With the exception of film buffs and professionals, few people outside Asia know the Hong Kong International Film Festival is the region’s oldest. Kicking off its 42nd edition on March 19, HKIFF is staring down the barrel of major changes in consumer habits, distribution, and production patterns – but Geoffrey Wong, the festival’s new director of programming, isn’t nervous. He’s confident younger generations will come to appreciate the collective movie-going experience, and that the local film industry will weather future storms. If anything, Wong is most apprehensive about following in the footsteps of outgoing programming chief Li Cheuk-to, a 30-year HKIFF veteran. “They’re big shoes to fill and yes, it’s nerve-wracking,” he notes with an anxious guffaw.
Wong, a Hong Kong native, took over the directorship in November 2017 after years kicking around the industry as a critic (he’s a member of the Hong Kong Film Critics Society), entertainment journalist, producer, and screenwriter, and working for local companies like Panorama and freelancing for HKIFF, among other gigs. Largely self-educated, Wong also worked with the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) before joining the festival’s programming team in 2014. A film buff since his teens, Wong is a believer in action over theory, and has no interest in promoting himself as an academic. If he had a film or filmmaker epiphany that put him on the path to HKIFF, he’s not revealing who or what it was. “It would sound very bad to single out one or two,” he says wearily. “And it will sound very pretentious if I name a classic title. I don’t want to do that.”
The DIY approach worked for Wong, an affable, thoughtful man who doesn’t dodge questions about the festival, the local industry, and the hurdles both face. Sitting in the festival’s boardroom a week before opening night alongside fellow programmer Kiki Fung, he laments the death of real film criticism in the face of rapid-fire Twitter sound bites, but has unshakeable faith in this year’s line-up and the future of Hong Kong cinema.
That’s true even though the 2018 edition of HKIFF is one of its thinnest for local films. Wong brushes off worries that’s a sign of an industry in danger. “I wouldn’t say it’s a poor year for Hong Kong films,” he says. “It’s just that we didn’t have any suitable choices for opening. There are ups and down and cycles in every country, not just Hong Kong.”
Nonetheless, this year does seem to pale in comparison to its predecessors. 2017 opened with a new film by local favourite Pang Ho-cheung, 2016 kicked off with titan Johnnie To, and 2015 bookended the programme with films by Hong Kong stalwarts Sylvia Chang, Tsui Hark and Philip Yung. There are only two new Hong Kong films in this year’s line-up. In fairness, a bad year is not uncommon; even Cannes has them. “That’s the cycle in the film industry. This year in Hong Kong we didn’t really see a lot of titles suitable for us. Sometimes we choose films and sometimes they choose us,” says Wong. Distributor or sales agent strategy can have an impact on what screens at HKIFF, and of course, hindsight is always 20/20. It is only March. “We may look back to 2018 and see it was a great year later on,” says Wong.
The health of Hong Kong’s industry and the influence of China’s censors and funders are issues that are constantly raised these days, but both Wong and Fung see those external factors as new elements to navigate. As long as artists have something to say, Wong sees Hong Kong cinema doing just fine. “The people interested in making films won’t stop making films. It’s simply a matter of how big it will be. Maybe the production values won’t be what [a filmmaker] wants, maybe it won’t have any stars, but the films will still turn up. I’m not worried about that.” Fung, another Hongkonger who did a stint at the Hong Kong Film Archive after comparative literature studies at university and seven years at the Brisbane International Film Festival, chimes in to point out that on a constantly shifting artistic landscape, the time is now for the local industry to redefine itself. Hong Kong has talent, and no matter who it’s working for, it is Hong Kong talent.
“Perhaps it’s time to rethink what Hong Kong cinema is,” says Fung. “If you look at the history of Hong Kong cinema, we’ve always managed to mix it up and collaborate with other artistic voices. We don’t have to confine ourselves by looking at just our industry as an enclosed zone. Filmmakers are negotiating with the system to find a way where they can have their voice heard or expressed, and at the same time, one can imagine the system is also taking its time to understand filmmakers. Admittedly there are obstacles, but it’s very exciting to see creative people moving on instead of being discouraged. Hong Kong filmmakers will find a way.”
One of HKIFF’s great challenges moving forward isn’t expansion; it’s holding on to the audiences it’s worked to cultivate since 1976 while also finding new ones. Wong points out that there are roughly 10 local festivals screening all varieties of film, and HKIFF is now just another one of them. Adding to that are new media platforms — Netflix, Amazon Prime, MOViEMOViE — that bring Hollywood blockbusters and obscure art films to viewers’ homes. Plunging theatre attendance numbers are the biggest challenge Wong sees for HKIFF, but he’s sure, however, he has a trump card.
“I saw [Bong Joon-ho’s] Okja in competition at Cannes last year. Of course, everyone’s talking about how this is a Netflix movie, how it won’t be in theatres after that screening. Now it’s been about a year. How many people have actually seen that film? How many are talking about it?” he asks. Netflix doesn’t release its ratings, so it is hard to say how well the film did, although it earned US$2.27 million during a limited theatrical release in South Korea. But Wong suggests a film released online just doesn’t have the same cachet as one released in theatres.
“The cinema experience is something unique,” he says. “You go with your friends, you watch it with a lot of people, and afterwards it’s a thing. You can share it and talk about it.” Younger audiences accustomed to watching Blade Runner 2049 on smartphones may not have yet learnt the pleasures of the collective experience. “It’s why we’ve kept our big venues, like the Cultural Centre. When you watch with 600 or 1,000 people it’s a totally different thing, when everybody’s laughing, or cheering, or crying.”
Fung agrees. “Some of these films are not easy. After that you want to talk about them. You want someone to argue or debate with you, and help you understand. It’s the social and intellectual experience we hope to offer.”
This year, audiences will be invited to collectively experience over 250 films, many by emerging filmmakers and women, a strong programme of restored classics, and an overdue retrospective of acclaimed Taiwanese actor Brigitte Lin. Wong recommends diving into the Firebird Awards sections, particularly the Young Cinema Competition. “I’m always excited about young filmmakers. Those are films with interesting ideas, [some with] a great spark you don’t always find in established directors.” Other fresh voices include Xavier Legrand, whose Custody demonstrates incredible insightful to its characters’ psychology while maintaining an auteur’s level of dramatic tension. “It’s so concentrated and well-constructed you wouldn’t know it was done by a first time director. And these are films people might miss because they don’t know the director,” says Wong.
This year’s lineup is stacked with women filmmakers and women’s stories — a happy accident in the wake of equality movements #MeToo and Time’s Up. Golden Horse-winner Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White touches on sexual harassment, and while it wasn’t made as a response to #MeToo, the subject was clearly on Qu’s mind, and now it has even greater currency. Elsewhere, Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel’s masterful coming-of-age drama The Holy Girl is on tap (with three other Martel films), which Fung appreciates for the complexity it brings to gender relations, desire and sexuality.
As a complement, Georgian film Scary Mother is about a female writer who wants to explore female imagination and sexuality in her book, and most of the men around her are trying to convince her to cut the sexual part from the novel. “It’s a strong year for women filmmakers,” enthuses Fung. From Hong Kong, Simon Chung’s I Miss You When I See You is a low-key drama about a depressed gay man and an old school chum that may have lingering feelings for him, and Angie Chan’s I’ve got the blues, a clever, complicated portrait of local photographer, musician, painter and writer Yang Wong Yan-kwai.
Finally, Lin, who retired at the height of her career in 1994 after a turn in Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express — still the film she’s best known for beyond Asia — is perhaps the perfect artist for a post-#MeToo Filmmaker in Focus spotlight. Among the 14 films are Lin’s restored 1973 debut, Outside the Window; the rarely seen Ann Hui romantic drama Starry is the Night; Red Dust, which won Lin a Golden Horse award; and her legendary gender-challenging performance as Invincible Asia in the wuxia classic, The Swordsman II. Her ability to span time, form and genre defines Lin’s work, and is what made her one of Asia’s all-time greats — male or female.
“In a romance film she can be a gentle girl, and in a martial arts film she’s able to transform, and has this ability to inject femininity into a masculine role,” says Fung. “There are other actresses that have played cross-gender roles but not as fluidly as her. She can make a role iconic.”
Wong agrees, finishing succinctly. “Even now there are no stars like her.”
The Hong Kong International Film Festival runs from March 19 to April 5, 2018. Click here for more information.