Thoughts from the 2014 London Film Festival

By Fraser Elliot

I managed to get down to the capital for a couple of days during this year’s London Film Festival (LFF). While I was only there for a couple of days, I was surprised by the obvious effort to show a large and diverse selection of Chinese-language films.


In terms of major events, the world première of Kung Fu Jungle (一個人的武林), by director Teddy Chan and martial arts superstar Donnie Yen, was held in Leicester Square. This red carpet event had a strong turnout, including the hundred or so of us who waited outside in the pouring rain for a glimpse of Yen and Chan. There was also a screening of classic silent film The Goddess (神女) with a live orchestral accompaniment in a clever move to open the BFI’s “Century of Chinese Cinema” season up to the receptive festival audience.

Dearest (親愛的), director/producer Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s latest, was selected as a leading film in the festival’s Official Competition. While it missed out on the award to Leviathan (Dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev) it was given prominent placement in the LFF programme and granted an extra screening thanks to its competition status. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I was unable to see these three films, but I did make it to four others: Black Coal, Thin Ice (白日焰火), Exit (迴光奏鳴曲), No Man’s Land (无人区), and Shadow Days (鬼日子).

Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014)

Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014)

Both Black Coal, Thin Ice and No Man’s Land were in competition for the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival this year so their appearance and popularity in London was to be expected; both played to vast, sold out audiences in the Vue cinema in Islington. Black Coal uses the familiar aesthetic of China’s “urban generation” films to tell a surprisingly complex murder-mystery plot while No Man’s Land plays like a hilarious and disturbing Coen brothers film starring some of China’s leading actors. Neither film disappointed, so I’m hoping there were some UK distributors there taking notes!

On the opposite end of the spectrum were Exit and Shadow Days. Exit is a Taiwan/Hong Kong production about the emotional and physical isolation of a middle aged women in Taiwan that can sit quite comfortably in the Tsai Ming Liang/Hou Hsiao Hsien canon of “slow cinema”. Shadow Days, on the other hand, is an explicit and violent critique of China’s one child policy that fits neatly into the ever popular stream of anti-government productions that often find traction abroad.

The LFF was, therefore, certainly a diverse event for fans of Chinese-language film, though I do have some caveats with the way the films were presented. In a useful effort that moved away from the problems inherent in categorising films by nation, this year’s LFF assorted its 248 films into eleven distinct themes: instead of “Polish”, “Chinese” or “French” we had “Thrill”, “Journey”, “Dare”, and so on.

This admirable attempt was not without its own problems. The deliberately paced Black Coal, Thin Ice felt out of place in the “Thrill” category which promised “nerve-shredders that’ll get your adrenalin pumping” and I can’t help but wonder if blockbuster action-fantasy The White Haired Witch of the Lunar Kingdom (白髮魔女傳之明月天國) would have shown in the “Cult” section if it weren’t for its Chinese-language status. It was also a shame that there were no Chinese-language films in the “Laugh” or “Family” categories as this continues to marginalise Chinese comedies and family films in favour of niche, “art-house” or politically conscious productions.

All in all, this year’s London Film Festival was a strong and diverse event for Chinese-language productions. Black Coal, Thin Ice was a personal favourite, but I’d be thrilled if any of these films were picked up by local distributors.

Fraser Elliott is a PhD student at the University of Manchester. His current research investigates how Chinese language films fit within wider British film culture. He is especially interested in the difficulties faced by those who want to increase the presence of Chinese language films in the UK

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A Touch of Sin

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The Cornerhouse is screening Jia Zhangke’s ‘A Touch of Sin’ (Tian zhu ding, 2013) in May.Based loosely on King Hu’s 1971 wuxia epic “A Touch of Zen’, it is a powerful and violent meditation on the lives of four workers in contemporary China driven to the ends of their tolerance by the pressures placed on their daily lives.
The film has been well recieved in the West, winning Best Screenplay at Cannes as well as being nominated for the Palme d’Or in 2013. In China, the film has had some difficulties with SAPPRFT (State Administrationof Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television) who have yet to give it a release date and in a leaked dictate, The Central Propaganda Bureau instructed media outlets not to comment on the film.
“It has come as little surprise that Jia’s film has languished in limbo, perhaps because of a change of heart by the censors,” said The New York Times. “[He] insisted in August that the censors, when they read the initial script of the film, had asked for few changes and were more concerned about snatches of dialogue than the blood-soaked violence. They did recommend that the killings be toned down and the body count lowered, but Jia rebutted them in a written reply, and they relented.” The film, however, remains in limbo.
The Chinese Film Forum,UK welcomes this excellent opportunity to see Jia’s provocative film in Manchester.

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American Dreams in China

As the Chinese New Year approaches, CFFUK is pleased to announce that this years’ CNY film event at the Cornerhouse will be ‘American Dreams in China’ directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan (2013)

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The film is a coming of age comedy drama which follows three school friends as they begin their international business careers in the new entrepeneurial China. The screening is on Tuesday, 4th Febuary at 6-30 and is supported bt the Confucius Institute at the University of Manchester.

It is preceeded by a one hour introduction ‘Exploring the Chinese Dream’ by Dr William Schroeder (Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Manchester) at 5-15. Dr Schroeder will explore the contempoary notion of the ‘Chinese Dream’ so prevalent in the People’s Republic public media and widely debated.

It is hoped that you will be able to attend both events to help the Chinese Film Forum, UK usher in and celebrate the Year of the Horse.

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Chinese Cinemas in and outside of China — A CFFUK conference report

By Juliette Ledru

Held in Cornerhouse, Manchester, from October 11th to October 13th 2013, this autumnal session closed the first cycle of the Chinese Film Forum UK conferences. The cycle began in 2010 with a launch symposium. By the end of the year 2011, the CFFUK had worked on a film program and in 2012, a symposium was organized, followed by another series of screenings in July the same year. In January 2013 a second symposium took place. We have come full circle with a fantastic three-day conference, including the premiere screening of Louisa Wei’s Golden Gate Girls (2013), keynote lectures by Professor Rey Chow and Dr Song Hwee Lim, as well as a screening of UFO in Her Eyes (Xiaolu Guo, 2011). The conference took place over 14 panels, each offering discussions on various aspects of Chinese cinemas in and outside China, from their contexts of production to issues of gender and transculturalism.

Spring in a Small Town (Fei Mu, China 1948)

The first keynote lecture of the conference was given by Professor Rey Chow (Duke University, USA). Professor Chow spoke eloquently on the film, Spring in a Small Town (Fei Mu, 1948), a controversial work which was severely criticized in 1948. Meant to tackle the theme of female repression in China, this movie is permeated with the Confucian imperative of fa hu qing, zhi huli, which can be understood as “self-restraint.” However, it also discusses the concept of “heterotopia” theorized by Michel Foucault and uses it as an alternative space. In the light of this patriarchal context which leads to a false choice between husband and lover, the heroine suggests the absence of any choice between the two men. In the second keynote lecture, Dr Song Hwee Lim (University of Exeter) analyzed the concept of the Sinophone, a term which has come to replace that of “diaspora.” Dr Lim pondered over the idea of the “voice” of the Sinophone, and argued that accents can be put on, to the point that the myth of an “authentic native speaker” can be created.

On the first day of the conference, we had the privilege of attending the premiere of the documentary Golden Gate Girls (Louisa Wei, 2013). Featuring pictures, videos and testimonies about Esther Eng, Dorothy Arzner, Anna May Wong, the film beautifully presented the challenges met by these three women, more especially Esther Eng, the first Asian-American female director and a pioneer woman director in media reportage. In the course of our conference, Louisa Wei (City University of Hong Kong) also lectured on Esther Eng and discussed the significance of this artist on the American cultural scene.

Eddie Bertozzi (SOAS, London) opened the conference by tackling the notion of independent cinema and thinking over the changes which occurred over a period of twenty years. If this early nineties phenomenon can be viewed as the result of underground and film festival productions, it was argued that the most prominent change was the strategy of indifference held by the censors, which has led to a lack of interest from the press and the industry delegates, paving the way for a certain marginality of the field. Flora Lichaa (INALCO, Paris) expanded the discussion on the very term “independence.” It is now a site of expression, a “symbolic concept” which has led to the creation of a specific language and specific themes. To problematize this discussion even further, Hu Lidan (University of Edinburgh) presented what can be viewed as the first feminist movie: Egg and Stone (Huang Ji, 2012). This movie addresses controversial issues through the disturbing and sober narrative about a young girl living with her uncle and aunt while her parents are far away. The feeling of entrapment and anxiety is expressed through unsettling images meant to disturb the audience.

The role of the audience was further explored during a second panel where Chinese cinemas were explored through the the notion of reception. Yuan Yilei (University of Glasgow) tackled the issues at stake in the subtitling of Chinese cinema. In her case study of A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (Zhang Yimou, 2009), she explored the various strategies used to translate Chinese cinema for English-speaking audiences, giving the example the omission of certain scenes or conversations. Mavis Chan (University of Sussex) gave emphasis to the cultural identification of Chinese audiences. Through interviews and ethnographic devices, Mavis Chan showed that the reception of works by different kinds of Chinese diasporas was determined by the various contexts of reception.

During the course of the first day, the international dimension of Chinese cinemas was analyzed and discussed. My paper centered on the concept of Chineseness from the North American Chinese diaspora’s perspective. Through a presentation of the movie Saving Face (Alice Wu, 2004), I argued that the myth of a Chinese authenticity, viewed in a stereotypical light by the American mainstream audience, was criticized in this movie through the debunking of stereotypes and the use of metafiction in order to present a new definition of the concepts of Chineseness and identities. Sabrina Yu (University of Newcastle) followed the thread of discussion which analyzed the American mainstream and focused on Hollywood, where Chinese artists have to compromise their acting skills with stereotypes. Sabrina Yu clearly illustrated the idea according to which Hollywood’s predominant intent was not to diversify its cultural productions but to increase its profits, hence the development of a definition of transnational Chinese stardom in three steps.

In a very interesting presentation which focused on style and narration, Gary Bettinson (Lancaster University) tackled the concept of storytelling as a device offering a movie a transcultural dimension. Through the case study of the movie Wu Xia (Peter Chan, 2012), the narration and its ambiguities were analyzed as fruitful storytelling devices offering Chinese-language cinema an international dimension. Jessica Chan (University of Richmond) centered on the genre of the Hong Kong action cinema and the importance of the process of editing in the creation and evolution of the action genre. Indeed, action evolved from the display of physical combat and weapons to a more psychological game. Independent scholar Patrick Smith dealt more specifically with the genre “slow cinema,” said to have similarities to post-War art cinema, and therefore criticized as lacking in style and originality according to current standards. Patrick Smith debunked those criticisms and endeavored to show that these works are just as provocative as their predecessors.

Stimulating presentations also shed a new light on Chinese cinemas as the historical perspective of movies was detailed. In a panel focusing on the concept of representation, Corey Schultz (Goldsmith) illustrated the Nanjing Massacre through the movie City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan, 2009). Using the concept of prosthetic memory, Schultz argued that the movie was produced to reconstruct the past with a pedagogic purpose. Gina Plana Espinet (Autonomous University of Barcelona) illustrated how the image of China has evolved in the West, especially in the period 1949-1976, while Mike Ingham (Lingnan University) used the movie Datong: the Great Society (Evan Chan, 2011) to explore the concept of theatricality and performativity in films. Chou Yu-wen (Free University of Berlin) explained how the year 1921 was a landmark in Chinese cinemas, and how the 1930s were their golden age.

The conference also included a necessary discussion on the contexts of production, more especially the role of censorship in the creative and distribution process. Ruby Cheung (University of St Andrews) discussed the role of the Hong Kong Development Council established in 2007 and its part played in the development of the local film industry in the face of mainland China’s booming film industry. Ng How Wee (SOAS, London) problematized censorship in China and more specifically the relations between cultural agents and the Party-state. He endeavored to study the impact of censorship on the screening of some works, as was the case for the movie Love for Life (Gu Changwei, 2011).

This conference offered the opportunity for participants to contextualize and redefine the concept of Chinese cinema studies. Indeed, Paul Bowman (Cardiff University) developed the idea that through the study of contemporary Chinese films could be observed the phenomenon of deconstruction and intensification of China. This double perception is symptomatic of and a response to the issues and problems China faces in the context of globalization. Hiu Chan (Cardiff University) shared a comparative study of the literatures on Chinese cinema studies in English and in Chinese in order to ponder over the various definitions of “Chinese cinemas” and to pay tribute to the dynamic and heterogeneous character of Chinese cinemas. Zhang Yuanchen (Konrad Wolf Postdam-Babelsberg Film and Television University, Germany) detailed the evolution of the Chinese images present in American movies in the face of a developing and expanding Chinese film market. As a means of making their way into the Chinese film market, many Hollywood directors have inserted Chinese ingredients in their movies, sometimes adapting some scenes to the taste of a Chinese audience, therefore remaining within the confines of stereotypical and marginal representations.

A challenging panel shed light on the work of director Ang Lee. Li Wenchi (University of Edinburgh) showed that if Lee’s universe was both carnivalesque and hybrid, offering multiple and cosmopolitan identities, it could be analyzed through the theories of Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas to illustrate how the significant Other was never assimilated and always marginalized. If Li Wenchi used the example of Brokeback Mountain (2005) to illustrate this point, Wen Kuan (University of Essex) relied on Lee’s Father Knows Best trilogy to tackle Lee’s work. Coming back to the myth of authenticity discussed earlier by Dr Lim Song Hwee, Wen Kuan argued that the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was not as much of a blockbuster in China as it was in the West because it was not wuxia enough in China. The last speaker in the panel, Lea Signer (University of Geneva), used the concept of “posture,” derived from French sociology, to further explore the stand taken by Chinese filmmakers in a global context, pointing out the difference between the Fifth Generation and new directors.

In the last panel of the conference, Flora Chuang (University of Texas) discussed the recent productions of Taiwanese cinema and illustrated the two different trends and stereotypes about Taiwanese cinema in early 2000: “heavy and serious,” a trend focusing on social taboos and historical events; and “funny and vernacular,” with movies which are rather meant to please the audience. Lai Yi-hsuan (King’s College London) opened a discussion on the birth of a new global screen culture, with the creation of a fictional fantasy world that is more or less detached from the social realities of actual film locations, as well as new tv series, and the emergence of creative Taiwanese screen industries in the 21st century. Andy Willis (University of Salford) ended presentations with a discussion on the concept of the local in the recent films of Hong Kong directors Ivy Ho and Jessey Tsang.

Following the formal presentations of academic papers, discussions continued to animate the remaining hours at a special session on journal publication and a Q&A session with journal editors organized for postgraduate students. This is where the Chinese Film Forum UK offers a unique blend: it is both a forum for young scholars as well as a site for exchanges between academic presentations and more public events. Let us hope now that a new cycle of events will soon be organized for our insight and pleasure.

Juliette Ledru is a Ph.D student in American Civilization and Cultural Studies (fifth year) under the supervision of Professor Donna Spalding Andréolle, at the University of Le Havre, France. She is working on the constructions and representations of Chinese American women and identities in works of fiction written by Chinese American women writers during the period 1965–2010. She passed the Agregation of English in 2009, and has been working as a contractual teacher at the University of Le Havre since 2010.

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Conference programme

Chinese Cinemas In and Outside China
A Chinese Film Forum UK conference
11th to 13th October 2013
Cornerhouse, Manchester

BOOK HERE!

Only titles of papers and panels listed here. Full programme with dates, times and abstracts can be found here.

Keynote Lectures
Woman, Repression and the Classic Spring in a Small Town — Professor Rey Chow, Duke University, USA

The Voice of the Sinophone — Dr Song Hwee Lim, University of Exeter

1: Notions of Independence I
Independence and Indifference: Reframing Independent Film in 21st century Chinese Cinema — Eddie Bertozzi, SOAS, London

Questions of the ‘National’ in ‘Transnational’ Studies: A Case Study of Chinese Independent Films — Zhao Wangliu, University of Bristol

2: Subtitles, Exhibition and Reception
Subtitling Chinese Cinema: A Case Study of A Woman, a Gun and A Noodle Shop — Yuan Yilei, University of Glasgow

(Re)imagining Hong Kong Landscape and Geo-politics: An Ethnographic Exploration on Chinese Audiences’ Cultural Identification — Mavis Chan, University of Sussex

3: Notions of Independence II
Defining ‘Independence’ through Chinese Independent Film Festivals — Flora Lichaa, National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO), Paris

Huang Ji’s Egg and Stone: Gender Perspectives in Contemporary Chinese Independent Filmmaking — Hu Lidan, University of Edinburgh

4: Performing Sexuality
Rerouting the Geopolitics of Desire: Lan Yu and Queer Sinophone Critique — Howard Chiang, University of Warwick

5: Negotiating America
Representing American Chineseness: Re-thinking Authenticity and Identities in the Movie Saving Face — Juliette Ledru, University of Le Havre

Dancing with Hollywood: Re-defining Transnational Chinese Stardom — Sabrina Yu, University of Newcastle

6: Style, Narration and Meaning
Storytelling and Narration in Contemporary Chinese Cinema and Wu Xia — Gary Bettinson, Lancaster University

Anticipating Action: The Evolving Grammar of Montage and the ‘Pause-Burst-Pause’ Pattern in Hong Kong Cinema — Jessica Chan, University of Richmond

‘Working/Slow: The Presentation of Manual Labour in Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks
— Patrick Smith, Independent Scholar

7: Mediation and Intermediality
Mediating Trauma: The Nanjing Massacre and its Filmic and Emotional Dissemination
— Corey Schultz, Goldsmiths

Red-describing China? Portraying Maoism in Western Documentary Films
— Gina Plana Espinet, Autonomous University of Barcelona

Beyond Asian? Beyond cinema? Intermediality, the performative and the cosmopolitan in Evans Chan’s Datong: the Great Society (2012) — Mike Ingham, Lingnan University

8: Policy and Practice
Film-related Policy of Hong Kong: New Generation Directors and Local Repositioning — Ruby Cheung, University of St Andrews

Love for Life — Film Censorship Practices in China — Ng How Wee, SOAS, London

9: Historical Perspectives
Re-mapping Chinese Cinema of the 1920s and early 30s — Chou Yu-wen, Free University of Berlin

Esther Eng: Pioneer Woman Director in Media Reportage — S. Louisa Wei, City University of Hong Kong

10: Interpreting China and Chinese 
The Deconstruction and Intensification of ‘China’ — Paul Bowman, Cardiff University

Searching for Cross-Cultural Definitions of Chinese Cinema: Comparing Research Literature in English and Chinese — Hiu Chan, Cardiff University

Are the imaginings of China and Chineseness in American movies changing? — Zhang Yuanchen, Konrad Wolf Potsdam-Babelsberg Film and Television University in Germany

11: Cultural Identities and Imaginaries
‘Strangers’ in Cosmopolitanism: Ang Lee, His Films and Multiple Identities — Li Wenchi, University of Edinburgh

Taiwan Knows Best?: How an Imagined Chinese Culture in Ang Lee’s ‘Father Knows Best’ Trilogy Affected its Domestic Reception — Wen Kuan, University of Essex

12: Negotiating Global Contexts
Cultural Promotion or Commoditization: To what extent can traditional Chinese drama- featured films become a useful site to promote Chinese culture? — Meng Ke, King’s College London

Ning Ying and Feng Xiaogang: a comparison of two Chinese filmmakers’ ‘posture’ in a global context — Lea Signer, University of Geneva

13: Pan-Asianism and Localism as Creative Strategies
In Search of Dramatic Elements Shared in East Asia: A Case Study of Taiwan-based Director, Tsai Yueh-Hsun’s Pan-Asian Creative Strategy — Lai Yi-hsuan, King’s College London

Crossing Hennessy and Big Blue Lake: New Localism in Hong Kong Cinema — Andy Willis, University of Salford

14: Taiwan Cinema
Taiwanese Little Fresh Films and More: the Contemporary Taiwanese Film Productions — Flora Chuang, University of Texas at Austin

Terrorizing Taipei: An Exploration of the Transition of Urban Landscapes in Taiwan as Portrayed in Edward Yang’s Films — Antoreep Sengupta, Jadavpur University

15: Postgraduate session on journal publication: Meet the Editors Q&A
Gary Bettinson, Asian Cinema
Hiu Chan, Intellect
Song Hwee Lim, Journal of Chinese Cinemas

Conference ticket includes refreshments, a buffet dinner on Saturday evening, and a ticket to the screening of Golden Gate Girls (Louisa Wei, 2013), followed by Q&A with the director

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Conference registration open!

Registration for our conference on ‘Chinese Cinemas in and outside of China’ is open now via the Cornerhouse box office.*

This three-day conference hosted by the Chinese Film Forum UK brings together international scholars working on various aspects of Chinese cinema. The conference will consider the rapid development of the commercial film industry in China today and its subsequent impact on filmmaking in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and on independent production within China itself.

Keynote lectures

‘Woman, Repression and the Classic Spring in a Small Town
Professor Rey Chow, Duke University
(in collaboration with CIDRAL and with the support of the Centre for Chinese Studies, University of Manchester)

‘The Voice of the Sinophone’
Dr Song Hwee Lim, University of Exeter

A draft schedule may be found here.

The conference fee £40 full / £20 concs, includes refreshments, a buffet dinner on Saturday evening and a ticket to the film screening of Golden Gate Girls (Louisa Wei, 2013).

*Please note that the conference ticket would need to be booked in person at the box office or by phone 0161 200 1500. International participants, please contact: cffuk.mcr@gmail.com.

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CFP: Conference on Chinese cinemas in and outside China

Call for Papers
Chinese Cinemas in and outside China
Cornerhouse, Manchester
11-13 October 2013

Following two highly successful symposia, the Chinese Film Forum UK, a research network supported by the AHRC, is hosting an international conference on Chinese cinemas in and outside of China.

Plenary speakers:
Professor Rey Chow, Duke University (in collaboration with CIDRAL, University of Manchester)
Dr Song Hwee Lim, University of Exeter

With the rapid development of the film industry within the People’s Republic of China since the 1990s a more varied conception of Chinese cinemas has begun to proliferate internationally. While the mainland’s large markets are coveted by Hollywood, its own production, distribution and exhibition capacities have expanded exponentially in the past 20 years, producing box-office success both domestically and abroad. This explosion has in turn also has led to a re-thinking of a number of old orthodoxies concerning Chinese cinemas. This conference intends to make an intervention in these debates by addressing a number of issues. For example, what is the impact of this rapid expansion on filmmaking both within and outside China? Where do films produced outside China fit into notions of Chinese filmmaking? Are new forms of independent films appearing? What significance do patterns of both internal and external distribution and exhibition have on conceptions of Chinese cinemas? What is the impact on the filmmaking of the Chinese diaspora?With these issues in mind, proposals are invited on, but not restricted to, the following:

  • (Re)Negotiating definitions of Chinese cinema
  • Changing production contexts of Chinese cinemas
  • National and global constructions of Chinese cinemas
  • Critical approaches to Chinese cinemas
  • The impact of mainland Chinese production on the film industries of Taiwan and Hong Kong
  • Regional co-productions
  • International co-productions
  • Distribution and exhibition of Chinese cinemas
  • Censorship
  • Shifting conceptions and definitions of independent cinema
  • Vernacular Chinese languages and cinema
  • Chinese cinemas outside of China, including South-east Asia, North America and Europe
  • ‘Chinese’ filmmakers working on non-Chinese-language films
  • Transnational Chinese film stardom

150-200 word proposals for a 20-minute paper presentation and a short biography, or queries, should be sent by 31st May 2013 to cffuk.mcr@gmail.com (organisers: Dr Felicia Chan, University of Manchester, and Dr Andy Willis, University of Salford)

 

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