China back at Cannes with women's rights blockbuster

Eddie Peng stars in 'Black Dog' (Valery HACHE)
Eddie Peng stars in 'Black Dog' (Valery HACHE)

One of China's biggest-ever productions, "She's Got No Name", premiered in Cannes on Friday, bringing megastars like Zhang Ziyi to the red carpet as well as the thorny issue of women's rights.

Another Chinese film, Guan Hu's "Black Dog" was also announced as the winner of the side section, Un Certain Regard.

Hu, the director of some of the biggest blockbusters of recent years such as wartime epic "The Eight Hundred," returned to his indie roots for his new film.

"When we make films that are a little more intimate, there is less pressure, they become more sincere films," he told AFP.

"She's Got No Name," playing out-of-competition, by acclaimed Hong Kong director Peter Chan, has been generating a lot of buzz on Chinese social media thanks largely to its cast.

Zhang starred in the Oscar-winning "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Rush Hour" alongside Jackie Chan, and earned a Golden Globe nomination for "Memoirs of a Geisha".

Alongside her are Lei Jiayin, Yang Mi and Jackson Yee, of hugely successful boyband TFBoys and Oscar-nominated 2019 film "Better Days".

Also bound to draw attention is the subject matter, which is based on a notorious murder case during the 1940s Japanese occupation of Shanghai.

Zhang plays Zhan-Shou, a resilient woman in an unhappy marriage who is charged with the dismemberment of her husband.

Women's rights are sensitive territory in today's China.

Under President Xi Jinping, authorities have cracked down on almost every kind of feminist activism, restricting NGOs, arresting high-profile figures, and suspending social media accounts.

Anything seen as feminist is increasingly considered a challenge to authority, and celebrities often feel the need to publicly disavow feminism.

- Lockdown drama -

Cannes has seen a return of Chinese cinema this year after a notable absence caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the country's stringent lockdown.

The heavy-handed response of authorities to the pandemic was the subject of "An Unfinished Film", which premiered out-of-competition at the festival last week.

The highly "meta" drama shows a film crew meeting near Wuhan in early 2020. When one falls ill, others are forcibly locked in their hotel rooms for months.

Featuring amateur footage of anti-lockdown protests, the film was produced in Singapore and Germany, and is unlikely to see the light of day in China, due to strict censorship.

Other Chinese films at Cannes this year have included auteur Jia Zhang-ke's latest Palme d'Or entry, "Caught By The Tides", and "Twilight Of The Warriors: Walled In", a well-received martial arts thriller.

Meanwhile, "Black Dog" told the story of a man who returns to his home town after a spell in prison is far from the flag-waving patriotism of his commercial films.

Its director claimed there was markedly less censorship in the film industry these days.

"A few years ago, it could have hindered my work... but I find in recent years, there has been a clear improvement (in regard to censorship)," Hu told AFP.

"Today, it is the market that decides everything."

He also said international festivals were vital to diplomacy.

"It's very important to exchange with different cultures. But if we really want to understand each other, we need to go and shoot films abroad and also have others come and shoot in China. I have this desire," he said.