China Onscreen Biennial at Asia Society Shows Diversity of China and Chinese Film


From November 3 – December 1, Asia Society screens an eclectic selection of six acclaimed films from the third edition of the China Onscreen Biennial.  Independently curated and without a jury or competition component, the film biennial began as in 2012 as an initiative of the UCLA Confucius Institute as a “platform for honest educational and cultural engagement” between China and the United States by showing China, as chief curator Cheng-Sim Lim says, “not as an object, but as part of a specific exchange, a conversation.” New York joins Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. this year as the third city where audiences can join in this dialogue.

The films and their directors reflect China’s diversity as they weave universal stories of the human condition into unique cultural and historic backdrops.  Traditions and beliefs of Hui Muslims, relatively unknown compared to the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, are featured in A Knife in the Water 《清水里的刀子》, while River 《河》 touchingly explores, through three generations of a Tibetan family, the need for and complexity of relationships.  Traditional notions of Chinese parent-child relationships are dispelled in the immersive ATA 《照见》 and pained A Simple Goodbye 《告别》.  Social and political upheaval reverberate through Trivisa 《树大招风》, a noir-ish gangster film by protégés of Johnnie To (one of whom was a director who contributed to the controversial Ten Years) set at the border of Hong Kong and China just prior to the 1997 handover and the classic 1964 film Stage Sisters 《舞台姐妹》, which follows two female Chinese opera performers through the decades leading up to the Cultural Revolution and is presented in a 4k restoration for the first time in New York.

Asia Society has provided us with three pairs of tickets to each screening.  If you’re interested in seeing any of these films, send an email with the title of the film in the subject line.  Update 11/3: The first four films are free.  We’re still giving away tickets for the last two.

See the synopses, trailers and screening times for each film below.  A few reviews are also included.


A Simple Goodbye 《告别》
Dir. by Degena Yun, 2015
97 min. DCP. Color. 
Thursday, November 3, 6:30 PM

An understated, semi-autobiographical story of a father and daughter, each equally adrift at opposite ends of their lives. Writer/director Degena Yun also stars in the movie, as a college dropout who withdraws from reality into virtual relationships, while her father—diagnosed with cancer and facing death—recedes into memories of his career as a leading Mongolian filmmaker. Their separate but parallel lives cross—and clash—in their last days together.


Trivisa 《树大招风》
Dir. by Jevons Au, Frank Hui, Vicky Wong, 2016
96 min. DCP. Color.
In Cantonese, Mandarin and Thai, with English subtitles
Friday, November 4, 6:30 PM

Taking its name from the Buddhist idea of the “three root poisons” of greed, anger and ignorance, Trivisa tells the tale of a chance encounter between three gangsters plying the border between Hong Kong and China just before the British administrative handover of Hong Kong in the summer of 1997. This intricate tale was filmed by three young directors who were mentored by veteran auteur Johnnie To. Trivisa cleverly interweaves plans gone awry, missed opportunities and dead ends, reimagining not just the end of an era, but the explosive beginnings of 21st-century Hong Kong.

Hollywood Reporter says the film is an “engaging, reflective, and topical criminal thriller” which the directors claim to be a trilinear allegory about the source of Hong Kong’s decline after its return to Chinese sovereignty.


River 《河》
Dir. by Sonthar Gyal, 2015
94 min. DCP. Color.
In Tibetan, with English subtitles
Saturday, November 5, 2 PM

The rich complexity of human relationships is central to this story of a young girl, her father, and his father, who each long to strengthen their bonds, but find themselves fighting the weight of personal and national histories. Tibetan writer-Director Sonthar Gyal (The Sun-Beaten Path) makes breathtaking use of the Tibetan plains and mountains as an epic backdrop to this intimate family drama.

Hollywood Reporter loved the cinematography and says its exploration of the complexity of human relations is “marvelously understated”.


Stage Sisters 《舞台姐妹》
Dir. by Xie Jin
1964. 112 min. 4K DCP. Color.
In Mandarin, with English subtitles
Saturday, November 5, 6:30 PM

In this lush backstage drama set in the decades leading up to 1949, a pair of Chinese opera actresses sing their way from the countryside to the city and back again. Caught up in Cultural Revolution power struggles, veteran director Xie Jin’s portrait of female solidarity and awakening political consciousness was banned almost immediately but revived in the 1980s as a masterpiece of Chinese filmmaking, and is now newly released in this magnificent 4K digital restoration by L’Immagine Ritrovata for the Shanghai International Film Festival.

The New York Times reviewed the film when it was part of (Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949 – 1966, a sidebar to the New York Film Festival that presented films released between establishment of the People’s Republic of China and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.


ATA 《照见》
Dir. by Chakme Rinpoche, 2014
94 mins. DCP. Color.
In Mandarin with English subtitles
Tuesday, November 29, 6:30 PM

Tianyu is a blind boy whose mother believes his only chance for a future is to become a champion disabled ping-pong player. Tianyu has other ideas – envisioning a much wider world than his mother understands. When he goes missing, she is forced to see things as he does in this beautiful, spiritually suffused debut feature from Tibetan writer-director Chakme Rinpoche.   Rinpoche won Best Director at the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival in Australia.

Perry Lam of the Rochford Street Review is in awe of the film as an emotional and sensory experience.  the film when it screened at the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival in Australia where the Rinpoche won Best Director.


Knife in Clear Water 《清水里的刀子》
Dir. by Wang Xuebo, 2016
93 min. DCP. Color.
In Mandarin with English subtitles
December 1, 6:30 PM (New York Premiere)

In the far mountains of Ningxia province, Muslim elder Ma Zishan mourns his deceased wife. His son wants to sacrifice the family’s only bull in memory of his mother, yet Zishan’s sorrow and his love for the old animal leave him unsure of the correct path. Even prayers and the Imam don’t seem to erase his doubts… until one morning the bull stops eating and drinking. Has it seen the knife in the clear water? This lyrical first feature is the latest from the producing team of last year’s brash new Chinese indie and festival favorite Kaili Blues.

Variety says the film is a “somber elegy richly lensed like a rotating gallery of oil paintings” and its “its swarthy lighting of primitive, electricity-free interiors and blending of human figures into stunning images of parched, mountainous terrain in Ningxia do evoke the abstract-realism of Wyeth and the rural lyricism of Millet.”