Indie film sales agents from mainland China remain notably scarce for a market of such immense size. The reasons behind this reality are many: The still-developing state of China’s industry, a markedly domestic focus among most local studios, and a censorship and regulatory regime that adds risk to an already commercially challenging sector of the movie business.
Beijing-based sales and production company Rediance has made an outsized impact despite the odds. The company was founded in 2017 by former film curator Meng Xing with a mission to serve the growing international needs of a cohort of young, accomplished Chinese arthouse filmmakers. The outfit found its stride with impressive speed, representing European festival award winners like Cai Chengjie’s The Widow Witch (2017), Hu Bo’s Elephant Sitting Still (2018) and Li Cheng’s José (2018). The company also has expanded into financing arthouse titles from both emerging and established arthouse names from China and afar, such as Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest feature Memoria, Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’ upcoming period drama Grand Tour and Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen’s Wet Season (2019) and The Breaking Ice (TBA).
Rediance is coming off a strong showing at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it had three titles in the selection, including Belgian director Bas Devos’ Here, which won best film in the Encounters section. Ahead of the Hong Kong’s Filmart content market, where Rediance will present two titles, The Hollywood Reporter connected with Meng for a discussion of his company’s origins and expanding ambitions.
How did Rediance’s begin?
Well, I started Radiance at a time when the Chinese film industry was really booming and there were a lot of talented young Chinese filmmakers coming onto the scene from totally different backgrounds. I got my start in film at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing’s 798 district, where I was the film curator from 2009 to 2014. At that time, there were not that many truly independent directors, aside from the short list of established names; but by 2016 and 2017 there was a big wave of young filmmakers and independent producers coming into the industry. You know, Xin Yukun had released Coffin in the Mountain (2014), Zhang Dalei put out his first feature, The Summer Is Gone, and Bi Gan was getting attention with Kaili Blues. At the same time, most of this new generation had little or no experience with international festivals and distributors. There was no mainland Chinese sales company for independent film at that time, just some longstanding companies in Hong Kong or Taiwan. Because of my curatorship and programming backgrounds, I had a lot of connections build up with sales agents and festival people all around the globe, so I thought, “What if I just started one?” If you think about it, being a curator and being a sales agent are rather similar: you pick a film you like and you introduce it to a certain audience — in the latter case festival programmers and distributors from different regions around the globe. We were lucky to start on a high note. One of our first tiles was Cai Chengjie’s The Widowed Witch, which won the Tiger Award at Rotterdam. Then we had Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still, which won the FIPRESCI Award in Berlin. So things really started taking off, because we could say we were representing some of the best in independent voices in Chinese cinema. After that we continued to work with a lot of young filmmakers, like Wei Shujun with Ripples of Life, as well as some more established directors, like Pema Tseden, the Tibetan filmmaker, whose film Balloon (2020) premiered in Venice.
Before long, you started representing directors and films from outside of China. How did that expansion come about?
My interest was always in world cinema. If you’re working with festivals and auteur films, you can’t really limit yourself geographically. So even in our early days, we started working with filmmakers from Southeast Asia and Mexico. We worked with the Belgian filmmaker Bas Devos on his 2019 film Ghost Tropic, and then we collaborated again on his latest title, Here, which won the Encounters section in Berlin last month. Now, our slate is about half Chinese films and half films from all different backgrounds and nationalities. We also have been producing from the very beginning. I produced Geng Jun’s Free and Easy and brought it to Sundance for him in 2017. That was another helpful early success, because it won a special jury award at Sundance.
It’s very easy to see the needs you were able to serve within the Chinese industry, but I’m curious if you had to do anything to manage expectations when you started working with directors and companies from outside China. Because when I talk to people in the international industry about China, there tends to be two reflexive thoughts: Big money potential (from China’s deep pocketed financiers and enormous market) versus big regulatory complications. Have you had to manage expectations from the international industry?
Well, I think international interest in the Chinese market was one of our strengths at the beginning. But I was alway careful not to overpromise anything, like “I can get your indie film distributed theatrically in China,” because I know it’s often just not going to happen. But because we are a Chinese company and we do have a lot of connections, there often is something we can possibly do for them. For example, perhaps there is a better VOD deal that we can do for them, compared to a European agency trying to sell to China from the outside. But a lot of our expansion internationally has come down to trust and reputation. One of the coproductions we did early on was Anthony Chen’s Wet Season; we handled the distribution in China and at the same time helped to sell the film to Taiwan. There was a certain trust that was built up there. So then, when he was producing Ajooma [Singapore’s entry for the best international film category at the Oscars this year], he was interested in working with us to sell the film across Asia, even though it was a Singapore-Korea coproduction that didn’t have anything to do with China. When we helped produce Apichatpong’s latest film, Memoria, which premiered in competition at Cannes, that relationship went back all the way to my days as a curator at Ullens Center. I had organized the first retrospective of his work in China and we became friends and kept in touch to see if there would someday be a way to work together. I also think people just look at our past lineup and see that there’s an interesting collection of films there, with a sensibility that they can recognize, and they become curious because there hasn’t really been a sales company from China that’s done this kind of thing before.
You mentioned how when you were starting your company, it was a very exciting time for Chinese independent cinema. What’s the situation now?
Well, how to put it … On the one hand, there are still lots of young, talented aspiring Chinese directors trying to make interesting films. So, as a producer, I fortunately get approached all of the time by young filmmakers with projects. There is still so much talent out there waiting to be developed. On the other hand, the industry overall has become a lot more constrained. It’s not as welcoming as it was before. In the past, the big local studios would put some money into a new director’s film without necessarily expecting to make a return. It was more in the sense that they were trying to find and develop new talent to work with on their other more commercial projects down the road. But over the past few years, censorship became stricter and the pandemic created huge disruptions, so suddenly the big studios weren’t sure if there was even going to be an opportunity in the market for their biggest commercial titles. So, everything tightened up. Unfortunately, that means there have been fewer and fewer opportunities for young directors lately. Late last year, they threw open the gates, people got their lives back and the film market has started to recover. But we’ll have to wait and see. It’s going to take time for the studios to get their confidence back; and it takes time for projects to get into production. It’s going to take two or three years to really see if a broad comeback in independent film is underway.
What was you experience like at Berlin’s European Film Market last month and what did it tell you about the current state of the world cinema business?
I had a great experience in Berlin! It was really great to be back in Berlin for a full-scale, in-person event after the pandemic. It was so nice to see industry friends from all over the world again. And we had three strong titles in the festival, including Wu Lang’s Absence and Bas Devos’ Here in Encounters, and a short from Zhang Dalei in the short films competition. However, it also was clear that world cinema scene is still recovering and that the past few years were really, really hard for distributors all around the globe. They still have a lot of films in their pipelines that they haven’t been able to distribute, so that’s limiting their budget to buy new titles. Indie distributors were already coping with the changes brought on by streaming, and then they had to survive COVID. On the other hand, it’s a great year for Chinese cinema. There were Chinese titles in every section of Berlin, and I think people are going to be talking about how this is a comeback year for Chinese film on the international festival stage, because there is a backlog of films from the past few years that are now ready to finally go out into the world. I’m excited about Filmart too. We’re bringing two new projects that we’re quite excited about.
What are your further international ambitions for Rediance?
Well, I’ve been positioning Rediance as an international film company since the very beginning. We have colleagues in Paris and Lisbon now. But I’d like for Rediance to not only be limited to film. I hope to expand into more cultural territories, such as books — we’re currently working on a Chinese book for Apitchatpong’s Memoria — also, merchandising, even lifestyle. I like embracing challenges and traveling to places unknown.
Last one: Where does the name Rediance come from?
[Laughs] Our Chinese name is Chi Jiao [赤角], which means stars beaming red light in the sky. So, “red” combined with “radiance,” hence: Rediance.