Going simply by the awards handed out, the 25th Shanghai International Film Festival delivered on its promise to celebrate the emerging stars of both Asian and Chinese cinema.

There were Golden Goblet wins for established markets Japan and China, and those less known, including Uzbekistan. And there were some scene-stealing emotions shared up on stage at the Shanghai Grand Theater, including the moments when two of China’s biggest stars, Hu Ge and Da Peng, were jointly awarded the festival’s best actor prize and then shared memories of their long-lasting friendship.

Japanese director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri was certainly swept up by the occasion, as China’s major festival event marked a return to normalcy — and a return of international guests — after the travel restrictions and assorted uncertainties of the global pandemic.

Kumakiri’s Yoko picked up the festival’s best feature film, best actress and best screenplay awards in the Golden Globlet’s main competition on Saturday night. The jury applauded a “special film” that tells the story of a middle-aged woman (played by past Oscar-nominee Rinko Kikuchi, of Babel fame) whose father’s death forces her to interact with people, following two decades of isolation from society.

“Kikuchi and I have been thinking about working together for about 20 years,” said Kumakiri. “Today, the wish comes true, and we are standing here right now. It’s so unreal — as if we’re in a dream.”

Overall, SIFF selected 53 films from across the globe to contest its five main Golden Goblet sections — the main competition, Asian new talent, documentary, animation and short film categories — and by the time the curtain came down Sunday there had been more than 450 films screened across the festival’s 10-day run. The festival also saw crowds return — there were apparently more than 300,000 tickets bought within an hour of sales coming online — and fans flocked to catch a glimpse of international A-listers including Michelle Yeoh, Jason Stratham, Chow Yun-fat and Zhang Ziyi.

Look hard at the program and you’d have noticed two markets conspicuous by their absence — the U.S. and South Korea — as fractious diplomatic relationships continue to shadow events in China. But organizers in Shanghai have walked away pointing to the connections the festival did manage to make within the large slice of the global film community that was present. And among the smaller Asian markets represented this year were Laos, with the horror The Signal, and Uzbekistan,  which won the Asian New Talent section with domestic drama Sunday — a surprise that pretty much literally left its director Shokir Kholikov speechless.

“SIFF has provided a timely stage for the industry to unleash development capacity and for filmmakers and institutions to release latest achievements,” said Wenquan He, general manager of the Shanghai International Film and TV Events Centre. “The core driving force of the development of the Shanghai International Film Festival lies in the fact that this metropolis has always stood at the epicentre of renewal and development, always adhered to the ‘open, innovative and inclusive’ urban character and reflected the spirit of the city. It has always strived to become a window for China to connect the world.”

China’s Liu Jiayin was named best director for All Ears, which follows a eulogy writer whose work changes the way he looks at life and it marks a return to the director’s chair after more than a decade teaching screenwriting. The director said it was a very personal film, and one that had helped change the way she looked at her own life.

There was high praise from the judges. “This film touches upon current issues in modern times and takes our feelings to faraway places. The natural performances of all actors are a testament to the remarkable capabilities of the director,” they said.

All Ears is all about one man’s personal journey — and when that man is played by Hu there is always going to be a commotion (the 40-year-old star has about 70 million social media followers). In collecting his best actor award, Hu stole the show again — but he was quick to share it, and the prize, with Da Peng, whose turn in the thriller Dust to Dust saw the festival decide to split the best actor award between the pair.

Cue shared memories up on stage of the time when they met, one as an emerging star (Hu) and one a young journalist who wanted to act (Da Peng). Social media in China has been feasting on the moment ever since.

“We met in 2005,” explained Hu. “And we climbed a snow-covered mountain together. The road of creating art and climbing the snow mountain is the same — we never knew at which moment we would reach the summit — but it’s been a worthwhile trip.”

Da Peng, famed for his TV comedy as well as his movies, arrived in Shanghai with a double bill of his own. The Jonathan Li-directed Dust to Dust was in the running for the main competition awards while Da Peng’s own latest effort as a director, the street dancing-themed comedy One and Only, officially closed the festival. And once again it showed his commercial savvy, with ex-boy band star Wang Yibo playing off the veteran box office draw Huang Bo.

Dust to Dust draws on the talents of Hong Kong’s Li for his second feature — he’s been noted for previous work as an assistant director on the likes of Infernal Affairs III, part of the franchise that inspired Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winner The Departed — and it also taps into a notorious 1995 heist in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong for its story.

SIFF showed that the commercial nous of Hong Kong filmmakers continues to be tapped into for predominantly mainland Chinese blockbusters. It’s a trend that won’t end any time soon; and veteran Herman Yau used SIFF to introduce his latest thriller Moscow Mission at a festival sidebar event, although it wasn’t screened. Yau’s Moscow Mission also taps into a real crime story that captivated China — this time a violent Trans-Siberian train heist from 1993 — and features major box office draws in Andy Lau and Zhang Hanyu.

International filmmakers who helped Shanghai return to normal operations talked up the enthusiasm of the fans who attended the post-screening Q&A sessions, and of the festival overall, with the 91-year-old Japanese helmer Yoji Yamada — back in Shanghai after a break of 20 years with his family drama Mom, Is That You? as part of the main competition — saying he had been impressed by how “more mature and more atmospheric” the festival had become.

There was a series of MasterClasses that were aimed at providing insights into the filmmaking process, as well as inspiring China’s film industry hopefuls. Veteran film makers Peter Chan, Ildikó Enyedi, Zhang Lu and Sho Miyake spoke to packed rooms.

SIFF also hosted a Sci-Fi Film Week, looking to tap into the rise of a genre that, despite being a relatively new phenomenon in China, had this year seen its most successful franchise climb to more than $1.3 billion in total ticket sales after the release of The Wandering Earth 2 in January. There were seminars on such topics as “Sci-Fi: An All-humanity Perspective and Chinese Stories,” and festival goers were left to ponder the possibilities ahead as seminar speakers seemed to share the prediction that “sci-fi with Chinese characteristics” would take the genre towards a brave new world of cinema.


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