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The Ultimate Showcase Of Chinese Film In Los Angeles Kicks Off Tonight

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Opening tonight at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood (one of the best movie theaters in Los Angeles) will be an extensive and geographically sprawling review of Chinese films that aims to provide a glimpse at the nation's increasingly expanding place in world cinema while also looking back on its past. The 2nd Chinese Onscreen Biennial will feature events and screenings across town at REDCAT, Pomona College, and even AFI Festival before moving across the country to Washington, D.C. and also Hawaii.

Although Hollywood now relies heavily on the Chinese market, increasingly catering their films to appeal more to Asian audiences, the reverse has yet to truly happen in the cross-Pacific exchange. Chinese films are increasingly gaining more attention to Western audiences, but the acclaim is generally limited to festival and arthouse titles; no film from China has quite reached the financial heights in America as the Transformers and Iron Man franchises have in China. The Chinese Onscreen Biennial won't be changing that anytime soon, nor does it have aspirations to, but it does have a lofty goal in mind.

"It is a film event which we hope will generate a larger cultural discussion," says Cheng-Sim Lim, the chief curator of the biennial. "We were interested in thinking about film culture in relation to the larger cultural questions." Just like America, China is a nation and culture of multiplicity. Films like the documentary Cut Out The Eyes, "a vibrant portrait of folk and popular culture in Inner Mongolia," shine a light on the rural and minority populations of the frontiers, while the shorts program Wild Women (at REDCAT), are just a sign of the every increasing voice of women in Chinese culture.

A major theme that has always run through Chinese cinema is a look back at the past, particularly to the trauma of World War II and, more recently with a thaw in politics and culture, the scar of the Cultural Revolution. Opening night film Red Amnesia is a painful look at how past haunts the present, no doubt made even more relevant now with the events in Hong Kong. The Biennial will also feature cinema of the past, with rare screenings of underappreciated director Wu Tianming, who helped put Chinese cinema in the international conversation in the 1980s as the head of the Xi'an Film Studio. The Old Well, screening tomorrow night, is generally thought of as his masterpiece. Also featured are two from Jiang Wen, one of the biggest movie stars in Chinese history, including 1994's In The Heat Of The Sun, one of the first major Chinese films to frankly address the Cultural Revolution.

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But the slate in the biennial isn't strictly limited to arthouse dramas, documentaries or shorts. Although mainstream popular entertainment isn't the type of films one would expect at a program like this, two of the biggest successes at the Chinese box office this year are featured as a part of the lineup. The Continent, written and directed by the immensely popular blogger and writer (and racecar driver) Han Han, was the #9 grossing film in China this year and will make its North American debut at the Billy Wilder on November 1st. The prize-winning and critically acclaimed Black Coal, Thin Ice, a more modest box office hit, will have its California premiere at the AFI Festival. Both films are more in the vein of niche genre films (respectively, an aimless roadtrip of wandering youth and a dark crime thriller), and Lim sees them as analogues to the Coen Brothers in America, with both their critical and box office success.

Another part of what makes the biennial such a valuable program is the unusual opportunity to see a large number of films that may have not even seen a release in their home country. With infamous restrictions on content from the state censor boards, many Chinese filmmakers have been placed in the unusual situation of having a much wider audience abroad than in their home country. Jia Zhangke's A Touch Of Sin, the most critically acclaimed Mainland Chinese film of 2013, never even saw a domestic release despite official approval. "We show films that we want to show. Whether the films are approved by the Chinese censorship board for their domestic release has no impact on us. Both in 2012 and this year, we have shown films that haven't even gone through the approval process," says Lim.

The China Onscreen Biennial 2014 runs from October 17 through November 14 in Los Angeles at the Billy Wilder Theater (Westwood), REDCAT (downtown), and Pomona College. Most screenings are at the Billy Wilder Theater. For more program information and tickets, check their official website.