Xining, a Sleepy City in Northwest China, Comes Alive at Night Once a Year

Not an organic occurrence, Xining’s seasonal nightlife scene is a byproduct of the annual FIRST International Film Festival

2 0
3:48 PM HKT, Mon August 15, 2022 2 mins read

Outdoor screenings of arthouse films, performances by indie bands, and special appearances by movie stars — these are a few exciting events you would least expect from Xining, a city located in one of the remotest regions of northwest China, and home to a large population of religious minorities.

During the annual FIRST International Film Festival, a mecca for Chinese indie film buffs that runs from end July to early August, the city witnesses an influx of visitors, and the city’s demographics experience a shift. Largely composed of filmmakers, journalists, film industry workers (i.e. distributors and investors), and regular cinephiles, the temporary residents are drawn to the aforementioned nocturnal activities.

Guozhuang Square Xining

Audience members gathered at Guozhuang Square for a live music performance. Photo via Haoyi Jiang/RADII

This year’s events, however, were less cheerful due to a last-minute announcement by the festival’s organizers: Only one week before the festival kicked off, it was made known that out of the concerns over Covid-19, all events or screenings would be invite-only.

Countless netizens took to Chinese social media to comment about the announcement, and ironically called the 16th edition of the festival a “film exhibition without an audience” — a description that wasn’t entirely accurate.

Xining’s nightlife scene experiences a boom during the annual festival — think live indie concerts (marketed as ‘Xining’s Night’ by the festival organizers) and open-air screenings. Held at Guozhuang Square, the festival’s main venue for outdoor activities, such events are always well-attended by locals.

  Zhang Ziyi FIRST International Film Festival

Zhang Ziyi taking a group selfie with the public on July 31. Image courtesy of the festival

On the night of July 31, prestigious Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster was screened at the square. A sudden downpour did not dampen the audience’s enthusiasm, and their patience was rewarded with a surprise appearance by Zhang Ziyi, the lead actress in the film and a chairperson in the film competition’s jury.

Springiscoming Performance

Indie rock band Springiscoming performing at Guozhuang Square on the night of August 1. Image via Haoyi Jiang/RADII

Zhang’s presence in Xining proved so momentous that it even overshadowed other events. For instance, the next night, members of the crowd were heard muttering, “Will Zhang Ziyi be here tonight?” Mind you, this happened during a live performance by Springiscoming, an indie rock band. While Xining's inhabitants knew enough about Zhang to be starstruck, indie bands and arthouse films might be beyond their ken.

Zhang Ziyi at FIRST

Zhang Ziyi posing on the red carpet during the film festival. Image via Runjie Wang/RADII

Hui Wang, a PhD student in urban geography, informed RADII of a discrepancy between the festival’s popularity among Chinese cinephiles and its reception by the local community. Wang, who has interned for the festival, has conducted field research on the bidirectional relationship between Xining and FIRST during its last two editions.

“I’ve interviewed more than 20 Xining citizens, and most of them admitted that they’re not interested in attending events or screenings at the festival, although they have an inkling of the festival,” said Wang. Nevertheless, locals in the predominantly Muslim and eastern part of the city are barely aware of the festival.

Wang pointed out another invisible barrier for ordinary citizens to access the festival: ticket prices.

“Xining citizens do not have an interest in spending money to watch so many films in a single week,” she added.

When the screenings were made available to the general public in 2021, a one-day pass was sold for 150 RMB (about 22 USD) while an all-access pass cost 980 RMB. Considering the fact that Xining is in one of the least developed regions in China, and that the films are not commercial ones appealing to a large audience, the prices have not been cost-effective.

Handbook of FIRST International Film Festival

A page from the festival’s 2021 handbook listing ticket prices. Image courtesy of Hui Wang

For this reason, FIRST’s organizers have depended on nocturnal activities to engage with the local community. This was especially true for the 2022 edition of the festival, as the film line-up remained closed to the general public. ‘Xining’s Night’ and outdoors side screenings provided an opportunity for locals to participate in one of, if not the most, exciting event in the city’s annual calendar.

Cover photo courtesy of FIRST International Film Festival

Join the Conversation
Write comment

Frustrated? Maybe stop looking at a screen and go outside