There’s a great deal of chatter in Hong Kong about the current independent film renaissance; about how that’s where the future lies and how the government finally got it right when it implemented the First Feature Film Initiative in 2013. As encouraging as it is to see the popular success for Wong Chun’s Mad World and Oliver Chan’s Still Human—both grossed over HK$15 million locally, making them hits given their miniscule budgets—they are the exception that proves the rule as long as indies lack the support of major distributors. More crucially, as long as indies continue to tackle challenging subjects they’ll be left out in the cold. But the situation isn’t completely hopeless, thanks in large part to the tenacity of indie collective Ying E Chi (YEC).
Many filmgoers are unfamiliar with YEC, which translates roughly and appropriately to “cinematic resolve,” but anyone who takes alternative cinema seriously should be. YEC hasn’t drifted far from its scrappy roots in the two decades since it was launched. The collective’s office in the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre in Shek Kip Mei is crammed floor to ceiling with DVDs, posters and festival and grant applications, the desks cluttered with filmmaker notes. Founded in 1997 by filmmakers Vincent Chui (Leaving in Sorrow), Simon Chung (I Miss You When I See You) and William Kwok (Out of Frame), all came from the first crop of participants at the Hong Kong Arts Centre’s Incubator for Film and Visual Media in Asia (ifva) in 1995; Chui was an award-winner for his short Long Distance.
Around the same time, producer-director Gordon Chan (God of War), then chair of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council’s film and media committee, supported the idea of a distributor dedicated to independent cinema. Chui, Chung and Kwok threw their hat in the ring. But YEC quickly realised it had to adapt either its mandate or its model.
“At some point it seemed to us distribution contradicted our ideology,” says Chui, who currently serves as YEC’s artistic director. “We got funding to distribute but the nature of distribution is business. We couldn’t justify using taxpayer money to do business. So we switched to a filmmakers’ collective and started focusing on promotion and education, and limited amounts of production, like in short films.”
YEC settled into itself and hit its stride just in time. In the years following the handover in 1997 Hong Kong film production went into a tailspin, with fewer films getting made, budgets plummeting and local producers looking to cash in on the massive mainland China market, effectively freezing emerging and independent filmmakers out of the funding loop. Ironically, though, filmmakers forced to cobble together a budget took advantage of the subsequent freedom to tackle the subject matter they wanted to.
After a bumpy adjustment period, Hong Kong’s indie scene started to flourish. Chui made his first feature in 2002, Chung has produced four features since 2005, Kwok three. Also emerging were directors such as Jessey Tsang (Big Blue Lake), Gilitte Leung (Love Me Not), the five filmmakers behind Ten Years (Jevons Au, Ng Ka-leung, Zune Kwok, Wong Fei-pang and Chow Kwun-wai), a slew of documentarians and a wholesale change in attitude.
“When I made my first film, the industry was very welcoming to me – it was a totally different story. I got offers to sell and screen, I got Shawn Yue to star,” recalls Chui of producing Leaving in Sorrow. Yue, of course, went on to become one of the city’s most popular young actors, starring in Pang Ho-cheung’s Love trilogy and Mad World. “But now, no matter how popular or how well received critically, the industry doesn’t give indies that chance any more,” says Chui. “And it’s because of sensitive politics. Most of our films will never get released in commercial cinemas. When we talk about Hong Kong it means freedom of speech. I always say that were China not a Communist country, if Beijing was Hollywood then we would be New York.”
Aside from documentaries about Hong Kong’s various activist movements, Chung bemoans the lack of mainstream theatre support for films with gay content or social analysis, like Steve Chan’s delicately critical Weeds on Fire or Cheung King-wai’s The Taste of Youth. “Very often it’s a case of self-censorship more than anything else,” says editor and YEC curator and board member Nose Chan. It’s the reason YEC stays busy promoting under-the-radar films like Chan Tze-woon’s Umbrella Movement documentary Yellowing and Lost in the Fumes by Nora Lam, and Maisy Goosy Suen’s trans drama A Woman Is A Woman. YEC seeks to broaden audiences beyond Hong Kong’s borders too, doing so most recently in Berlin, at the city’s legendary Kino Babylon in June.
While YEC’s initial goal was support for local films, eventually the collective realised it could actively help cultivate the next generation of filmmakers through education. In 2008, YEC launched the Hong Kong Independent Film Festival to spotlight a topic and filmmaker, first from Asia and later from around the world, that explore cinematic discourse and how directors from different places navigate their material in ways that also speak to Hongkongers. Past editions have focused on new cinema from Taiwan and Cambodia, along with filmmakers like Shinsuke Ogawa—best known for his documentaries chronicling student and farmer protests over the construction of Tokyo’s Narita Airport in the 1960s and 70s—and Iranian master Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who was nominated for Un Certain Regard at Cannes, for his film Gabbeh, in 1996. This year’s topical spotlight is on Canada’s French-speaking province of Quebec in Indie Focus 2019: The Local Power of Québécois.
Linguistically and culturally distinct from the rest of Canada, Quebec has on two occasions held referendums on the question of becoming its own independent country. “How is Hong Kong socially, politically and cinematically similar with these movements in Quebec?” asks Chan. “This is kind of a sequel to the Koji Wakamatsu programme we did last year, on the rational, aggressive political movements in Japan in the 1960s and how Wakamatsu related those movements in films. We hope we’ll trigger young filmmakers in adapting these ideas in their films.” To Chan’s eyes, developing filmmakers unable and unsure of how to mix their ideas with art can only benefit from seeing how others reconciled similar issues.
“We don’t want to do what [Hong Kong International Film Festival] or Asian IFF does,” says Chui. “We’ve never tried to be that huge. They try to showcase new films. What we try to do is prove why certain films are so significant for Hong Kong and Hong Kong filmgoers. And really – how Quebec preserves their culture and language within Canada is relevant here.” Adds Chan, “It is still valuable to make Cantonese films in Cantonese, like Quebec films use Québécois French. Hong Kong needs its voice.”
Screening Québécois films outside Quebec is rare enough in Canada, much less Hong Kong, so Chan is excited by the chance to expose little-seen masters to Hongkongers – filmmakers or otherwise. In some ways, Chan see the series a proof that Hong Kong’s own cinematic voice remains crucial to both the city and art in general. “Certainly it’s important,” he says. “It’s important to deliver messages and tell stories that resonate.”
Among the 12 films set to unspool at the Arts Centre are Claude Jutra’s seminal 1971 drama Mon Oncle Antoine (My Uncle Antoine), which essentially chronicles the birth of Quebec’s so-called Quiet Revolution, a period in the 1960s when a devout Catholic society became secular, progressive and assertive in its demand for cultural and linguistic sovereignty. There is also a screening of an early film by Denis Villeneuve, known for recent Hollywood hits Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival; Polytechnique tackles a misogynist mass shooting in 1989. Francis Mankiewicz’s searing allegorical family drama Les bons débarras (Good Riddance) is on the programme, too. “We’ve been called quite daring for this showcase,” says Chan with a wry chuckle.
Beyond the Quebec showcase, anyone curious about what’s going on in Hong Kong’s margins can check out YEC’s forthcoming streaming channel on Breaker – or else swing by the collective’s office to pick up a DVD. Far from an outmoded technology, Chan and Chui both say the discs offer an emotional connection that both directors and viewers still value. Just as Chan looks as though he’s steeling himself to defend the point, a twentysomething woman walks in and lays down HK$100 for a disc. There’s a pause and then a burst of laughter. “See? People still like DVDs. Filmmakers too,” says Chui. “It’s odd.”
As indie filmmakers themselves, Chan and Chui agree that indie king Fruit Chan’s Three Husbands was among the last year’s standouts. “I’m amazed by Fruit Chan,” says Chan. “20 years on and he’s still so committed. Not every film is good, but I can see his passion, and he has something he wants to say. And this goes back to the question about voice. This is exactly what’s important for local cinema.”
Ying E Chi’s Indie Focus 2019: The Local Power of Québécois runs from 29 July to 14 August 2019. For details, please refer to hkindieff.hk or yingechi.org.