M+ Cinema Offers a Haven for Hong Kong Film, Video and Art

Opening a cinema at a time when watching a film on a phone is normal—and streaming even the biggest of blockbusters is acceptable—is brave, to say the least. Braver still when a cinema doesn’t serve beer and popcorn. Those frills are mostly irrelevant to M+, which unveils its brand new theatre on June 8, as well as to the museum’s lead curator for moving image, Silke Schmickl.

“I still believe the social experience of watching something together is precious and these kinds of films offer another, very special experience,” she says. On the day of the interview, the M+ Cinema is still a few weeks away from opening, but Schmickl and her co-curators are busy with a media blitz to remind people M+ is a museum of visual culture, and that doesn’t mean it’s all static images.

White box settings—standard gallery spaces—were to be expected at M+, but given its content the museum knew it would need a black box setting too. Film has had, arguably, the greatest impact on what our world looks like and how we see it, but shifting consumer habits aside, Hong Kong lost UA Cinemas in 2021 and Broadway Circuit is shuttering locations across the city. Why forge ahead with M+ Cinema when existing operators could use the business? What’s more, Art House cinemas Broadway Cinematheque, Golden Scene, Movie Movie, Tai Kwun and the Hong Kong Film Archive have been presenting the same kind of programming for years, often on behalf of M+, which has been running film programmes for six years in the run-up to the opening of its new physical home.

Schmickl is quick to point out that M+ owns much of its content, including films, and part of the cinema’s job is to showcase its collection and contextualise the work across time and geography. At M+, viewers will be able to walk out of a theatre and into the museum to explore the design or sculpture complementing the film they just saw. “The cinema was always part of M+,” she says. This is one of our core disciplines. We see ourselves as part of a community rather than in competition with other screens in the city. We want to add something to the landscape.”

Indeed, the M+ Cinema is on a mission to give Hongkongers access to shorts and restored features, documentaries, avant garde and experimental video art as part of its moving image department, whose moving image venues also include the Grand Stair in the heart of the museum, the animated façade visible from across the harbour, and personalised viewing at the Mediatheque. 

M+ is not alone in providing a focus on moving image; the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Tate and the Centre Pompidou have all followed a similar path. But Schmickl notes those institutions opened in very different media environments. “MoMA opened 100 years ago and they set up the cinema department in the 1960s, when film was just becoming an important medium of expression,” she says. “In our case that’s already there, and now a cinema needs to do more.” 

To that end, the M+ Cinema will host talks and performances alongside its screenings with the aim of sparking conversation about visual culture in Asia and beyond. Designed along with the rest of the museum by architects at Herzog & de Meuron, the cinema’s three intimate houses—ranging in capacity from 40 to 180—feature snazzy interiors to complement the state-of-the-art tech: the screens offer crystalline images and the 7.1 sound system is nearly flawless. There are 16mm and 35mm projectors in addition to digital facilities, ensuring films are screened in their original formats whenever possible. 

“Being able to show something in its original format is invaluable. It’s not nostalgic; it’s visible history,” argues Schmickl. “And it’s great to be part of the conversation and to raise awareness that the medium hasn’t always been digital. It’s special to show younger audiences films in 8mm or 16mm.”

More than just moving image

For Schmickl and her crew, the mandate to educate, help define, collect and conserve visual culture crosses disciplines, and the museum’s programmes are designed to inspire gallery visitors to make connections across formats and collections. (M+ recently purchased a selection of works from New York-based Electronic Arts Intermix’s catalogue that slots in with its own core collections.) The art in the cinema and the art in the visual art and design galleries are complements, not competitors, which ultimately goes towards documenting the history of media art across the globe. That mandate also crosses borders, and so in the future there will be collaborations with other museums, film events and arts organisations, from Hong Kong, Asia and beyond. 

“We’re definitely part of an ecosystem that we hope to nurture here in Hong Kong, and as part of that we have the responsibility and privilege of curating with other colleagues in the wider community, to echo some of the art they show in a different context,” says associate curator Chanel Kong. “That produces a robust film culture where things are seen more than once, so that people take time to consider ideas in a different way.” Later this summer, in August, M+ will co-present two screenings with the Hong Kong International Film Festival, with more collaborations envisioned for the future.

The museum’s inaugural moving image programme is an ambitious one that balances what Schmickl refers to as “hardcore art and experimental work that film buffs will be into,” with more accessible material and subject matter that will ideally woo curious and casual viewers. The Screen Encounters section, beginning September 3, invites artists to guest-curate films that had an impact on them, and begins with local poet and filmmaker Yau Ching, who chose a documentary about American choreographer Yvonne Rainer. No matter what path they arrive on, Schmickl is confident there’s an audience for the museum’s movie house, even in streaming-mad 2022.

“It will take time. We do need to make an effort to cultivate an audience for these works,” she says. “I’m hopeful that the community that has been built here by HKIFF and many other institutions will find interest in what we’re showing and help us grow.”

Coming soon to the big screen

The M+ Cinema opens with Jia Zhangke’s 1998 breakout Xiao Wu and local favourite Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (1990) in restored 4K, but it is “Hong Kong: The Establishing Shot,” a series of screenings that complement the main gallery’s Hong Kong: Here and Beyond exhibition that steals the show.

“They are in direct dialogue with each other and ‘The Establishing Shot’ is a celebration of Hong Kong cinema and its glorious cityscape,” explains M+’s Hong Kong film and media curator Li Cheuk-to. “The programme is made up of commercial and independent films, documentary, artist and essay films, TV commercials, and music videos; it demonstrates a multi-disciplinary perspective. It also showcases the unique neighbourhoods, housing estates, and landscapes that are no longer here and are only preserved on film. We’re also revisiting the action film, a staple of Hong Kong cinema, to reassess the genre.”

The films range from restored classics (Wong’s Fallen Angels), an early Fruit Chan film (Hollywood Hong Kong) that encapsulates the indie titan’s singular blend of absurdity and social observation, and work by Ann Hui, Heiward Mak and Ray Yeung, all bound by their use of the city as an “activated stage where time, space, and action intersect in compelling narratives.” If there’s a single must-see, it’s Johnny Mak’s hard to see The Long Arm of the Law (1984), a genre defining classic that not only shaped the visuals of Hong Kong cinema’s New Wave but helped create Hong Kong action cinema as we know it. Each screening is preceded by shorts, experimental work and commercials that add context and commentary to the main feature, each of which screens twice between June 10 and September 11.

Schmickl points to the “Makers and Making” docs, which screen beginning on June 15, as a particularly good gateway for newcomers. The section is exactly what it sounds like: documentaries about some of the world’s most notable visual and performing arts, design, architecture and, of course, film creatives, and their processes, inspirations and legacies. The series begins with The Past is Always New, the Future is Always Nostalgic, about Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama, noted for his grainy, black and white urban images; Aalto: Architect of Emotions, a portrait of Finnish architects Alvar and Aino Aalto, whose Model 60 stacking stool is a worldwide standard now; and a look at the work of trailblazing American film critic Pauline Kael in What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael.

Rounding out the programme is Mark Cousins’ 14-hour epic Women Make Film, (2018) broken into seven parts and paired with discussions with local filmmakers and critics for a crash course in filmmaking, starting July 2. Finally, there are two special screenings from the multidisciplinary DAU project, Natasha and Degeneration, beginning September 3, which are steered by Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovskiy. DAU is best known for recreating a Soviet-era research facility in Europe and subsequently generating 14 feature films in it. 

Though it was programmed months ago, Schmickl admits there was a conversation in the curators’ room about carrying through with a Russian artist’s work given the broadly condemned Russian invasion of Ukraine. Major arts events such as Berlin and Cannes have been wrestling with whether or not to sanction Russian filmmakers slated to screen at those festivals. “Oh yes, we talked about it, but we felt it was an important artwork that ultimately fell outside the bounds of endorsing any politics,” says Schmickl. “The film is an amazing social experiment, and now its an interesting work in the new context.” 

For the record, Schmickl’s personal recommendation is anything in “Performing the Image,” starting July 8, and the rare, big screen showing of shorts by artists including Nam June Paik, Tracey Moffatt and Simon Liu. They examine “the female gaze, and women really claiming their place in society, and the street as a space for expression, which seems to be a timeless subject matter around the world,” she says.

The moving image team is already working on their second cinema programme, but for now Schmickl isn’t talking about that: she wants to keep the focus on the first, which she and her co-curators are proud of. “I’m also excited to get to know our audience,” she says. “Who are they, who will be a regular, what kind of encounters might happen?”

Schmickl is not working toward any kind of MoMA-style gold standard, but she does see M+ cinema playing a significant role within Asia. “We speak from a very unique position in Hong Kong, a city that has always had a strong dialogue between Asia and the rest of the world,” she says. “Going forward, working with other institutions and learning from on preserving this marginalised sector of the film industry is exciting. Our hope is that we will be the benchmark for the future.”

M+ Cinema opens on June 8, 2022. For full programme details and ticketing, click here

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that M+ is not currently collaborating with the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) but hopes to do so in the future. In fact, M+ and the HKIFF will be co-presenting two film screenings in August. We apologise for the error.

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