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Beijing film festival picks show city's ambitions for world stage

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, making a speech in April, 2011.

Kimihiro HoshinoAFP/Getty Images/Kimihiro HoshinoAFP/Getty Images

Facebook may still be blocked in China, but some here will get a rare chance to watch the movie about creator Mark Zuckerberg's life as Beijing gets set to host an international film festival for the first time.

The awkwardness of screening a movie about Mr. Zuckerberg (who is known on the Chinese Internet as "the founder of 404 Error: Not Found") underscores the challenge Beijing will face as it tries to establish itself as a hub of the international film industry.

The content of The Social Network, which won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, is likely causing less consternation for China's busy film censors than two other films due to be screened at the inaugural Beijing International Film Festival, which begins Friday.

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The addition of Black Swan - another Oscar-winning film - has led to excited speculation over whether a racy lesbian sex scene, normally very taboo in Chinese theatres, will be shown.

Harder to edit, and an even more surprising addition to the festival, is Burnt by the Sun, a Cannes Grand Prize-winning 1994 Russian film about life and death during Stalin's purges in the former Soviet Union. The parallels between the film's story and China's own rarely discussed Cultural Revolution will be hard for anyone in the theatre to miss, particularly amid a fresh crackdown on opponents of the ruling Communist Party.

That such films are being shown at all is seen as a testament to how badly Beijing wants to claim a spot alongside Los Angeles, London and Mumbai as a global cinema centre, in addition to its standing as a global centre of diplomacy and commerce.

"It's obvious that Beijing wants to use this festival to promote the image of the city. It's basically a promotional affair," said Raymond Zhou, a Chinese film critic. "That the festival includes The Social Network and Black Swan and Burnt by the Sun says something about the city and the leeway it wrests from the authorities."

The festival is being run by the City of Beijing and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, the government body that selects and censors films allowed into the Chinese market. In other words, the censors have decided to show a few eye-catching titles in order to give their own film festival a boost.

Mr. Zhou said that will give the Beijing festival a major advantage over the 18-year-old Shanghai International Film Festival, which is not known for showing controversial films. The directors of another staple of the Chinese cinema scene, the Beijing-hosted Documentary Film Festival China, announced Monday - two weeks before its eighth annual edition was to open - that they were cancelling this year's event.

China allows the screening of only 20 foreign films a year at commercial cinemas (despite a recent World Trade Organization ruling calling for the system to be liberalized), but 100 will be shown over the course of the six-day showcase, the opening ceremonies of which will be hosted by the two biggest stars in the Chinese film stratosphere, Jackie Chan and Zhang Ziyi.

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"There's a lot of excitement about some of these films being screened publicly. There's a special significance to seeing it on the big screen, because even if you have seen it online or on DVD, it technically wasn't legal. Even if these films play for only one day, filmmakers will take a lot of mirth in that," Mr. Zhou said.

Despite a surprisingly disorganized launch - which saw the festival's agenda made public only a few days before the festival's opening, and press conferences scheduled and then cancelled with little notice - many believe the eventual success of the Beijing International Film Festival is assured. As with many other industries, the sheer size of the Chinese market means the festival will likely one day soon be a place to see and be seen for the Hollywood set.

China's domestic box office more than quadrupled in size from 2004 to 2009, and is now worth more than $6-billion annually, despite the runaway popularity and easy availability of pirated copies of Hollywood hits. With growth expected to continue at a pace of 30 per cent annually as China builds more theatres and an expanding middle class spends more of its newly disposable income on entertainment, China is expected to become the world's second-biggest movie market as early as 2015.

Chinese authorities have long since started throwing that commercial weight around, trying to fix a perceived "anti-China" bias in Hollywood. Most recently, the upcoming Red Dawn 2011 - a remake of the hit 1984 movie that saw a band of high school students led by Patrick Swayze fighting off a Soviet invasion of the mainland United States - was supposed to feature Chinese villains in the place of the Russians. Late in production, MGM Studios suddenly thought better of the idea, forcing producers to turn the invading Chinese army into a North Korean one.

"Six years ago, when I started writing for the Hollywood Reporter from China, people were asking me why. No one asks me that any more," said Jonathan Landreth, an ex-Reuters correspondent who opened the Hollywood Reporter's first office in Beijing.

" Avatar [James Cameron's hit 2009 movie]made more money in China than it did in any territory on Earth outside of the U.S. This market, for better or for worse, is a market to be contended with when it comes to entertainment content."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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