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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is a Film Festival Ambassador to

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene.


New York Asian Film Festival 2018 - Reflections on China

One of the most popular international film festivals, the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF), was held by Subway Cinema and the Film Society of Lincoln Center at Manhattan’s Walter Reade Theater and the SVA theatres from June 29 – July 15. It has retained its prominent position as the leading festival in the United States for popular Asian films. Held now for 17 years NYAFF was started by Subway Cinema to present the most entertaining and strangest movies ranging from blockbusters to eccentric, genre, and cult films. This programming philosophy was retained after NYAFF moved uptown in 2010 to be produced in collaboration with the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Subway Cinema focuses on the exhibition of popular Asian film in all its forms to make connections between Asia and the West and offers year-round programming with screening, seminars, filmmakers’ tributes, the monthly Have Sword Will Travel series and the Old School Kung Fu Fest. 

The festival presented 58 productions,  post-screening Q & A sessions, and related seminars. With many shows sold out, the festival continued its record of previous years. The strong emphasis on Chinese films and the growing selection of productions from main land China, Hong Kong and Taiwan seem to indicate a programming shift of the New York Asian Film Festival.  It is also reflected in the close cooperation with the International Shanghai Film Festival, the largest Asian film event. Starting this year NYAFF has become Shanghai’s official US partner. The festival secured sponsorship from two Chinese government funded organizations, the China Institute and the Confucius Institute which have a global public diplomacy presence for the Chinese state. This shift follows the rapidly growing Chinese film production and consumption market and expectation that within the next ten years mainland China will be the largest global film market.

The audience for Chinese and foreign films is growing and this change of an important segment of leisure activities parallels the rapid expansion of the middle class in China and is reinforced by individual  electronic access to visual media. Contrary to the conditions in America, the Chinese film market is far from maturing. The potential for profit has attracted many new companies to the film business.  More capital and the influx of new film makers has resulted in more than 700 film productions last year and, according to some Chinese NYAFF festival panelists, has created a giant industry body with the brain of a baby.  During the first quarter of 2018 more theatrical box office was generated in China than in the United States and China became the world’s box office leader. The market share for Chinese films reached 60% in mid-2018. During the first six months of 2018 the Chinese box office was higher than the US theatrical gross revenues with local productions generating a higher revenue share according to the Xinhuat Net.  During the first 6 months two films, Operation Red Sea and Detective Chinatown 2, generated $550 million and $510 million respectively.  In July 2018 the monthly box office sales reached 1.02 billion US dollars, the highest ever.  The trade press noted that the Chinese Alibaba Pictures company may be the top grossing global company this summer.  China will become the world’s largest film market in the coming years and American studios have become dependent for many productions on Chinese funding and as a result program content and select actors accordingly. Whereas the Chinese box office has grown steadily, the 2017 US box office has declined by 2% compared to 2016.  While approximately 700 Chinese feature films were produced in 2017, for the United States the Motion Picture Association of America listed 544 productions with a budget of more than $1 million and 275 made for less than $1 million.

China’s more directive state media policy is expressed in recent appointments. The top positions of the State Bureau of Film, the State Administration of Press and Publications, and the Central Station for Radio and Television are held by individuals who have high concurrent positions in the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of China.

Nevertheless, Chinese film makers at the festival observe that there are now more chances in China to for a Director to independently produce film rather than taking the traditional route of a contract director. A growing number of 400 venues show art and independent films, a small figure as by the end of June 2018 China had 9,911 movie theaters with 50,776 screens, a number that is growing steadily. As distinct from the producer oriented United States directors play a more important role in China and gain more power if their first film is successful. However, as noted, the thematic orientation of films produced for theatrical and electronic distribution is constrained by political considerations. Because of its exposure to a variety of films, largely thanks to streaming, the Chinese audience expects fresh material and greater diversity in the genres of the films they see.  As intended, the Chinese program section has become more central in the 2018 edition of the festival; 21 productions of the 58 film program came from Chinese areas. The Hong Kong Panorama section presented 9 films, the 7 productions in the China were co-presented with the Confucius Headquarter and the China Institute, and five features originated in Taiwan.

The second largest section, with 14 productions, emphasized New Cinema from Japan. This shift was accompanied by the presence of numerous Japanese directors  described as reflecting a new wave of Japanese cinema and potential growth of the New York and North American platform for Japanese productions. The Japan Cuts film festival held after NYAFF at Japan Society from July 19- July 29 presented 29 new features and documentaries. Japan Cuts was for many years part of the New York Asian Film festival and directed by Samuel Jamier who is now in charge of the NYAFF. 

Productions from five other countries were selected; South Korea with 10 features including a world premiere,  The Age of Blood,  four  North American premieres and two films shown for the first time  in New York City, Philippines had two  world premieres among its six productions.  Buy Bust and We Will Not Die, one North American  premiere and two New York Premieres;    Among the three films from Thailand   were two North American premieres;   Of Malaysia’s two films was the North American Premiere of Crossroads: One two Jaga and the sole Indonesian entry on the program  Buffalo Boys  was a US premier.

Productions from South East Asia also played a prominent role.  They accounted for 20% of the films selected and more than 40% of the guests came from that region.  It is noteworthy that films from Malaysia and the Philippines covered police corruption and drug issues.

The 2018 New York Asian Film Festival  matched the successful record of past editions and met the expectations of the audience for popular genre films from Asia, some of which will be reviewed in the next part of this article. It is unlikely that Chinese films critical of the government will be in future editions of the festival unless the themes broadly conform to overt or covert official policies, such as the fight against corruption and criminal activities, environmental issues, or cover issues which are part of official governmental concerns such as Dying to Survive a popular film released in early July which synchs with the government’s interest in reducing the costs of overpriced cancer drugs.


Claus Mueller