(April 6 to 21 2001)
Anatomy Class (ZUNG So-yun, 2000)
Bird Land (HUANG Min-Chen, 2000)
Boli Shaonu/Glass Tears (Carol LAI Miu-Suet, 2001)
Gege (Yan Yan MAK, 2001)
Gu Nan Gua Nu/Needing You (Johnnie TO Kei-fung, WAI Ka-fai, 2000)
Ha Ha Shanghai (Christine CHOY, 2001)
Lai Man-Wai: Father of Hong Kong Cinema (CHOI Kai-kwong, 2001)
Lian’ai Qiyi/Heroes in Love (Wing SHYA, Nicholas TSE Ting-Fung, Stephen FUNG Tak-lun, GC Goo-Bi, 2001)
Lover Below My Collarbone (Ryoko ARAMAKI, 1999)
Mirror Image (HSIAO Ya-chuan, 2000)
Mool Ahn Kyung/Goggles (LEE Soo-youn, 2000)
Shahe Beige/Lament of Sand River (CHANG Chih-yung, 2000)
Taiwan Moduo/Modelling Taiwan (HUANG Ting-fu, 2000)
Xunyicao/Lavender (Riley IP Kam-Hung, 2000)
Zhong Wuyan/Wu Yen (Johnnie TO Kei-fung, WAI Ka-fai, 2001)
Zhuliyi Yu Liangshanbo/Juliet in Love (Wilson YIP Wai-Shun, 2000)
The 25th Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) was an unusual version of the Festival, for a few reasons. The veteran programming staff was not involved this year, and the choices of films seemed haphazard as a result. This was the last Festival to fall under the Leisure and Cultural Services Department of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), and hopefully the last year of direct bureaucratic involvement. In 2002, the Festival will be under the umbrella of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, which is an organization arms-length from the HKSAR government. This was also the first Festival held since the opening of the Hong Kong Film Archive, and the Festival had traditionally included a themed historical retrospective, but this year the Archive took charge of that section of the programming. In the past year there has been an unusually mainstream global media focus on and recognition of Chinese film (e.g. JIA Zhangke, WONG Kar-Wai, Edward YANG Dechang, Ang LEE), which changes the HKIFF situation somewhat from that of previous years.
There are generally four main goals for the HKIFF: to bring international films to local audiences; to show local commercial films to international audiences, while reminding local audiences that their own films are worthwhile; to make room for independent film and video works that would not obtain commercial exhibition; and to spotlight archival films from the Chinese film traditions, particularly from Hong Kong. I saw only parts of the Festival, due to time constraints. The HKIFF’s entire program spanned South Korean, Japanese and Latin American, European and Hollywood films, and featured the films of Tony LEUNG Chiu-Wai, Jean-Jacques BEINEIX and Raoul RUIZ. The archival films were a real highlight for me – either the films are not available for viewing in any other way, or most of the available VCDs do not include subtitles. The Hong Kong Film Archive is a long-awaited treasure trove, and hopefully its new-found popularity with local audiences will allow consistent government funding to continue into the future. The HKIFF archival films are covered in another article in this issue.
Perhaps the highlight for me was to be able to see new features (or long shorts) from Hong Kong and Taiwan, which I would be unlikely to find easily in North America even at film festivals. It appears that the Festival’s decision to include Zhan Tai/Platform (JIA Zhangke, 2000) meant that the HKIFF no longer was offered opportunities to show new government-approved films from Mainland China , as Platform did not go through the proper channels for script or shooting authorization in China, nor has it been officially exhibited there. Platform is an important and exciting film by an intelligent director, and it had not been shown in Hong Kong previously, but still this choice must not have been easy for HKIFF. The lack of new Mainland films seems a large omission, for example I was hoping to see Shiqisuide Danche/Beijing Bicycle (WANG Xiaoshuai, 2001). There have been a number of other new films from Mainland China or Taiwan at recent festivals around the world (e.g. Berlin, Rotterdam, Singapore), none of which were represented at the HKIFF.
Hong Kong and Taiwan offered some films of note. Gege and Bird Land were part of the exciting Age of Independents series, which is a showcase of film and video works from young Asian directors held in conjunction with the Hong Kong Arts Centre.
Gege (Yan Yan MAK, 2001) is a first feature, on video, and the co-winner of the FIPRESCI Award at the Festival. Set in rural Qinghai on the Mainland, this film portrays a quest to find the Hong Kong protagonist’s missing elder brother (the title means ‘elder brother’ in Putonghua). The protagonist’s Hong Kong characteristics lead to some misunderstandings with the seemingly less-sophisticated village folk, which has implications for Hong Kong and China’s relations and interactions. I enjoyed the folk elements of the music. Video and photographs within the film play an important self-reflexive role.
Boli Shaonu/Glass Tears (Carol LAI Miu-Suet, 2001) is also a first feature and offers a somewhat grim view of life in Hong Kong today. An extremely uncommunicative set of parents, Tats LAU Yi-Dat and Carrie NG Ka-Lai, are worried about their missing daughter Ah Cho. They ask her grandfather, LO Lieh/LAW Lit, to delve into the urban teen subculture to look for her. This is a comparatively glossy-looking film, and the combination of the craggy LO Lieh and the exuberant Zeny KWOK (as Ah Cho’s friend P) is quite engaging. As the search continues, we are shown many quirks of the characters. Glass Tears was part of the Directors Fortnight at Cannes 2001.
Bird Land (HUANG Min-Chen, 2000) is a 16mm short film, and was the winner of the 2000 Taipei Film Festival Grand Prize (for independent film). A somewhat surreal film with the lead actor playing two roles, it takes some effort to follow the connections between the characters. The film takes the audience to the edges of Taiwanese society – illegal immigrants, betel nut sellers, a homeless child, rural aborigines. (Keen-eyed viewers will notice the overlap with the set and cast of another independent Taiwanese film, About July [WEI Te-Shen, 1999].)
Mirror Image (HSIAO Ya-chuan, 2000), another first feature, was the winner of the 2000 Taipei Film Festival Best Film award (for commercial film) and also the Most Promising Director award at the same Festival. This was my favourite of this group, perhaps due to its dramatic focus. Most of the film takes place inside a pawn shop within a house, and we are given views through the grill, the window, glass or the doors. The only other key locations were inside subway trains or on the subway platforms. The lead character, Tung Ching, is a computer geek and slacker, running the pawn shop for his hospitalized father, and his girl friend Eiko (whom he met through an internet chat room) is keeping him company in between her nursing shifts. Before long another woman appears, with a pawned watch and some moneymaking schemes. The items circulating through the pawn shop, including a large live fish, provide much visual interest and humour. Palm prints provoke discussions of identity and fate. HSIAO has worked with HOU Hsiao-hsien, notably as the assistant director of Hai Shang Hua/Flowers of Shanghai (HOU Hsiao-hsien, 1999), and Mirror Image was included in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes 2001.
Shahe Beige/Lament of Sand River (CHANG Chih-yung, 2000) was the winner of the 2000 Taiwan Golden Horse award for Best Supporting Actress (ZHOU Mei-Ling) and also Best Art Direction. This recognition is quite surprising, as this was a completely uncompelling film with an incoherent narrative. One colleague’s response was to ask if the reels had been shown out of order. Apparently the film is based on a very popular but not recent Taiwanese novel, written in a stream-of-consciousness style. The director’s method to deal with this literary style was to show sections of the lead character’s life out of order, confusing the audience. Taiwanese opera performances provide the only interesting scenes of the film. This is also a movie featuring a chronic lung disease and a great deal of coughing. Not at all recommended.
Lian’ai Qiyi/Heroes in Love (Wing SHYA, Nicholas TSE Ting-Fung, Stephen FUNG Tak-lun, GC Goo-Bi, 2001) is a portmanteau film with three sections and a coda. The four youthful directors are involved in different aspects of Hong Kong pop culture: graphic designer (Wing SHYA), pop musicians and film actors (Nicholas TSE Ting-Fung, Stephen FUNG Tak-lun), and radio DJ/scriptwriter (GC Goo-Bi). I found the first two sections off-putting, partially due to their violent nature. The first section was also not an up-to-date portrayal of a lesbian character and relationship; the director seems very threatened by this prospect. The middle section fetishizes guns in a thoroughly unappealing manner. The third section is about a doomed relationship, again stemming from internet chat, and has an intriguing open-ended final scene. The youthful audience at the HKIFF screening reacted very positively to this portrayal of their lives. Jan LAMB Hoi-Fung’s coda re-working material from the first three sections may be the most interesting of the lot. The music is consistently gripping throughout the film (including Nicholas TSE Ting-Fung and Radiohead), and William CHANG Suk-Ping is responsible for the excellent art design. This film also probably has the highest incidence of cell-phone usage in any film, even from mobile-crazy Hong Kong.
A few of the short films in the Age of Independents series stood out for me, including two from South Korea. South Korean film has not been an area of interest for me, and I was not expecting to enjoy (or even stay to the end) either of the South Korean shorts. These are further examples of the main themes of recent South Korean film – the difficulties of meaningful relationships between men and women, or the problems women face in modern Korean society.
Most film festival program plot descriptions for Anatomy Class (ZUNG So-yun, 2000) tend to exaggerate the sensational twists in the plot. A deadly situation develops behind the locked door of a very formal girls high school classroom, and the chosen solution is equally drastic. The cathartic disco song ending is way over the top. The scant 12 minutes of the 16mm film are action-packed. Although the girls are not sympathetic characters, any one who has experienced peer pressure will connect with their general situation.
Mool Ahn Kyung/Goggles (LEE Soo-youn, 2000) follows a lacklustre young woman from her early days of swimming lessons to her post-graduation job search. Her male swimming instructor exerted an unusually strong influence on her, and her self-destructive female friends also cause her problems. At 34 minutes, this 35mm film had some time to tell a story and draw the audience into the tale. The narrative is not linear, but it is quite clear. This is an unusual coming-of-age film.
Lover Below My Collarbone (Ryoko ARAMAKI, 1999) might have turned out as just another formulaic student 16mm film, but the filmmaker keeps her audience’s attention focussed on her character’s self-absorbed world. The main character, named Ryoko ARAMAKI, is a very idiosyncratic artistic soul, who displays a nasty burn or scab below her collar-bone. As she drifts around her urban setting or sits intensely in her apartment, we hear her interior monologues and her phone messages. Quite polished and engaging, even if there are a few more shots of the scab than I found absolutely necessary.
Three of the documentary films were worth mentions, and they were quite different in style and approach.
Ha Ha Shanghai (Christine CHOY, 2001) is a very personal documentary directed by the extremely personable and forthright Christine CHOY, also the director of the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong. Her mother (whose life has included travels from Vladivostok to the USA) had owned a house in the French Concession of Shanghai prior to the Cultural Revolution, and Ms CHOY wanted to investigate regaining ownership. She took video diaries of her visits to the city of her youth, and of her search for the title for the house through a variety of bureaucratic offices. In the process she met up with childhood friends and family members who lived through the Cultural Revolution, and she shares with us her ideas about memory.
Lai Man-Wai: Father of Hong Kong Cinema (CHOI Kai-kwong, 2001) is a paean to LAI Man-Wai/LI Minwei, who was one of the founders of the Minxin and Lianhua film studios before the 1949 revolution. LAI Man-Wai also shot war documentaries for Sun Yat-Sen’s forces in the 1920s. This very detailed portrait follows his career from his first feature film shot in 1913, starring his first wife YAN Shanshan, to his death in Hong Kong in 1953. The documentary includes excerpts of many important pre-Revolution films as well as interviews with many key surviving figures from the Chinese film industry, whether in Shanghai or in Hong Kong. His personal life was also complex, with a second (simultaneous) wife the actress LAM Chor-Chor/LIN Chuchu and many children. Some of his younger children were still alive to be interviewed. As a side note, LIN Chuchu appears in one of the archival films shown during HKIFF – Xixiang Ji/Romance of the Western Chamber (HOU Yao, 1927). This documentary seems very useful for Asian cinema courses, as the excerpted films may not be easy to find elsewhere, but it could be daunting at 140 minutes in length.
Taiwan Moduo/Modelling Taiwan (HUANG Ting-fu, 2000) is a 16mm film that discusses the situations of seven women figure models, nude models used for life drawing, painting or photography classes. We meet each of the models in turn, as they describe their preparations, mental and physical, for work. We are also shown their working conditions in different classes or with specific artists. A major issue for the models is how their friends and families react to their job. With discussions of artistic freedom and personal expression, it becomes quite a philosophical documentary. While any one of the models alone might not be quite so fascinating, the broader topic bears more discussion in Taiwan.
In this year of huge global success for and awareness of Chinese films, Hong Kong offered a number of interesting popular films of varying budgets. The Hong Kong Panorama section of the HKIFF is supposed to showcase the best commercial releases from the previous year, both as an easily-defined group for international guests and as a reminder for local audiences that their own films are indeed noteworthy. I will briefly mention a few of the Panorama films. These films are widely available on VCD or DVD.
Zhuliyi Yu Liangshanbo/Juliet in Love (Wilson YIP Wai-Shun, 2000) provides the very talented Sandra NG Kwun-Yu and Francis NG Chun-Yu with really interesting roles in a very unconventional screenplay. This is a Hong Kong dramatic film for adults, but it includes gangster and action elements as well as a far-flung New Territories setting. Wilson YIP Wai-Shun is usually an interesting director. The Hong Kong Film Critics’ Society designated this as a Film of Merit for 2000.
Gu Nan Gua Nu/Needing You (Johnnie TO Kei-fung, WAI Ka-fai, 2000) was a huge commercial hit in the summer of 2000, with a two-month run. Unusually for a Johnnie TO film of recent years, there is no gunfire and no bloodshed. Andy LAU Tak-Wah and Sammi CHEUNG Sau-Man work in the same office, and their growing relationship is the focus of the film. I enjoyed the depiction of the office gossip network (words zoom through the ventilation system), which is similar to the rat-like hospital administrators in Lashou Huichan/Help! (Johnnie TO Kei-fung, WAI Ka-fai, 2000). I found Sammi CHEUNG Sau-Man’s quirky character refreshing. This is a thoroughly escapist summer film.
Zhong Wuyan/Wu Yen (Johnnie TO Kei-fung, WAI Ka-fai, 2001) also features Sammi CHEUNG Sau-Man, but this time she is a love interest in a costume drama with musical shadow puppet interludes. Anita MUI Yim-Fong plays the (male) Emperor, whose character sometimes dresses up as a woman and is really in love with Sammi. Cecilia CHEUNG Pak-Chi plays a (female) fairy who becomes a man to woo Sammi. The combination of these three strong actresses guaranteed dynamic performances throughout the film, especially in the gender-switching situations. The historical setting was much earlier than usual, lending the film an almost prehistoric flavour at times. Very entertaining despite the low budget.
Xunyicao/Lavender (Riley IP Kam-Hung, 2000) is one of those “angel falls to earth to discover true love” movies and perhaps would have been completely sappy in the hands of someone other than Riley IP Kam-Hung. His previous film Ban Zhi Yan/Metade Fumaca (1999) also had strong visual appeal and unusual characters. Kelly CHAN Wai-Lam and Takeshi KANESHIRO/GUM Sing Mo make a very eye-catching couple, even if the whining of Kelly’s aromatherapist character was often nerve-wracking. The Mid-Levels setting and high level of art direction provided necessary visual interest as an antidote to the mood invoked by Kelly CHAN’s oft-flowing tears.
Throughout the 25th HKIFF I was pleased to find a number of memorable films, whether a feature, a short film or a documentary. I strongly recommend the programming of the Hong Kong Film Archive. The Hong Kong Film Archive is now programming year-round, so visitors inclined towards older Chinese films no longer have to time their visits with the HKIFF.
Despite the inherent problems the 25th HKIFF faced this year, I believe there are still signs of life and that the HKIFF can continue in a new form and with new energy next year. As they have increasing competition from other Asian festivals (e.g. Pusan, South Korea and Singapore), the HKIFF programmers will have to work harder to regain their lost ground. I hope that they can continue to find promising new films from Taiwan and China, as well as showcase the films of note from Hong Kong.