In the next two months, there will be two international film festivals competing for limelight in China, namely the Beijing International Film Festival to be held from April 23 through 28, and Shanghai International Film Festival from June 16 to 24.
BJIFF was inaugurated last year, and at that time, although it was labeled an “international film festival” in English, its Chinese name, which was considered “official,” indicated it was only an “international film season,” a term derived from the more informal and previously used name “screenings.” The word “season” meant a lot in China, because at least on an official level, SARFT (the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television), the powerful government agency that oversees and supervises all matters that are related to film and television, recognizes the Shanghai International Film Festival as the only approved “international” film festival in China. This sounds a little ridiculous, but in a highly controlled cultural environment, it is only normal.
The situation seems to be changing, however. This year, the “Beijing International Film Season,” its literal translation of the Chinese, has been renamed. It now calls itself the “2nd Beijing International Film Festival” in both Chinese and English, a cultural “coup d’état” from the eyes of the organizers of the Shanghai International Film Festival, who have long boasted SIFF was the only “legitimate” international film festival in China.
Thus begins the rivalry. It is a rivalry not only because the two cities have a long history of cultural competition that goes back to the 1920s and 30s, but also because the two festivals’ dates are close, and Beijing, due to its currently undisputed status as China’s cultural center, has the potential to overshadow Shanghai in attracting films and film stars from around the world, and BJIFF has the potential to overtake SIFF to become the single most important film gathering event in China.
No matter what the result might be, it seems to be clear, at least for now, that the two festivals have one thing in common: they both value red carpet, opening and closing ceremonies, and bureaucratic support more highly than film selections. This is the very reason as to why the film selections category, usually the most important one for any well organized film festival, on BJIFF’s website remains absolutely blank even to this day. One may call this “film festival with Chinese characteristics.”