Crafting a Festival: AD Wei Shen Discusses the Making of MulanIFF 2019
Mulan International Film Festival 2019
Toronto is littered with festivals that celebrate culture and identity through the arts. It is no surprise. With over 180 languages and dialects spoken, the city – and indeed the rest of Canada – warrant the need for specialized festivals that help put a spotlight on individual cultures; opportunities for all of us to immerse ourselves in something new. The Mulan International Film Festival is such an opportunity.
Celebrating its second year, the festival puts a spotlight on Chinese culture, and aims to start a dialogue about what it means to be “Chinese”, both in China and around the world. The festival comes together through the effort and passion of volunteers, individuals who have dedicated a portion of their time throughout the year to help inform and share every aspect of China through the power of film.
Wei Shen, the festivals Artistic Director, sits down for a chat with me to discuss the making of the festival, the 2019 programming, and what she aims audiences will take away from the lineup presented.
Be sure to visit mulanfestival.com to learn more about and watch films from this year’s line-up.
What was the inspiration behind the line-up for the 2019 Mulan International Film Festival?
The second edition has evolved to include four programmes, as opposed to the three last year. We have created a new program called “Fountainhead”, which celebrates and promotes emerging talents and their works with creative originality. We ran an open call for entries; first and second feature films, and short films. I led the programming team to pre-select the films, and I invited an advisory committee consisting of industry experts and film scholars to decide on the final list. Many film festivals around the world have sections or programmes dedicated to discovering emerging talents; our mentality is no different.
Additionally, I wanted to reflect on China’s socio-cultural changes since the early 20th century from various perspectives: education, environmental protection, gender equality, and social values. I wanted to see how China has modernized, how today’s China is connected to its past. This became the China Retrospective programme.
Also, I particularly wanted to celebrate female directors and emerging directors, because I guess I am looking to be one of them. I want to give them the trust and encouragement that I would want to be given. Lili 莉莉 is a popular, gentle Chinese name for girls. At some point in life, you will always encounter a woman named Lili. It is a name for all. Leviathan, in this context, represents a body that controls all resources. “Lili vs. Leviathan”, as a result, is quite self-explanatory. Just look at the data from 2018: Of the top 250 films produced in the US, only 8% were directed by female directors. How depressing!
The festival is a labour of love in every sense of the word. Run and managed completely by volunteers, what was the driving force for you to get involved and share stories about China?
The Mulan International Film Festival was founded in 2018 by seven University of Toronto alumni whose average age is under 30. None of us majored in a cinema-related field, and none of us had any professional experience in the film industry.
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 since our early university years.
Two years ago, Tom Wang (Executive Director) 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 make films. (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 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. 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 couldn’t imagine starting this festival without them. They are passionate, sincere, and genuine to themselves. I can’t thank them enough.
Tom did not want to name it the “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. Another co-founder, Amy Chen, 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 a 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 meaning to the name. We happily moved forward with Mulan.
Toronto is easily one of the most diverse cities in the world, with a very large Chinese-origin population. Why is it still crucial that festivals like Mulan exist in continuing that discussion about culture, background, and identity within society when it comes to China and its people?
With such a long and rich history and culture, China boasts such mesmerizing complexities and uniqueness. It is just impossible to tell a full story with one or a few aspects. Regardless of your knowledge about China and its culture, you can always learn about new sides.
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 the high school curriculum is almost entirely about China in the 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.
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 our current tagline: “Seeing China, one film at a time.”
What do you hope people will get out of the festival this year, and what would be your recommendations to individuals who hope to navigate this year’s lineup?
I always hope that one could see things beyond films; they could reflect on their own lives, and stay true to themselves just as real artists and creators always do.
If they are to see only one film in our lineup this year, it should be director FEI Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948), voted as the greatest Chinese film ever made. I also recommend seeing one film from each of our programmes; each film would speak for itself and encourage you to explore more.
Images: Courtesy, Mulan International Film Festival
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