It’s a landmark year for the Hong Kong International Film Festival. The region’s oldest regular public film festival celebrates its 40th year in 2016, and to recognise the occasion HKIFF has planned – well, not much. Not only is it business as usual this year, it’s a year made tricky by slim pickings over the last few months and late in 2015. Venerable as it may be, HKIFF faces a tough road ahead.
HKIFF is only as strong as the film year that preceded it, namely key releases at festivals in Toronto, Busan and, most importantly, Berlin. (Ironically one of the best HKIFF programmes in recent memory was that of 2003 – but SARS kept everybody away.) This year has been a challenge for programmers and the situation may become even worse in future years. “I think in the coming years filmmakers will try to submit their films to [industry-only] Cannes first, skipping other film festivals,” says HKIFF programme manager Alvin Tse.
Another obstacle: the Hong Kong film industry continues to shrink. “Production is down and there are more and more co-productions [with mainland China],” says Tse. “But there are still independent films or small to middle budget films out there.” New investors are popping up all the time, and though they may not have the deep pockets of La Peikang’s behemoth China Film Company, they are willing to put their money into distinctly Hong Kong voices. And at the end of February, Financial Secretary John Tsang found more money in the budget for the Film Development Fund, calling locally-produced Cantonese films a “key component of the local culture.”
Tse and the rest of HKIFF’s programmers — including programme director Li Cheuk-to and curator Jacob Wong — are being careful to avoid the trap that so many other festivals fall into: that of degrading programme quality with an unofficial mandate. South Korea’s Busan International Film Festival prefers to pack it schedule full of world premieres, often at the cost of programme strength. “We do the opposite, even if it’s a Hong Kong production,” says Tse. “We won’t take films just because [it’s local] or because it’s a world premiere. If you do that, you’ll lose your audience and industry people.”
This year’s highlights
So what stands out this year? All viewers have singular tastes, making recommendations fraught with stress. Nonetheless, a few films and special sections are bucking for attention. Among those is the festival’s own commissioned anthology, Beautiful 2016. The fifth in the ongoing series of shorts that brings together Asia’s most prominent filmmakers is sure to be as hit-and-miss as the others, and therefore will harbour a hidden gem.
This year’s director line-up is one of the series’ strongest: China’s most critical acclaimed director Jia Zhangke (known for Mountains May Depart and Still Life, which won a Golden Lion in Venice in 2006) chronicles a group of Shanxi coalminers looking for work in The Hedonists. Japanese horror maestro Hideo Nakata (Ring) steps out of his comfort zone for Somewhere in Kamakura. In it, an 80-year-old woman (Tokyo Story’s Kawaka Kyoko) gets a letter from her first love; whether the letter is haunted remains to be seen. Taiwan’s Alec Su (The Left Ear) records a first for the series with the documentary Dama Wang Who Lives on Happiness Avenue, about middle-aged square-dancing ladies. Hometown favourite Stanley Kwan (Lan Yu), who often deals with the plight of women and their romantic affairs, steps back behind the camera for the first time in five years for One Day in Our Lives… which is about a diva, a novice filmmaker and his assistant who are stuck together in a recording studio.
On the Hong Kong front, the most media-ready film on the slate is Ten Years, the self-financed, self-distributed indie by Kwok Zune, Wong Fei-pang, Jevons Au, Chow Kwun-wai and Ng Ka-leung. Its depiction of a bleak and miserable future under totalitarian Beijing rule drew huge crowds to theatres last fall when it got a limited release, earning the film more at the box office than any other independent production in Hong Kong’s history. It made further waves at the end of February when Chinese web platform QQ walked away from its contract to lifestream the HKIFF in mainland China, reportedly due to Ten Year’s nomination for best film at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
Does Tse worry that HKIFF is pushing its funding luck by selecting a film so offensive to Beijing? In a word, no. “It’s an independent film,” he says. “It’s an example of how new directors use a small budget to tell their stories. We want to support young local directors. Every film nowadays is political in Hong Kong. Trivisa and [Herman Yau’s] The Mobfathers are also with political elements – Trivisa takes place before the handover and The Mobfathers is about the general election. Filmmakers will always make films based on what’s going on in Hong Kong.” It’s true enough. Ten Years premiered at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, which gets funding from the government, and HKIFF has a long history of screening films that the ruling elite may find unsavoury, like the illegal mining drama Blind Shaft.
Elsewhere, a spotlight on South American cinema is as diverse as the continent itself. Tse names Lorenzo Vigas’ film From Afar as one of his favourites. “It’s a new director from a country that Hongkongers are not really that familiar with,” he says. “When you talk about South America, it’s [usually] Brazil and Argentina. The determined direction is great the lead actors’ performances are tremendous.” The film, which won a Golden Lion in Venice, is a delicately modulated exploration of an unlikely relationship between two men.
The gonzo Too Young to Die (Kudo Kankuro, Ping Pong) follows a teen’s journey to Hell after he dies in a car crash. He ends up touring with Hell’s house metal band in order to find closure with his girlfriend. Robbery by Hong Kong director Fire Lee features Lam Suet and Philip Keung (Little Big Master) in a quasi-chamber piece about a disparate group of thugs, losers and retail workers in a convenience store showdown.
Portuguese master Miguel Gomes’ six-hour, three-part Arabian Nights is challenging but rewarding; it could be the most insightful film about contemporary Portugal produced in the last five years. Documentary titan Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights is essential viewing from the United States as the country grows more and more divided. Canadian wunderkind Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) once again explores truth, perception and identity in Remember, which asks tricky questions about the fallibility of memory as an elderly Holocaust survivor struggles to confirm he’s found a Nazi war criminal.
Of course, it’s not all art all the time. With the Hong Kong Film Archive now curating their own programmes outside of HKIFF, the festival has room to wiggle, and this year it restored four Bruce Lee classics (The Way of the Dragon, The Big Boss, The Game of Death and Fist of Fury) and gave them the big screen treatment. It’s the perfect chance for newcomers to Hong Kong movies to get a good look at the city’s first true global superstar the way he was meant to be seen — yellow jumpsuit and all.
Tickets are available from March 11, 2016 at www.hkiff.org.hk