The Hong Kong International Film Festival Returns – In Search of a Home

Albert Lee is unassuming. Were it not for a touch of grey in his close cropped hair it would be easy to mistake him for any of the staff at the new offices of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society (HKIFFS), rather than its new executive director, a position he stepped into last November.

And yet Lee is a man with 40 years of experience in the business, perhaps best known as the former CEO of Emperor Motion Pictures, a position he held for 17 years, during which time he shepherded some of Hong Kong’s and China’s brightest filmmaking lights to screens. His producing credits include Herman Yau’s classy martial arts biopic Ip Man: The Final Fight and the controversial romance Sara; Dante Lam’s gritty, underrated thriller Beast Stalker and later his blockbusting Operation Red Sea; Ning Hao’s arty neo-western No Man’s Land; and Heiward Mak’s low-key failed Hong Kong relationship drama Ex as just a few among dozens.

Lee has the corner office, as you would expect, but the door is wide open, and indeed he seems extremely accessible. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Lee followed his father into the movie business. “In those days people grew up idolising their parents,” he recalls. “I grew up watching him work. The systems in the 1950s and ’60s were quite different from what they are today. The marketing and promotion of a movie was up to the marketing department of each cinema. My father worked at the old Lee Theatre among others, so I grew up in this business.”

They Shall Not Grow Old – one of Peter Jackson’s restored First World War films – Courtesy HKIFF

They Shall Not Grow Old – one of Peter Jackson’s restored First World War films – Courtesy HKIFF

They Shall Not Grow Old – one of Peter Jackson’s restored First World War films – Courtesy HKIFF

Lee remembers sneaking into cinemas while his dad worked; he developed a taste for movies at a young age. After returning to Hong Kong from the University of Cardiff in 1975, he worked as a journalist with the defunct English-language tabloid The Star and the Associated Press before landing his first film promotion gig at Golden Harvest. He was there for 21 years. In between that and taking up the CEO post at Emperor in 2003 he became a regular festival juror and a Hong Kong Film Development Council member. He’s a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It’s why outgoing executive director Roger Garcia, who departed after eight years in the job, suggested that Lee apply for the job.

“I’ve dealt with the government, and the Society is an NGO,” says Lee. “[Roger] was looking for someone who knew the business and was familiar with government bureaucracy too. So I applied.” He admits that at first glance his work in private, profit-driven organisations makes him seem an unlikely fit, not to mention his relative lack of programming experience. “I’m sure there are plenty of people more qualified than me if they were looking for a curator. But this is essentially like running a film company, and I guess that’s what they need right now.”

Lee is under no illusion that HKIFF isn’t facing some considerable challenges as it speeds towards its 50th edition. When he took over the job — which also encompasses the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum, the Summer IFF, and the Cine Fan programme — he peeked under the hood, which revealed some systematic problems that needed to be addressed. More than anything else, Lee wants to position HKIFF to better tackle the coming decades. Working with a slim budget, 60 percent of which is public funding, HKIFF needs to streamline its ticketing process currently administered by several venues and drive towards 100 percent Chinese subtitling on its films (it’s about 70 percent now). Despite support from the government, subtitles are costly, and Lee is going to need to find a way to pay for it in a climate where sponsors are becoming scarce.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s restored historical epic 1900 – Park Circus, MGM Studios – Courtesy HKIFF

Bernardo Bertolucci’s restored historical epic 1900 – Park Circus, MGM Studios – Courtesy HKIFF

Adding to the list of potential hiccups is streaming media, something that’s become a contentious issue on the festival circuit. For Lee and HKIFF, streaming hasn’t muscled its way onto the stage yet; HKIFF is non-competitive, changing the dynamic Cannes and Venice have to consider. Netflix hasn’t reached total penetration yet. “We’re showing films, so I would welcome as many films as I can,” says Lee. “I don’t really see [streaming] as competition for now. People have asked if we would include a streaming component in the future. That’s not something we’ve looked at closely yet, but probably will in the future.”

It could, however, eat into HKIFF’s revenue, which needs constant cultivation and more creativity. Merchandising, a standard element of most big-ticket events but not something HKIFF has tapped, could ease the burden. “Merchandising is something we’re trying to develop,” says Lee. “All the bigger festivals have a very healthy merchandise collection. I think it’s something we need to try and do. It’s a branding issue and hopefully it could generate some revenue. But without a permanent site it’s not something that could be sustained over the year.”

Lee is referring to HKIFF’s lack of a home base. If he had a wish list, that would top it: a Hong Kong version of Berlin’s Palast, Toronto’s Bell Lightbox or the Busan Cinema Center. Lee shakes his head at the continued lack of awareness of the festival — after 43 years no less — as an even bigger hurdle than streaming. He thinks a permanent home would help that, and describes a single venue that stokes a sense of film community. “We need to improve the festival atmosphere. You look around and you don’t see it. You don’t feel it. The city’s been famous for its movies for years but [HKIFF] has no home,” he laments. Ideally this home would include the festival offices, film archive, screening rooms, cafés and storage. “I would love to see it having one some time in the future.”

For the immediate future, however, Lee has to get through his first festival in the top job, and HKIFF’s 43rd overall. Despite some notable titles on the schedule — like Berlin’s Golden Bear winner Synonyms, by Israeli director Nadav Lapid, Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk (featuring Oscar winner Regina King), and six of Hong Kong’s strongest films of 2018 — Lee is partial to classics.

“I’ve been looking forward to seeing They Shall Not Grow Old on the big screen,” he says of Peter Jackson’s restored First World War films. “Personally I love the idea of restoration and preservation, and it’s an amazing project of films shot 100 years ago on the Western front. It may not have relevance to people in Hong Kong, but it’s amazing to see how Jackson worked with this material.”

Alex Honnold free solo climbing on El Capitan’s Freerider in Yosemite National Park – Photo by Jimmy Chin for National Geographic – Courtesy HKIFF

Alex Honnold climbs the Salathe Route with Conrad Anker on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park – Photo by Jimmy Chin for National Geographic – Courtesy HKIFF

Free Solo is a documentary high on his list, again thanks to its big screen treatment. “I’ve seen it, and it’s amazing, and scary if you’re afraid of heights but a spectacular visual film.” He calls Bernardo Bertolucci’s restored historical epic 1900 “fantastic,” — all five hours of it — but saves his greatest praise for homegrown favourite Sammo Hung’s retrospective. “I worked with him for many years at Golden Harvest, and he’s the most deserving,” he says. “A lot of people look at him as a martial artist but he’s much more than that.”

Beyond a few tweaks, Lee doesn’t see HKIFF needing to change too much going down the road. Since its inaugural event in 1977 the festival’s job has remained the same and Lee doesn’t see a need to deviate from its original mandate. “Its only mission is to promote the culture of film and make films of different kinds available to local audiences,” he says. “The festival will go on. I think it’s an important part of the cultural life of Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong International Film Festival

The Hong Kong International Film Festival runs from 18 March to 1 April 2019. Click here for more information.

Zolima CityMag is a proud media partner to the festival. 

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