaming restaurant, hustling street vendor after hustling street vendor. You pass ancient banks, old ruins, alleyway cobblers, and cramped antique stores which, once you enter, are stocked on all four walls with Mao Tse-tung portraits. Besides the occasional sight of a kitten tied to a post along the side of the street, seemingly abandoned to croak its meows at passers-by and relieve itself in a shoebox filled with gravel, there is little sign of dirt or poverty if one follows the well-worn pathways.

On the final day of PYIFF me and a few friends pay to access the city’s magnificent 2,700-year-old walls, which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We scale the steps up onto them from the north entrance and quickly find ourselves looking out over the Ancient City from above. Predictably the picture up there is somewhat distinct from that to which we became accustomed in our sojourn down below. Buildings are dilapidated or abandoned midway through construction or reconstruction. Plastic sheets hang over skeletal wall scaffolding like bandages draped over festering wounds. Even the places we recognise as our favorite coffeeshops and markets look far shabbier from another angle.

We march further from the gate, along the walls, and into the far corner of the Ancient City. There the view is light years from the sanitized look of the festival center and its environs. We see rows of shacks. We see tethered goats wandering in rubble. We see people throwing waste into the street. It is not a surprise, of course. Each of us happily maintained the fiction that all was well in China, just as we do perhaps even more persuasively in our own countries, where we pretend that such poverty is out of sight and strictly the domain of other places. In this moment, China didn’t seem all that distant from the cities and districts and rural towns in Europe and America with which I’m more familiar. The Chinese solution to poverty is only a more exaggerated version of our own: to relegate it to the outskirts. That is, to airbrush reality in such an aggressive fashion that the media—including movies—that supposedly reflect this reality instead only reflects the sterilised, happy, warped mirror of the comfortable, where such things are not systemic issues but ones to be dealt with through charity.

I reflected on what I found lacking about the main program of PYIFF—its soupiness and widespread lack of fight—and then thought of the Western festivals that might counter this view. Besides a few notable but smaller ones, are there any major festivals that you could say do present a confrontational program? Is Cannes not septic? Venice? Where is this impulse within me coming from, to yearn for controversy and confrontation in the least conducive of circumstances? Is any art that does this—produced in any major world system—possible outside of a few brief pockets of good fortune and certain hospitable political circumstances?

I was suddenly thankful that a few exceptions—the New Indian Cinema series in this case—existed at all. In the case of Pingyao, I have no way of measuring this particular programme’s “impact” on a wider public completely foreign to me. I have no way of knowing whether the poor of Pingyao—like the poor of Berlin, the poor of Marseille, the poor of Toronto—ever saw any of these movies. I have no way of knowing whether these invigorating, low-budget challenges to the normal way of doing things touched anybody in that audience but me, a paragon of cinephilic privilege. Maybe I’ll never know.

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