The Cannes Film Festival was established in 1939 and gradually became one of the most prestigious film competitions around the globe. Being well known for a strong artistic and independent temperament, each year it attracts the attention of a large number of filmmakers from all over the world. As a country introduced to the film industry in the late 19th century, China is no exception.
The Cannes International Film Festival began in the summer of 1939. Owing to World War II and financial difficulties, it stagnated for some time and didn't become a yearly event until 1969. The first time a film made in China embraced Cannes was in 1959 when Slut and Saint (Dangfu Yu Shengnu) directed by the Taiwan-based drama patriarch Tian Chen made its debut. The movie depicting the legendary experiences of a woman during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945) became China's first attempt to compete for the prestigious Palme d'Or for Best Film.
In the 1960s, Li Han-Hsiang (Li Hanxiang in Chinese) was the most frequent visitor to Cannes from China. Among three of his films competing at the film festival, Tchien Gnu You Houn (1960), Yang Kwei Fei (1962) and La Reine Diabolique (1963), Yang Kwei Fei snatched the Grand Prix de la Commission Supérieure Technique du Cinéma Français (Best Interior Photography and Color Prize) thanks to its sumptuously decorated palace scenes and beautiful costumes. It was also the first Chinese-language film to win a prize at Cannes.
In 1975, a Chinese Kung-fu film, directed by new martial arts representative Hu Jinquan, took the limelight at the festival. Sha Nu, an outsider grabbed the Technical Jury Prize, only inferior to the Palme d'Or and the Grand Jury Prize. More or less, this "extraordinary" filmic experience reminds people of another film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Best Foreign Language Film, 2002 Oscar Academy Awards) filmed by Taiwan director An Lee in 2001. Sha Nu was to efficiently promote Chinese martial arts to the world.
The Taiwan-based director Bai Jingrui made Cannes know that China's films were not all about martial arts. His film Girl Friend, or Nu Peng You (1974) transformed foreign misunderstanding of China's films equal to action and costume drama at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival.
Films from the mainland went to Cannes for the first time since the founding of New China, in 1979. Director Xie Tieli brought a film he made 16 years before called, The Early Spring (1963), portraying an increasingly open Chinese world on film. After that, many films participated in the varied exhibitions at the film festival, such as Uproar in Heaven (animation 1961, 1964), Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (animation 1979), and The Little Street (1981). It wasn't until 1983 that the organizing committee selected Cen Fan's The True Story of Ah Q (1983) as one of the feature films in competition.
Intimate contact with Cannes
The so-called fifth generation of Chinese directors made the world look up and watch Chinese film in a totally new and different light. It can be argued that mainland film was inferior to that of Hong Kong and Taiwan in both outline and cinematography in the early 1980s. However, by the late 1980s, the first group of film graduates after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) helped Chinese film to take on an entirely different look through use of the techniques and styles of Western cinematography along side the original "Chinese" narrative.
Once talking of the relationship between Cannes and China, it is impossible then to neglect the well-known director, Chen Kaige. Chen appeared in Cannes for the first time in 1987. Before that, he gained a reputation with Yellow Earth (1986) and The Big Parade (1986). He competed with the controversial King of the Children (1987). Despite failing to win a prize, his unique cinematography, totally different from anything seen in Chinese film before, surprised festival critics. Apart from its impressionistic landscape, the plot catered to Cannes' tastes with a grim realist dark movie.
Thereafter, Chen made Life on a String (1990) but was again rejected by Cannes judges as it was considered surprisingly mediocre. But soon Cannes became cordially to Chen again and in May 1993, Chen Kaige snatched the Golden Palm (Palme d'Or) with the epic Farewell My Concubine (1993) and the film became a milestone for Chinese-language film. However, Temptress Moon (1996) and The Emperor and the Assassin (1999) frustrated Chen after he reached the zenith of his career in the early 1990s.
Zhang Yimou, another prominent fifth generation director, has produced a mixed reaction at Cannes. As a "professional award-winner", the cold reception he received repeatedly at Cannes really embarrassed him while he had three films competing at the Festival. The first was Ju Dou (1990), and he returned crestfallen. The second, To Live (1994), missed the Palme d'Or but won the Grand Jury Prize and the Best Actor Award as compensation. In 1995 Zhang's highly anticipated Shanghai Triad (1995) won only the Technical Grand Prize. His "intimacy" with Cannes finally drew to an end when he "fell out" with the organizing committee for Not One Less (1999).
Perhaps only at Cannes could it have been possible that comedy clown actor Ge You be nominated and win the Best Actor Award. It expressed the different values of the festival. At Cannes, good-looking Hollywood superstars and the heavily invested scenes are meaningless. The fact that Ge You won the award made many filmmakers take for granted that they had learned what to do next. They followed his trace, but apparently learned nothing. One important thing they might have forgotten was that for Cannes, individuality is top priority.
Compared with the ordinary looking Ge You, the most popular Chinese actress at Cannes, Gong Li, is a beauty. Although not winning any award of her own, Gong still captured many foreign hearts for her five competition films. In 1997, together with the Malaysian film star Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li served as a jury member, becoming one of the few major league film actresses in the history of Cannes to do so. Chinese actress and frequent visitor to Cannes, Hong Kong-based superstar Maggie Cheung, (lead in In the Mood for Love (2000)) is an actress who has refused to join in the star-studded film celebrations at the festival.
Besides, Hong Kong-based Wong Kar-Wai (director of Happy Together (1997) and In the Mood for Love (2000)) as well as Taiwan-based Hou Hsiao-hsien (director of Millennium Mambo (2001) and A City of Sadness (1989)) and Edward Yang (director of Yi Yi (2000) and Duli Shidai (1994)) all have their own place in the history of the Cannes Film Festival. Through Cannes, they have grown gradually popular with filmgoers all over the world.
What is it about Cannes that fascinates filmmakers from various countries? Is it for its avant-garde and original nature? It seems likely that it may have a similar impact on the next generation of Chinese directors even more. Following Cannes introduces the future greats in the world of film. Today, more and more young and independent Chinese directors, display their remarkable filmic skill and talent for story telling at Cannes, including Lou Ye (Suzhou River (2000) and Purple Butterfly (2003)), Jia Zhangke (Unknown Pleasures (2002)), Jiang Wen (Devils on the Doorstep (2000)), and so on.
On the extensive stage that Cannes offers, no effort is spared in showing the world a more real and vivid China.
(China.org.cn by Li Xiao and Daragh Moller, December 21, 2003)