Toronto’s Newest Film Fest Wants to Show “the Real, Unfiltered Picture of China”

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11:27 PM HKT, Wed July 25, 2018 7 mins read

When University of Toronto grad Shen Wei announced to her family that she planned to quit her job as a financial analyst and switch to filmmaking, it caused a crisis. Luckily, a friend and fellow U of T alum had more constructive advice: “Maybe you could start a film festival, so at least there would be one for you to showcase your future works.”

What started as a kidding-not-kidding joke has grown into the Mulan International Film Festival (MULANIFF), a week-long program of talks and screenings that will be held across multiple venues in Toronto from August 10-17.

The screening portion of the festival is broken into three categories: China Retrospective (“award-nominated or -winning films that reveal the zeitgeist and enormous changes in China and Chinese society since the early 20th century”), Made by Women (“to advance the appreciation of female filmmakers’ and actresses’ endeavours, as well as to recognize the identity and power of female protagonists in films”), and Portraits of the Young (“dedicated to emerging young filmmakers and their compelling or innovative works, especially those that showcase modern-day young people’s exploration and search for identity”).

MULANIFF 2018’s lineup is ambitious and impressive, especially considering it’s a trial run put together by a small group of friends and volunteers. We talked to Shen Wei about where the idea came from and how it got off the ground:

Shen Wei at UTChinese event NYC2014 (photo by Chen Te, courtesy UTChinese)

RADII: Who is behind the festival, and when did you get the idea to start it? What is your background in film?

Shen Wei, Executive Director: Seven of us started the Mulan International Film Festival – Amy Chen, Martin Lai, Liu Guanchu, Gavin Ouyang, Shen Wei, Promise Xu, and Tom Wang.

With a few other dedicated early members, the festival is 100% run by volunteers. We are all University of Toronto graduates and current students. None of us majored in a cinema-related field, and none of us had any professional experience in the film industry. Some even do not consider themselves as film lovers.

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We first met each other through the student-run organization UTChinese Network at the University of Toronto, and we have devoted ourselves to publishing the UTChinese magazines and My UofT Life Stories, as well as running some of the largest events on campus (for example, ACE Career Fair, EXCITE conferences and the charitable New Year Concerts) since our university years.

For all of us, the days at UTChinese Network have been truly life-changing. We always feel excited about new initiatives, things that no one has ever done — “why Toronto doesn’t have this and that” or “they are not good enough, we can do better”; and we always talk about how we can and should inspire fellow students to pursue their dreams, how we can bring positive changes to our communities and to this world. UTChinese really fosters an entrepreneurial culture.

2015 ACE Career Fair (photo by Chen Te, courtesy UTChinese)

Last summer, Tom and I first came up with the idea of a film festival dedicated to Chinese-language films in a casual conversation. By that time, I had already quit my job as a financial analyst and decided to apply for film schools. I wanted to be a film director. (The whole career-change became a family crisis.) When Tom and I were chatting about the film festivals we had frequented, and the difficulty of becoming a director, particularly as an Asian female with no connections, Tom joked that maybe you could start a film festival, so at least there would be one for you to showcase your future works.

That was just like a seed. I shared it with other UTChinese friends, and I got a simple “yes” from each one of them. No questions were asked. Only friendly reminders, and full support. It felt like a “you jump, I jump” sort of companionship. The six other founding directors of the festival, and also UTChinese leaders Luo Junjian and Zhang Xinbo, they are some of the best people one can meet in life. I have been working with them side by side on a lot of UTChinese projects for the past few years (even though we have graduated, we still devote a lot of time to UTChinese). I wouldn’t imagine starting this festival without them. They are passionate, sincere, and genuine to themselves. I can’t thank them enough.

The festival’s namesake, Mulan, is revered both within China as a powerful historical figure, and around the world as an icon that has passed into the pop cultural canon through her “Disneyfication“. Why did you name your festival after Mulan?

Tom did not want to name it “Chinese Film Festival” in the first place, because it was too generic and seemed to be relevant only to Chinese communities. We were trying to think of an iconic name — not panda or dim-sum, of course — that would remind people of China without explicitly saying “China”, “Chinese”, “Cathay” or “Sino”. It should have historical as well as modern implications, be easy to pronounce, and serve both the Chinese and non-Chinese communities. Amy proposed “Mulan” one day at the dinner table; then there were concerns about the interpretations of the legendary female warrior, e.g., how people would perceive her choice — was it out of courage, filial piety or patriarchy? Was she really an inspiring character by today’s criteria, because based on the original poem Mu Lan Ci, one could also argue it was a female pretending to be male and therefore getting treated like a male.

Later on we thought, ok, let’s not go into the semantics, but just focus on bringing new meanings to the name. We happily moved forward with “Mulan”.

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The film co-production landscape between China and the West is an increasingly crowded space. What do you think Mulan International Film Festival adds to the dialogue from an industry or market perspective?

A lot of co-productions, especially commercial ones, are still far from being culturally fluent. Some of them were simply juxtaposing cultural elements. It is not easy to graft Chinese ideas onto Western contexts, and vice versa. The whole purpose of co-production is not just to aggregate resources, but also to achieve meaningful synergy. We are hoping to enhance intercultural competencies and foster the mixing of ideas with a global perspective. Marketwise, we are looking to become the marketplace for Chinese-language films in Canada and the US.

Still from Yang Mingming’s 2018 feature Girls Always Happy

On the curatorial side of things, how did you select the three thematic categories for the festival? How did you select the films to include within each category?

I wanted to reflect on China’s socio-cultural changes since the early 20th century from various perspectives, including education, environmental protection, gender equality, and social values, to see how it was modernized, how today’s China is connected to the its past. This has become the China Retrospective program.

Tom and I found that even in Canada, where a considerable percentage of the population has a Chinese cultural background, the image of China in high school curriculum is almost entirely about China in its 1960s-’80s, the Cultural Revolution, exotic and absurd through Western cultural lenses. It is not hard to understand why some students of Chinese ethnic backgrounds tend to dissociate themselves from “China” or “Chinese.” The image of China being taught in school was too difficult, too absurd for them to relate to. Personal struggles with cultural identity have always been there, but few would even talk about it.

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On a personal level – my friend and I left China for Canada to study at U of T as international students. One day back in 2009, my friend came back home looking very upset. She told me that when she walked by an elementary school, a little boy saw her and asked his teacher immediately, “Is she from North Korea?” And I always remember that. The question was, why North Korea? We ourselves know that the Chinese are very different from the North Koreans. However, to many people who know little about East Asia, and only rely on a single source of media, China is simply a Communist country.

Here in Canada we talk about diversity all the time. Are we only talking about diversity behind closed doors, or should we be more open to each other’s smiles and, more importantly, scars? We wanted to address this through curating the films in our own way. [Co-founder] Promise [Xu] proposed a tagline: “Seeing China, one film at a time.” He’s the one who always says, “if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”

I particularly want to celebrate female directors and emerging young directors, because I guess I am looking to be one of them. I want to give them the greatest trust and encouragement, that I want to be given, hence the “Made by Women” and “Portraits of the Young” programs.

The three programs are explicit cues. Implicitly, the festival is also about two megacities, Beijing (Girls Always Happy, Together, I’ve Got a Little Problem, From Mao to Mozart) and Shanghai (I Wish I Knew, Center Stage, The Wasted Times, From Mao to Mozart), in different times. Hong Kong also has a presence (Center Stage, A Simple Life), but it isn’t very strong — we were not able to get another two titles we wanted.

These three cities are internationally well-known and culturally significant, so they are the docks where we stop our ship this year.

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How do you hope MULANIFF will fit into the international landscape of film festivals? Are there any festivals you’re modeling it after?

This year we built up everything from ground zero, and the learning curve has been steep. We do have some very bold and conceptual ideas towards the future, but we haven’t had the chance to recap. Gavin’s philosophy is, “the best way to learn is to learn from the best”, so we have been following the news of Cannes, the Toronto International Film Festival, the Shanghai International Film Festival, and the FIRST International Film Festival. But we simply couldn’t model ours after any of them.

How does MULANIFF fit into the cultural landscape of Toronto?

11.1%, or 0.333 million Torontonians have identified themselves as ethnically Chinese. However, there is currently no film festival of comparable scale devoted to Chinese-language films [in Toronto]. We hope to establish one, and become an integral part of Toronto’s cultural mosaic.

Toronto and Canada as a whole celebrate and promote diversity. We, as international students and new immigrants, fully appreciate how precious and unique this environment is. We want the culture and identity of China to go beyond just being respected — we want the real, unfiltered, and complete picture of China to be seen. Films just seem to be the perfect medium for that.

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What are your future plans for MULANIFF?

We have this vague idea that in the next five years the film industry will experience some radical changes, enough to shake up everything. However, to be honest, we are all “new students” in this field. Maybe after this year’s festival closes I will have more to say — currently we do not have any concrete plans to share.

It’s a hectic time for us now, and we haven’t had time to sit down and reflect on everything yet. Our top priority is to make sure our inaugural festival is an enjoyable experience for everyone.

One thing that we definitely want to achieve in the future is to become the platform and incubator for similar projects and all things related to Chinese films in Canada. Our passions and ambitions, however naïve and audacious, have been met with amazing support. We are deeply grateful for that, and we want to become the source of help, just like the ones we have received today, for many more future initiatives.

Find screening and ticketing info for the inaugural Mulan International Film Festival here

All photos courtesy MULANIFF

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