3 Chinese Filmmakers Making the International Festival Rounds

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5:30 PM HKT, Thu May 3, 2018 3 mins read

The 71st Cannes Film Festival kicks off next Tuesday, and this year’s selection of films and jury members includes a healthy sampling from the world of Chinese art cinema.

Sixth Generation auteur Jia Zhangke‘s latest, Ash is Purest White, is one of 18 films in the running for the festival’s highest honor, the Palme d’Or. The Pluto Moment, a film produced by Chinese video streaming site iQIYI, will show in the festival’s Directors’ Fortnight screening program, an interesting choice given that Cannes this year banned Netflix-produced films from entry. And last month it was announced that Taiwanese actor Chang Chen has been selected for the official Cannes jury, though this announcement led to some geopolitical awkwardness.

Chinese directors have been making waves on the international film festival circuit for the last several years, in fact, scoring top prizes in Europe and the US. Here are three to know:


Cathy Yan is the most recent filmmaker on this list to make headlines. A few weeks ago, it was announced that she would helm a new film in the DC Comics universe, a spinoff for Joker accomplice Harley Quinn, as portrayed by Margot Robbie in 2016’s Suicide Squad. This selection seems to have taken Hollywood by surprise, and Yan is being touted as “the first female Asian director to helm a superhero film.” It’s also led to a string of “Who is Cathy Yan?” articles, including this one from the SCMP, which notes that Yan was born in mainland China, raised in Hong Kong and then Washington, and worked as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal before getting started behind the camera.

PAST FILM(S): Dead Pigs, a 2018 film about “a bumbling pig farmer, a feisty salon owner, a sensitive busboy, an expat architect and a disenchanted rich girl” who “converge and collide as thousands of dead pigs float down the river towards a rapidly-modernizing Shanghai.” According to the SCMP, the film was executive-produced by Jia Zhangke and funded by Alibaba Pictures. Its cast is led by Zazie Beetz, a star of the FX series Atlanta who is also preparing for her own spinoff into the superhero realm with a role in the upcoming Marvel film Deadpool 2.

FESTIVAL CRED: Dead Pigs, which is Yan’s directorial debut, premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in January, where it took home the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Acting.


Hao Wu (center), who has a background in molecular biology and previously worked for a few of China and the US’s biggest tech firms, turned to filmmaking in 2005, and has directed three films since then. He’s currently a fellow at Washington, D.C.-based think tank New America, where he focuses on making “documentary films exploring the complexities of modern China.”

PAST FILM(S): Wu’s directorial debut was 2005’s Beijing or Bust, which tracked the lives of six American-born Chinese in the capital at the time, including veteran shredder Kaiser Kuo, and Rania Ho, co-founder of hutong art exhibition space Arrow Factory. In 2013 he released The Road to Fame, a documentary following five drama students in Beijing as they “compete for roles, struggle with pressure from family and authority, and prepare to graduate into China’s corrupt entertainment industry.”

FESTIVAL CRED: Wu’s latest film, People’s Republic of Desire, premiered at South by Southwest this past March, where it won the Grand Jury Award. The film “looks at two live streamers who rose from isolation to fame and fortune in China,” and is currently gearing up for a wider release. We’ll have an interview with Wu about his new film up on RADII early next week, so keep an eye out for that.


According to her Wiki, Chloé Zhao was born and raised in Beijing, attended high school in London, and studied filmmaking at New York University. Last month, The Atlantic touted her latest film, The Rider, as “the best film of 2018 so far,” writing that it “feels like the announcement of a major artistic talent in Zhao.”

PAST FILM(S): Both The Rider and Zhao’s 2015 debut, Songs My Brother Taught Me, were filmed on the Pine Ridge Reservation, an Ogala Lakota Native American reservation in South Dakota that was the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. In a recent interview with Film Journal, Zhao says, “Being someone who looks like me made it easy to be on the reservation… I can walk into someone’s home.” According to the same article, “Lakota and Diné and other Native Americans welcome Asians and Asian-Americans as their Eurasian ancestors.”

FESTIVAL CRED: Songs My Brother Taught Me premiered at Sundance 2015, and was also featured as part of the Directors’ Fortnight Selection at Cannes the same year. The Rider premiered at Cannes 2017, where it won the Art Cinema Award. Zhao also won the inaugural Bonnie Award — which “recognizes a mid-career female director with a $50,000 unrestricted grant sponsored by American Airlines” — at this year’s Independent Spirit Awards.

Frances McDormand, who won for Best Female Lead at the same ceremony, alluded to an upcoming collaboration with Zhao during her acceptance speech, thanking “all my new friends, who I hope I get to work with in the very near future, a couple of them we already have a contract, I think — Chloé? Yes.”

Here’s Zhao’s acceptance speech for the Bonnie Award:

Cover photo: Krists Luhaers on Unsplash

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