Cannes Directors’ Fortnight in Hong Kong: Are Film Festivals Still Relevant?

While accounts vary and evidence tends to be anecdotal, it’s hard to dispute the perception that on every day of the year, in some corner of the globe, there’s a film festival happening. It was a cultural phenomenon once dominated by just three major festivals—the film section of La Biennale in Venice, founded in 1932, the Festival de Cannes (1946) and the Berlinale (1951)—when cinema was still emerging as an art form, there is now a film festival dedicated to even the most obscure of subjects. Hong Kong alone is home to international, Asian, French, Jewish, independent, LGBTQ, Italian and German festivals – just to name a few. There are eco, genre, women’s, animation and children’s festivals everywhere from north of the Arctic Circle (such as Midnight Sun in Sodankylä, Finland), to the bottom of New Zealand (Mountain Film & Book Festival in Cromwell, on the South Island).

Post-97 is the setting for Lai Miu-suet’s under-seen exploration of millennial ennui, a Directors’ Fortnight entry in 2001, ‘Glass Tears’.

All of this begs the question: do we really need film festivals – and are they still relevant? It’s one the Hong Kong Arts Centre (HKAC) is trying to answer with its programme New Waves, New Shores: Cannes Directors’ Fortnight 50 Meets Hong Kong Cinema. Pivoting on the 50th anniversary of Quinzaine des Réalisateurs—Directors’ Fortnight to most—the series is part of a larger mandate by the HKAC to help Hong Kong’s emerging generation of filmmakers prepare for the overwhelming festival circuit and the shifting landscape of filmmaking and film viewing in general. “Doing a programme about Cannes films isn’t the key,” says HKAC programme director Teresa Kwong. “In many ways it’s in line with what we’ve been doing for the past 20 years – to support new talent and celebrate new voices.”

New Waves, New Shores’ curator, the journalist Clarence Tsui, agrees. In addition to the challenge of actually getting a film made for emerging artists, those artists need a place to be seen, and Tsui doesn’t think festivals are dinosaurs just yet. He says film festivals play a crucial role in filmmaking because “they provide a unique platform for these films to be shown, appreciated and understood beyond the pressures of box office.” The festival arena is often exempt from standard exhibitor ratings and therefore more able to screen challenging material. Tsui says this provides an opportunity to place films in a bigger “constellation” – a broader social and cultural context. It also prompts audiences to ask questions, he says. “Why do filmmakers make these films, and what do they say about Hong Kong cinema if not Hong Kong in general?”

At one time, the world was in desperate need of festivals as they were the single source of movies for anyone with interests outside mainstream Hollywood musicals. Kwong admits film festivals as a construction of the mid-20th century, when cinema was still a relatively new artform that filmmakers all over the world were just beginning to experiment with. In many ways, the Quinzaine was a product of the frustration with limited opportunities to see new and provocative films.

Just over 20 years after Cannes was founded, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, founder of the seminal film criticism journal Cahiers du Cinéma, began lobbying for reforms in the festival’s main programme. “We thought the official competition wasn’t open to the new cinema that was emerging everywhere in the world,” recalls Quinzaine co-founder Pierre-Henri Deleau, who served as the festival’s artistic director from 1969 to 1998. “There were few [films] from South America, almost nothing from Asia except Japan, nothing from Australia, China, and nothing at all from Arab or black Africa. We needed to show these films. There was so much new talent emerging.”

Deleau cites groundbreaking filmmakers like Senegal’s Sembène Ousmane, Filipino artist Lino Brocka and Youssef Chahine from Egypt as just a handful of the otherwise unheard voices events like Quinzaine helped introduce to the world – although he is quick to point out, “We didn’t ‘create’ anything. We just built a new exhibition gallery every year.”

Similarly, in the 1980s the HKAC found itself filling in the gaps left behind during the other 50 weeks of the year the Hong Kong International Film Festival wasn’t on. Film buffs looking for new international or local independents relied on the HKAC, and it was happy with its role simply screening films. But that was then. By the mid-1990s the whole filmmaking and film consuming climate had changed, and outlets such as the old Cine Art House in Wan Chai, the Film Archive and Broadway Cinematheque were operating and offering access to the same films festivals once did exclusively.


Carina Lau in ‘Bends’, Flora Lau’s allegory about an affluent housewife trying to survive after her husband vanishes.

“We had to change,” recalls Kwong. “All these parts pushed us into another role, one of nurturing.” Although the 1990s were dominated by large production houses that made commercial films, the Arts Development Council (ADC) was established in 1995 and its grants led to more independent films. The 1997 handover was coming and filmmakers had lots to say about Hong Kong’s social and political milieu, and new technology made it easier than ever for them to make movies. The same year the ADC was founded, the HKAC established the Incubator for Film and Visual Media in Asia (IFVA), giving emerging Hong Kong filmmakers practical support such as software and equipment, as well as cash grants. Most recently, film festivals have had to adapt to new streaming platforms packed with niche content, such as Netflix or MOViE MOViE.

The job of the broad-spectrum film festival is now much broader than simply connecting filmmakers with audiences – it’s about building up the ecology of the film industry, as Kwong describes it. She recalls visiting the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2007, which not only hosted a seminar about the future of the festival, but also a casual football match among visiting filmmakers that facilitated organic interactions between directors, producers, distributors and funders that can kick-start filmmaking processes. “It’s about people making connections, gatherings and all kinds of networking occasions like that football match,” she says. “And that’s important because most of a festival’s business comes in the after-parties, and karaoke, and dancing. That’s important and it can’t be replaced by Skype.”


Lau Shing-hon’s 1979 ‘House of the Lute’ is a Hong Kong spin on James M Cain’s noir thriller while contemplating sex, class and age warfare.

Building long-term, ongoing relationships with filmmakers is now key to any festival’s success – and it’s a reciprocal partnership. The festival’s role has slipped into one of teacher-producer, as most are “interested in nurturing few talent,” says Kwong. The Golden Horse Film Academy in Taipei—part of the Golden Horse Film Festival—the Busan International Film Festival’s Asian Film Academy and the Sundance Film Festival’s Sundance Institute are three industry leaders in supporting young filmmakers, as is the rash of funding and training initiatives offered by Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund. That gives the festivals access to the content they need in order to stay competitive, and of course a space in which filmmakers can present their work to the public.

New Waves, New Shores has been designed to satisfy many of the traditional festival’s roles and “help young film talents build a long-term sustainable career,” says Kwong. On top of Hong Kong films from the Quinzaine’s history, the programme includes workshops on film criticism and colour grading, a vital technical element that doesn’t get enough respect.

Kwong notes that the HKAC, as a non-profit, non-governmental organisation, has to respond to the changing world, and its goals include helping young artists respond too. In addition to the regional IFVA, the HKAC runs New Action Express, which helps short filmmakers travel to the overseas festivals their films have been invited to. “It gives young filmmakers a chance to see films from all over the world as well as give them a chance to introduce themselves and their work on the world stage,” she explains. “We see the need for filmmakers to know how to represent themselves internationally.”

“Young filmmakers are now facing myriad challenges in establishing their own voices and careers within the mainstream, market-driven and mainland-oriented narrative shaping Hong Kong cinema,” adds Tsui, who also believes Hongkongers crave relatable stories too, making Hong Kong’s own cinematic voice an important one. “There’s some leeway for young filmmakers to navigate [and] deliver well-researched stories, fully-formed characters and ideas that are rooted in the social realities of the day.” If the HKAC has its way, this will be just the first New Waves, New Shores, with more to come in subsequent years.


Documentary filmmaker Cheung King-wai investigates the roots of violence in his feature debut, ‘Somewhere Beyond the Mist‘.

In choosing the films screening at New Waves, New Shores Tsui tried to be loyal to Deleau’s original 1969 vision, and he remained focused on the diversity of new cinemas. That’s why he included Latin American magical realism (Glauber Rocha’s Barravento) and dystopian noir (Invasion by Hugo Santiago); Japanese political cinema against a crooked legal system (Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging); perspectives from women filmmakers (Binding Sentiments, Duet for Cannibals, Márta Mészaros and Susan Sontag respectively); counterculture totems (The Trip by Roger Corman); reflections of alienated post-68 youth (Marcel Hanoun’s Summer) and avant-garde animations and experiments on textures (Jan Lenica’s Adam 2 and Stan Brakhage’s Scenes from Under Childhood).

Tsui has paired those international titles with local selection such as Lai Miu-suet’s 2001 Quinzaine entry Glass Tears (a double bill with Summer), which is about youthful ennui in a politically charged atmosphere. Bends, by Flora Lau, explores the cadences of female middle age, similar to Binding Sentiments. “I tried to see whether these strands have been present in works from Hong Kong filmmakers,” says Tsui. “So the idea was to pair the 1969 titles with relevant counterparts from here so as to prove that the vision of the Fortnight remains relevant decades onwards, in places far away from its origins.”

New Waves, New Shores: Cannes Directors’ Fortnight 50 Meets Hong Kong Cinema runs at the Hong Kong Arts Centre through 23 June 2019. Click here for more information.

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