It’s summertime, and for every family who is able to take off on a sunny holiday, there are twice as many that suddenly need a way to keep the kids engaged and out of the heat. So for the seventh year in a row, minus a brief Covid disruption, comes the Hong Kong Kids International Film Festival (KIFF) and Carnival, kid-focused but curated to cultivate interest in cinema as an art form, to stoke imagination, and get an early taste of global cultures.
Founded by local indie distributor Golden Scene and media and culture education organisation 3Space, in a short span of time KIFF has become a go-to film festival for families and children from as young as two and as old as 16. While there’s plenty by Disney, Pixar, Illumination and DreamWorks flooding theatres in the summer season, KIFF aims a little higher and considerably more diverse. “We hope KIFF can cultivate the habit of young people and children going to the cinema to enjoy films,” says Golden Scene managing director Winnie Tsang. “In addition to supporting a sustainable development of the industry, we also hope to enrich their understanding of culture, art, and creative media.”
Each of the 11 films screening as part of this year’s KIFF will be followed by a Q&A session designed to encourage critical thinking. Among the guests are Still Human director Oliver Chan Siu-kuen, Lost Love director Ka Sing-fung, and writer-director Erica Li (the discussion will be in Cantonese). The screenings are complemented by a raft of events and workshops at KIFF Carnival at Elements, the first since the pandemic. Carnival includes a forest playground, photo booth, and mini forest theatre where KIFF’s 20 international short films screen free of charge. Among those are Golden Horse winner The Island of Us (Yu Yu) from Taiwan, The Most Boring Granny in the Whole World (Damaris Zielke, Germany) and Spirit of the Forest (Nandini Rao, Nirupa Rao, Kalp Sanghvi, India).
Among this year’s workshops, running roughly 40 minutes each, is one that focuses on the A to Z of showing movies; another about recycling and crafting toys with social enterprise ANEWTOYS (a longer workshop, at about 90 minutes); and, for both parents and kids, creating and appreciating film music with music educator Addoilmusic.
But KIFF is a film festival first, and it’s the distinct but universal programme that’s front and centre. Kicking off the festival is Rasmus A Sivertsen’s Just Super from Norway. The story follows 11-year-old gamer Hedvig’s adventures as an unexpected superhero when she’s forced to replace her father in the job – and promptly loses it to her cousin. Baffled and hurt by her failure, help comes from an unlikely source: her dementia-stricken grandmother. It’s easy to see the parallels to Pixar’s The Incredibles, but Sivertsen refrains from frantic action and non-stop quips for a more sincere spin on how a child must separate their own desires from those of their parents, and what truly makes a hero.
Movies for the very littlest audiences have been selected specifically to be a jumping off point for movie-going experiences. In KIFF’s 1st Movie Experience section are a trio of animations: Anpanman: Roboly and the Warming Present (Toshikazu Hashimoto) from Japan, German-Dutch-Swedish co-production Best Birthday Ever (Michael Ekbladh), and from China, Tale of the Rally 2023 (Cheng Shung Yan). If you speak Cantonese — this version has no subtitles — Anpanman follows robot girl Roboly and her robot bird partner Koto as they try to return a gift box to Anpanman World. When Baikinman intent on taking over Roboly’s home appears, she and her new friends band together on an adventure to stop it.
Also on show is Birthday, based on Rotraut Susanne Bener’s book series, which teaches kids independence and agency as they watch Charlie, a rabbit, try and navigate the world of kindergarten – and a new baby sister. And there are more rabbits in Cheng’s Rally, who are brought to a farm where the farmer plays favourites with some turtles. The rabbits and turtles turn their rivalry into a race that ultimately teaches them the value of acceptance and the transcendent power of friendship.
Finally, closing out this year’s festival is Blueblack from Australia, directed by Robert Connolly and co-written by author Tim Winton (Dirt Music), on whose 1997 novella the film is based on. Striking a balance between coming-of-age drama, mother-daughter melodrama and environmental clarion call, the low-key Blueblack sees Abby (Mia Wasikowska) head back to the beautiful bay of her youth to care for her mother, and reflects on the threats by poachers and developers and the wars she and her mother waged against them to save their reef. The story is sadly relevant and the cast is uniformly strong, but cinematographers Andrew Commis and Rick Rifici are the real stars, capturing the life of the oceans with stunning images.
In between is André Kadi and Marya Zarif’s beautiful Syrian refugee allegory, Dounia & The Princess of Aleppo. The Canada/France co-production uses its soft, dreamy images to tell a tale of war, loss, displacement and resilience through the eyes of a six-year-old girl who loses her loving family and must flee to a country she knows nothing about. Dounia perfectly blends harsh truths about the real world with fantastical storytelling that will resonate with children as young as six. Last but not least, Sound of Silence by Hong Kong filmmaker Yan Yan is about neglected 10-year-old Kwong who, after the death of his beloved grandmother, finally responds to the voices in his head and “becomes” one of the planets he stares at during the night. Short and potent, Sound of Silence is a rare, brave look at child neglect and mental health.
Rounding out the programme is Aurora Gossé’s live action Dancing Queen (Norway); Little Allan – The Human Antenna from Denmark (Amalie Næsby Fick); Mexico’s Little Eggs – An African Rescue (Gabriel Riva Palacio Alatriste, Rodolfo Riva Palacio Alatriste); and an enduring family classic: Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s original The Lion King. Best of all? Most of the features at KIFF are well under 90 minutes. That alone is worth the price of admission when held up against the numbing 135 minutes of the new The Little Mermaid.
KIFF runs July 29 to August 6, 2023; KIFF Carnival runs from July 20 to September 3. Click here for details on screenings and workshops.