Joycelyn Choi, the Woman Behind Hong Kong’s Newest Art House Cinema

The movie business is tough racket – one that has been suffering in Hong Kong on many fronts in the last couple of decades. But things are looking up. Production of local films has stabilised, and while still vastly lower than in the peak years of the 1980s, its decline has finally reversed with modest growth on the independent film scene.

The same is true for cinemas. After consistently losing screens since the mid-1990s, a new wave of movie houses have opened up, while old ones have been revamped with more thoughtful programming. Among these newcomers are The Metroplex in Kowloon Bay, Emperor Cinemas in Central (the first in the district since PALACE ifc opened in 2003) and now MOViE MOViE in Taikoo.

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“You’re not just coming to a movie, you’re part of movie culture” says Joycelyn Choi – Photo by William Furniss

If that last brand looks familiar that’s as it should be. Not only is the logo’s font the Jean-Luc, in deference to cinema legend Jean-Luc Godard unwavering devotion to the form, the new cinema is a cousin to Now TV’s art house MOViE MOViE channel. Parent company Edko Films’ executive director Bill Kong thought it was time to transplant the brand to the big screen.Opening just in time to celebrate the television channel’s fifth anniversary, the MOViE MOViE cinema shares DNA with its sister cinema in Yau Ma Tei, the Broadway Cinematheque, along with its namesake TV channel. As she did on television, MOViE MOViE general manager Joycelyn Choi plans on bringing her own sensibilities to the venue while modelling it after the Cinematheque, which has successfully brought challenging cinema to the masses.

She didn’t recognise it at first, but Choi developed a fascination with movies early in life. As a kid in Hong Kong, Choi used to hide in a corner of the living room and watch as her father tuned in to TVB Pearl’s 9:30pm movie. When she was 15, she went off to finish secondary school in the small Canadian city of Regina, which she credits for cementing her artistic leanings.

“[My mother] wanted me to learn to be independent. That’s one way to do it!” she recalls with a laugh. “There was no Chinatown [in Regina] and I think that was good. I went to Luther College, and they placed an emphasis on art.” Though the school didn’t have much of a cinema programme at the time, Choi explored photography and video, and learnt to appreciate other ways to get educated. “It opened my eyes in a lot of ways. In Hong Kong school was all about marks.”

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Buena Vista Social Club: Adios – Courtesy Edko Films

After graduating in 1992, Choi came home, but not for long. Relocating to Australia with her family, Choi enrolled in the University of New South Wales’ school of arts and social science, where she majored in film studies, even though theatre was her first love. But it soon dawned on her that, as a person of colour, she would struggle to find good roles overseas – a situation particularly dire for people of Asian descent, who have long been sidelined on Broadway and in other theatre scenes. “In my second year I realised that, although I had lived in Canada and Australia, I could never compete with local students in terms of roles,” says Choi. “Chinese-Americans who speak perfect English can’t find roles. It’s just that simple.”

That’s when she turned to movies. “I gravitated to film because I could do it my own way,” she says. Unlike studying film in Hong Kong, which tends to focus on the technical side, Choi immersed herself in history, especially that of the German Expressionists and the French New Wave, with a particular fondness for Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée. She also brushed up on the business of cinema and the Hollywood system. “Now it all makes sense,” she says. “I think my education laid the groundwork for what I’m doing today.”

What she’s doing is shepherding MOViEMOViE’s line-up of foreign films, indies and restored classics to as broad an audience as possible. After returning to Hong Kong in 1996, Choi started working at TVB, then veered towards the Hong Kong Arts Centre, where she worked as a publicity officer. Eventually, she ended up at Edko, where she was tapped to head up with new MOViE MOViE channel.

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The cinema is a new challenge. In a way, it’s a strange path to take, because streaming services like Netflix have made wooing viewers to cinemas nearly impossible. 3D was supposed to save cinemas but most consumers are now exhausted by the gimmick. The new Emperor cinema in Central has a fully-stocked bar and niche dining; Korean cinema giant CGV will soon open its experiential 4DX cinema in Hong Kong. If it’s going to be a success, MOViEMOViE will need something to set it apart from every other cinema.

“I think it’s more than that,” begins Choi. “We want to give audiences options. It’s like going to a restaurant. Sometimes you eat out, sometimes you eat at home. It’s the same concept.” But it goes beyond a change of scenery. “You’re not just coming to a movie, you’re part of movie culture,” she says. Movies are more than a commodity. They’re an art form, part of culture, and something you absorb. So we’re trying to provide an experience and a journey, not merely consumption.”

That experience starts with new MOViEMAXX auditoriums, which have high contrast 4K laser projectors, RealD Ultimate Screens, and Atmos sound. House by Kubrick, a sister space to the Kubrick bookstore café at the Cinematheque, will host events and film-related products. But as much as Choi is proud of the cinema’s technology, it’s ultimately the content that counts. To that end, MOViE MOViE’s opening coincides with its third Life is Art festival – a way for Choi to prove her point.

Life is Art’s title says it all: its aim is to realise the connection between the cinema and life, with guest speakers who make what’s on the screen connect to the real world. “Watching movies can affect your life. It’s changed me in many small ways,” says Choi. “I knew nothing about Cuban music until I saw [Wim Wenders’] Buena Vista Social Club. Now I play it all the time.” Each movie in the Life is Art festival reflects their filmmaker or subject’s passion for a particular form of art, from classical arts like music and dance, to modern arts like urban planning and science.

“Exhibition on screen:David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts” – Courtesy Edko Films

One of this year’s highlights is Exhibition on Screen: David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts, with an introduction by Hong Kong Museum of Art director Eve Tam. Another is a live performance by the choir of domestic workers that is the subject of The Helper. Choi is particularly excited about Terence Malick’s visually arresting and poetical contemplation of the cosmos, time and space in the monumental Voyage of Time, and for Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. Discussions with Paul Chan, director of walking tour operator Walk in Hong Kong, and Allen Poon, director of architecture studio TETRA, accompany the film, which is about Jane Jacobs and her quest to save New York’s neighbourhoods from aggressive redevelopment.

In the end, the idea behind Life is Art is to prove that the two go hand in hand, and that there’s plenty to glean about the former from the latter. “We learn about heartbreak and loss from movies,” says Choi. “That breadth of experience can broaden your vision. It’s easy to believe everyone in the Middle East is evil if you only watch Hollywood, but when I saw [Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s] Where Is the Friend’s Home at uni, it presented a different picture. Movies are more than a transaction,” finishes Choi.

And if she has her way, viewers wandering in to MOViEMOViE to catch the latest Avengers instalment will hopefully find their interest piqued by an alternative voice. “There’s still a lot to discover,” says Choi.

MOViE MOViE’s Life is Art festival runs January 26 to February 11, 2018. Click here for more information.

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