Beijing hopes European festival veteran with love for Chinese cinema will raise event profile

The veteran European festival chief that Beijing hopes will raise the profile of its annual film event says his passion for movies stems from trips to China that started during the Cultural Revolution.

Marco Mueller's latest of more than 100 trips to China is as general adviser to the fifth Beijing International Film Festival that opens Thursday. The Swiss-Italian's hiring is part of attempts by Beijing municipal government and national film authorities to promote their festival, along with an international jury led by Luc Besson and a speech by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Mueller first visited China in 1974 as part of a batch of European exchange students and scholars. It was toward the end of Chairman Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution in which millions were persecuted for their political beliefs, social background or because of personal vendettas.

Already proficient in Mandarin, Mueller asked if he could research his master's thesis on mass literature at a university rather than study at a Beijing language institute.

He jumped at an offer to go to Manchuria, in China's northeast. However, once there, he could do little research because libraries were closed to foreign exchange students and scholars.

So he decided to focus on film and started going to the movies twice a day. This too eventually left him frustrated, largely because of China's strict restrictions on film during that period, when even classics from the earlier Communist Party period were banned. In the packed university auditorium in a 1950s Soviet-style building in Liaoning province, he saw movie adaptations of revolutionary operas, North Korean films and Soviet classics.

"I started watching a lot of Albanian historical dramas, Romanian thrillers — some Romanian thrillers only lasted 55 minutes because nothing extreme ... not even a kiss, was allowed on screen at that time," Mueller said in an interview this week.

His impression of Chinese cinema suddenly changed when he was studying in Nanjing as China entered a new era in 1976.

"Very quickly the films that had been forbidden during the Cultural Revolution started coming out," said Mueller, adding that he was amazed at their wealth and variety. "Films were playing in football stadiums with gigantic audiences."

He said that some revolutionary melodramas had been revived, and "through the special genre that melodrama is you could project a lot of the interpersonal conflicts that could otherwise never hit the screen."

He saw the 1961 classic revolutionary drama "Red Detachment of Women" — about a servant girl abused by a village warlord who is rescued and ends up joining and leading a troop of women soldiers — and its director, Xie Jin, immediately became his favorite.

In 1982 in Turin, Italy, Mueller put on the first major retrospective on the history of Chinese cinema held outside China. Some films had been regarded as lost by China's film archivists, so he went hunting for them. He found a trove from the 1940s in the basement of the Golden Eagle theater in Havana's old Chinatown.

He promoted Chinese films when he was artistic chief at the Rome, Venice and Locarno film festivals. Beijing has asked him to be chief consultant for the city's festival for five years, but he says he is testing it this year.

Fifteen films will compete for the festival's 10 Temple of Heaven Awards, including best feature film and best director. They include South Korean "The Whistleblower," U.S. movie "Experimenter," Indian film "Fig Fruit and the Wasps," and two Chinese films, "Wolf Totem" and "The Taking of Tiger Mountain."

Mueller, who has produced several films including the Oscar-winning 2001 Bosnian film "No Man's Land," selected the international films along with a team of his programmers. They whittled 500 candidates and presented 40 of them to the festival's executive committee, comprised of film professors, researchers and professionals, including distributors. The committee further pared the list by eliminating what would likely be rejected by China's censors, Mueller said.

All the non-Chinese nominated films will have their international premieres at the eight-day festival, as opposed to just their Asian premiere or China premiere, as in years past.

Other films being screened during the festival include many that haven't played in mainland theaters, including this year's Oscar winners "Birdman" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel."

The festival is different from the grassroots Beijing Independent Film Festival, which showcases independent films that aren't approved for release in China, frequently runs into trouble from authorities and was blocked from taking place last year.