What to catch at this year's Beijing International Film Festival

Indie and international favourites come to Beijing for this year's festival

Nobody Knows

Beijing may be the centre of China’s film scene, but it’s hard to tell most of the time. Beijingers are often lucky to see anything but commercial blockbusters on multiplex screens. But for a week in April, everything changes. You can see silent films and arthouse classics in cinemas around the city, plus retrospectives and new-ish films from major international directors.

In other words, the Beijing International Film Festival is back. If you want to see something more sophisticated than the new Smurfs movie in an actual cinema, this is your chance. We’ll be among the first to admit that the festival has its issues. Selected movies are sporadically subject to government censorship, and while the choice of movies has grown better over the years, it can still be pretty dodgy. We’re not sure anyone was crying out for a retrospective of rare films like the entire line-up of both the Pirates of the Caribbean and Fast and Furious series, but the Beijing International Film Festival is bringing them to you anyway. That said, while the selection may be a mixed bag, it’s still got plenty of treasures. We’ve picked out the best of them for you.

Hirokazu Koreeda retrospective

still walking

Hirokazu Koreeda might be the last of the great Japanese directors. While most of the country’s film industry has sunken into either extreme niches or bland commercial crowd-pleasing, Koreeda has maintained the humanist spirit of Japanese postwar greats like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. His topics are often serious and his filmmaking style is deliberate and refined, but he’s also a remarkably accessible director. It’s not something that can be said about most 'serious' filmmakers, but a good number of Koreeda’s movies are downright heartwarming.

Chief among those surprisingly touching movies is his 1998 film Afterlife, which takes as its premise the idea that anyone passing into the afterlife will have a week to stage a short film of their fondest memory from life, the only memory they’ll be able to take with them into whatever lies beyond. Also showing as part of the festival retrospective are the critically acclaimed, Ozu-esque Still Walking, the emotionally devastating Nobody Knows and a nice pair of affecting films about modern childhood and parenting in Like Father, Like Son and I Wish.

David Lynch retrospective

blue velvet

David Lynch famously argued that life doesn’t make sense, so why should art? If there’s anything the past year proved, it’s that life really, really doesn’t seem to make much sense right now, so perhaps there’s no better time to enjoy the works of cinema’s most famous living surrealist. For anyone looking for a place to start, we’d recommend Blue Velvet, in which a young man uncovers the increasingly strange and disturbing layers under his hometown’s suburban idyll. For those more familiar with the director, Lost Highway is a good choice. The movie’s complicated (some would say incomprehensible) narrative split critics when it came out, but its stylish, creeping sense of menace makes it one of his more underrated gems. Also screening at the festival are classics like The Elephant Man, Wild at Heart and Eraserhead.

New films

the red turtle

There’s more than just retrospectives at the festival. If you’ve been looking to catch up with international arthouse releases from the past year or so, this is your chance. We’d particularly recommend 20th Century Women, directed by Mike Mills. The movie is an observant and charming look at a teenage boy growing up with three generations of women in a boarding house in the small Californian city of Santa Barbara during the late ‘70s. Similarly understated and critically acclaimed is hipster fave Jim Jarmusch’s newest film Paterson, about a New Jersey bus driver and amateur poet played by Adam Driver.

Also showing at the festival is Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta, based off a set of stories by Alice Munro, about a middle-aged woman who discovers her long-lost daughter is now living in the same city as her. Acclaimed Quebecois director Xavier Dolan’s latest movie It’s Only the End of the World, about a terminally ill writer returning home to deal with some seriously unhealthy family dynamics, is showing at the festival as well. The festival’s animation showcase, meanwhile, features a couple of stunners in the experimental French animation The Girl Without Hands and the wordless The Red Turtle, which is the first Studio Ghibli film helmed by a non-Japanese director. Whatever you’re looking to catch, we recommend you act fast – tickets go on sale on the 31st and tend to sell out fast.

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