Six Chinese films have been selected to screen free from February 1 to 10, 2013 in five provinces in the Philippines. They are part of the 7th Spring Film Festival organized by the Ateneo de Manila University’s Ricardo Leong Center for Chinese Studies. This 10-day cultural event is expected to attract 20,000 attendants, up from last year’s 12,000. Despite its growing popularity, the festival’s programming rationale raises a few interesting questions.

Poster for the 7th Spring Film Festival / source: ateneo-celadon.org

Because the festival is free, the major screening venue of the festival, the Shang Cinexplex of Shangri-La Plaza in Manila, must collect its dues from sources other than movie ticket sales. Food and beverages on site will obviously bring in some income. Pre-screening advertisements and other forms of advertising inside the Cineplex will probably also contribute against the overhead. However, the bulk of the cost to run the festival must come from magnanimous sponsors and partners, particularly Credit Suisse and the Confucius Institute.

The Embassy of China is one of the partner institutions too. A close look at the films chosen will show us how much power it has had to sway the lineup of the festival. The six films to be shown are 2004 to 2011 releases with mediocre box office performance. None has grossed over 60 million yuan (US$9.6m) during its theatrical run, with half below the 10 million yuan mark. Besides The Storm Warriors II (2011) and 2 Become 1 (2006) from Hong Kong, the rest are produced by state-owned production houses, and they tell wholesome stories of Chinese people overcoming adversity in modern times. Space Dream (2011), a film about Chinese astronauts, is a typical nationalist film that finds no market in China today. Without the cachet of the Embassy of China, it would not have made to the finalists for Filipino audiences.

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Educational institutions in the West often organize film festivals and film screenings too. However, these events have a penchant for independent, alternative, and sometimes underground Chinese cinema. Politically provocative and controversial films are screened to spur in-depth discussions about China, and pressing social issues are presented through them.

The Spring Film Festival in the Philippines, though organized by an educational research institution, differs from such film festivals in the West. It tries to draw more attendees, yet it does not include commercially successful pictures that have proven their merit and appeal. Its line-up does not even have a unifying theme. The series of screenings seem largely like a politically motivated endeavor for China to improve its image and soft power abroad. It makes one question if China invests in about three quarters of its domestic productions for this purpose because these films do not sell in China.

To make up for rental fees, presumably there is a minimum rental fee for each film, Filipino businesses need to pay. In exchange, they can curry favor with the Chinese state for new business opportunities. This model of cash flow may work well for China until Filipinos in Manila, Cebu, Davao, Iloilo, and Cagayan start to ditch these films, like people in China have.