LOCARNO, Switzerland — Thanks largely to financing by a university teacher, Bi Gan was able to make his first feature film, “Kaili Blues,” an elliptical story about a man’s family relationships and his journey through the lush rural hilltowns of Guizhou Province in China. He even received approval from official censors. But its art house techniques and narrative style guarantee a minuscule Chinese audience.
The film, however, has found a natural outlet: the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland, a top-tier festival at a lake resort town that has had a long relationship with Asian cinema. “Kaili Blues” had its premiere there on Tuesday. (The festival began on Aug. 5 and ends Saturday.)
“I knew that my movie was good, but I didn’t know there were that many people who shared the same views on this film before the Locarno film festival invited me,” said Mr. Bi, 26. “Now I think more people will be able to appreciate it.”
Now in its 68th year, Locarno has emerged as one of the most important Western festivals to support Asian film, particularly works without big box-office prospects. For mainland Chinese filmmakers, that kind of affirmation from foreign industry insiders has become more crucial in recent years, as various levels of government under President Xi Jinping carry out the broadest crackdown on free expression since 1989. One year ago, for example, the police in the Beijing suburb of Songzhuang shut down one of China’s most important independent film festivals. (The films that were never shown there are being presented by North American curators and filmmakers this month and in September on screens across New York.)
So for a young Chinese filmmaker, being selected for Locarno can be a critical step in building a career. Those filmmakers are also aware that as recently as 2010, Locarno awarded its top prize, the Golden Leopard, to a Chinese work: “Winter Vacation,” a humorous noncommercial film by Li Hongqi, an unknown director. Last year, when Locarno showed “The Dossier,” a film by Zhu Rikun about Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan dissident, Chinese officials complained about its inclusion to festival organizers before the screening.
“The most important thing for us is the artistic director’s independence, free from economic and political pressures,” said Marco Solari, president of Locarno, referring to the festival’s creative head.
Despite the approval for theatrical distribution that “Kaili Blues” received this month from the central Chinese film censorship bureau, Mr. Bi said he knew that there were only a handful of theaters that would agree to show it. “I don’t really expect too many Chinese viewers to watch it,” he said. The main audience might well be found on the festival circuit outside China, where viewers seek something more than the dynastic action films or yuppie romantic comedies that do well at the Chinese box office.
“Films are not just about entertainment,” Mr. Bi said. “There are people who might need this type of film. We can’t turn off the light in the street just because there is only one person walking down the road.”
Carlo Chatrian, Locarno’s artistic director, said “Kaili Blues” was “one of the first films we selected.”
“It’s a new way of looking at inner China,” he added.
Besides Mr. Bi’s film, which was shown in a competition for first- and second-time feature filmmakers, Locarno also screened “Mr. Zhang Believes,” about a man’s 23-year labor camp experience during the Mao years. The film is based on a memoir. The director, Qiu Jiongjiong, declined to be interviewed for this article, citing the current political climate in China.
The festival gave Chinese filmmakers another kind of boost this year. Starting Aug. 4, Locarno hosted a traveling workshop called “Bridging the Dragon” that aims to bolster co-production partnerships for both European and Chinese films. Five projects from Europe and five from China have been selected.
The festival’s support of Asian film goes beyond mainland China. Programmers this year have selected films from South Korea, Japan, Cambodia and Iran. The festival gave an award to Office Kitano, the production company of Takeshi Kitano, the prominent Japanese director and actor, for the company’s help in producing films from Asia.
Of the 33 films in the festival’s main competitions, one-third are from the Middle East and Asia.
In the festival’s signature locale, the Piazza Grande in the old center of Locarno, an Indian film and a Taiwanese film were shown. On Tuesday night, the Indian film, “Bombay Velvet,” a period gangster movie directed by Anurag Kashyap, drew more than 8,000 spectators, despite a steady drizzle of rain before the film began. In introducing the film, Mr. Kashyap told the audience that he had come to Locarno with his early movie “Black Friday” 11 years ago. “I was born here,” he said.
The Taiwanese film, “The Laundryman,” directed by Lee Chung, is the only first-time feature being shown in the Piazza Grande this year.
“It’s a unique combination of different genres: the ghost story, the thriller story and melodrama,” Mr. Chatrian said. “Visually, it’s quite strong. It’s filled with humor. I think they did something new.”
Locarno’s support of Asian films is mostly a result of the interests of its programmers. Locarno’s head programmer, Mark Peranson, is regarded as a supporter of global experimental cinema. Shelly Kraicer, a curator and a former Beijing resident, has informally advised the programmers here on Chinese films. A former consultant on programming, Jacob Wong, was also a champion of Chinese cinema.
But industry insiders point to Marco Müller, the artistic director from 1991 to 2000, as the figure who established Locarno as an important place for little-known Asian filmmakers. Mr. Müller studied Mandarin while growing up in Rome, and went to China as an exchange student in 1976, at the end of the Cultural Revolution. Under him, Locarno helped bring to prominence mainland Chinese and Iranian filmmakers. In 2000, Mr. Müller showed the film “Father,” directed by the well-known novelist Wang Shuo, to the festival, despite its being banned from release for years in China. The film won the Golden Leopard that year.
Earlier in Mr. Müller’s tenure, the festival held the world premiere of “Chungking Express,” the film that made the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai into a critics’ favorite across the West.
“I was keen to prove there was an audience for the most original directors from Chinese and Japanese genre cinema,” Mr. Müller said in an email.
For mainland Chinese filmmakers, admission to Locarno can lead to screenings at other festivals. A low-budget production from China needs to show at only about 15 European festivals to recoup production costs, said Alex Chung, a co-producer of “Winter Vacation,” the 2010 Golden Leopard winner. Many festivals pay a screening fee for the films.
But Mr. Chung said that Chinese filmmakers, despite the difficulties of getting independent or artistic films shown at home, should avoid looking mainly to Locarno or other European film festivals.
“It’s not healthy for Chinese filmmakers to show only in Europe,” said Mr. Chung, who grew up in Taiwan and now lives outside Locarno. “They should have a local audience.”
Yet, when adventurous Chinese film festivals like the annual one at Songzhuang are being muzzled by officials, the filmmakers have little choice.
“Locarno consistently champions some of the most interesting and somewhat off-the-radar films coming out of mainland China,” said Karin Chien, the founder of dGenerate Films, which picked up “Winter Vacation” for distribution in the United States and is now part of Icarus Films. “It provides a much-needed platform to mainland Chinese indies.”
Correction: August 14, 2015
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of the founder of dGenerate films. She is Karin Chien, not Karen.