The 27th edition of the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) opened on April 8th overshadowed by the deadly SARS virus. The festival was to have marked a new beginning: for the first time in its history, several competitive categories adjudicated by panels of international jurors were instituted. What should have been a milestone event turned out to be an anti-climax due to the spread of SARS, made all the more apparent by the absence on opening night of distinguished guests (directors Todd Haynes, Yoji Yamada, Clara Law, and Park Kwang-su – the latter two part of the international jury). The HKIFF was also to have been the cornerstone of a celebratory “Hong Kong Film Month” in April, beginning with the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF). As it turned out, HAF became a non-event due to SARS and was cancelled (it was scheduled to take place two days before HKIFF), while the atmosphere at the Hong Kong Film Awards, which went ahead on April 7th, was downbeat – the mood made worse still by the suicide of Leslie Cheung (who jumped to his death on April Fools’ Day).
With such an inauspicious beginning, there was every expectation of disaster, but the festival proceeded without a glitch. Despite the health concerns that held back international guests from travelling to Hong Kong, the local audience did not flinch from attending screenings in fairly big numbers, ultimately saving the festival from collapse. It could well be that Hong Kong people were heeding general manager Li Cheuk-to’s words, printed in the festival newsletter the day after opening night: “We need art to bring us pleasure and entertainment to loosen up our tense mood”. Sitting in on any one of the sold-out sessions, it would seem that Hong Kong was not facing its worst health crisis ever, although the sight of many in the audience wearing face masks was reminiscent of an operating theatre. The crowds were there for the two opening films, Yamada’s Twilight Samurai and Johnnie To’s PTU, two contrasting studies of mood play and styles ostensibly grounded in action genre forms. Yamada’s film was more engaged in delineating the human warmth of characterisations in its tale of a bedraggled samurai-widower trying to make ends meet for his family while conducting himself honourably as a samurai (the last of his kind as Japan surges on towards the 20th century). PTU is a cops-and-robbers thriller tautly structured around the search for a policeman’s missing gun: a cliché that To uses to advantage in a highly studied manner, coming up with his best movie since The Mission.
The competition sections yielded few surprises but at least one discovery – Macao director Doug Chan’s Love is Not a Sin, the Golden DV Award winner in the Asian DV Competition. Chan’s film, shot in Coloane Island, off Macao, offers a rejuvenating look at the relationship of two teenage female students and the discovery by one that the other is supposedly male. Ghosts, murder, and a motif of Siamese twins feature in the plot. There is an impromptu quality about these plot elements but the director’s perceptive handling of such elements and his non-professional actors makes this DV work memorable as a film. Andrew Cheng’s Welcome to Destination Shanghai garnered the Silver DV Award “for building a persuasive picture of China’s new sexual economy”, according to the jurors’ commendation. In the main competition (the Firebird Awards for Young Cinema), Li Yang’s Blind Shaft was awarded the Silver Firebird, while the Golden Firebird went to the Hungarian György Pálfi’s Hukkle. Blind Shaft is destined to do the festival rounds and is certainly worthy of wider distribution in the art cinema circuits. The topic of China’s corrupt, badly-run mining industry, integrated with sure-fire dramatic elements (murder and depravity), testify to the director’s shrewdness in picking subject matter as much as his talent for achieving his effects in the prickly and censorious environment of Mainland China.
In the documentary category, the “Humanitarian Award” for best documentary was given to Clown in Kabul, made by an Italian team Enzo Balestrieri and Stefano Moser. Kim Longinotto’s The Day I Will Never Forget won the award for “outstanding documentary”. A special mention was given to This Happy Life, a Chinese documentary on the lives of railway officials in a busy station, directed with great sensitivity by Jiang Yue. Documentaries on China formed a strong body of work in the festival, among which were two Cultural Revolution-based themes: Morning Sun, where directors Carma Hinton, Richard Gordon, and Canberra-based Sinologist Geremie Barmé, submitted a history of the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of ex-Red Guards; Daughter from Yan’an, directed by Ikeya Kaoru, which deals with the tragic legacy of abandoned children by students sent down to work in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Also of note were Wang Bing’s massive 9-hour work Tiexi District, and Duan Jinchuan’s The Secret of My Success.
The Fipresci Prize was awarded to Chicken Poets, a brilliant amalgam of theatrical satire and cinematic-poetic fantasy, the first feature film directed by Meng Jinghui, whose previous work was done in the theatre. The jury conferred a Special Mention on the Thai film Mekhong Full Moon Party, by Jira Maligool for “its joyous dialogue with one’s folk traditions” in representing Thai-Laotian mythologies. Indeed, the film easily tapped into the audience’s capacity for feel-good sentiments in a resolutely idiosyncratic manner: the story, such as it is, deals with the wondrous phenomenon of fireballs, known as the “Naga Rockets”, that shoot up into the sky from the waters of the Mekhong River bordering Thailand and Laos. In fact, the festival opened a Pandora’s Box of idiosyncratic Thai cinematic wonders, led by the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Blissfully Yours and an earlier work Mysterious Object at Noon. Blissfully Yours is extraordinarily off-centre – a wholly original work that is best left undescribed here in order that readers may search it out and discover its riches for themselves (some pointers: a title-credit sequence that appears very late into the movie, and a jungle-picnic sequence that defines the meaning of bliss). Mysterious Object is equally eccentric: a pseudo-documentary set in an outlandish Thai countryside, relying on villagers to “contribute” sequences and episodes.
Apichatpong’s work together with Jira Maligool’s and female director Pimpaka Towira’s One Night Husband appear to signal a new wave in Thai cinema spearheaded by a corps of X-Generation filmmakers. Signs of generational change slowly but surely overtaking other Southeast Asian cinemas are exemplified in two striking Indonesian films, Riri Riza’s Eliana, Eliana and Hanny Saputra’s Tato; and in the Malaysian production Room to Let, directed by James Lee. Eliana, Eliana is by far the most impressive, featuring two actresses giving majestic performances. Veteran Jajang C. Noer and newcomer Rachel Maryam play a mother and daughter respectively. The mother goes to Jakarta to convince her daughter to come home with her; they take a taxi ride around the city, stopping now and then for meals and relief. In these moments, the picture pounces on you, showing great depths of characterisations. Riri Riza shot the production on digital format transferred to film in the scope ratio, which has the effect of blowing up the impact of the two main players and showing up the director’s command of mise en scène.
The retrospectives in the festival were a decidedly mixed bag. Apart from the Hong Kong Panorama that gave audiences the chance to review the best of Hong Kong cinema releases over the last year, the retrospectives were mainly director focuses, devoted to the works of Rob Nilsson (see my interview with the director in this issue), the Dardenne Brothers, Marco Bellochio, Jeff Lau, and Yasujiro Ozu (a complete overview of the director’s extant works, in dedication of his 100th birthday this year). In addition, the festival paid an archival tribute to Mahagonny, directed by Harry Smith, a constituent of the New American Cinema, who died in 1991. Smith shot 11 hours of all kinds of footage mainly comprising images of New York City, which he edited together and presented originally in a four-screen projection set to the music of the Brecht-Weill opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The work was recently restored and printed in a single 35mm film running 141 minutes. Somewhat surprisingly, the sessions for Mahagonny were sold out, and one could perhaps draw from this the conclusion that there is a growing desire among Hong Kong’s filmgoers to look back at past cinematic achievements as much as to look forward. Fair-sized audiences were attracted to Ozu’s old, silent films, shown with live musical accompaniment; but Ozu’s affinity with the Confucian respect for the old and concomitant themes of filial piety and family ethics, already apparent in the silent films, were a certain drawing card (although the silent period also showed Ozu in atypical form, as illustrated by such Hollywood-influenced “gangster films” like Walk Cheerfully  and Dragnet Girl ). Indeed, it was this affinity with the family value system that prompted the free flowing of tears among the audiences of such Ozu masterpieces as Late Spring, Tokyo Story, An Autumn Afternoon. Part of Ozu’s magic and his greatness lies in reaching into the depths of this affinity – an eternal source of what I would call restorative regret and sorrow (reminding audiences either of their obligations or their transgressions in the family-ethical system). The mere recall of the image of Setsuko Hara at the end of Tokyo Story covering her face as she breaks up in tears while trying to avoid the glare of Chishu Ryu, is enough to have tears welling up in my own eyes.
The much-anticipated Shaw Brothers retrospective (actually organised by the Hong Kong Film Archive) turned out to be a disappointment, as much for the fact that the majority of films were actually shown on video format as for its sense of a slapdash retro-viewing of just any Shaw Brothers movie that happened to fit into the supplier Celestial Pictures’ schedule of DVD releases. Celestial, which essentially put together the programme, does not appear to have restored any of Shaws’ early films from the ’50s, nor does its sense of history cover much comprehensive ground: one would have much appreciated the unearthing of Zhang Che’s “Yellow Plum” (huangmei diao) operetta movie The Butterfly Chalice (1965) or the director’s very first martial arts effort Tiger Boy (1966) apparently shot in black and white; or the “palace chamber” epics directed by someone other than Li Hanxiang (Yan Jun’s The Grand Substitution or Gao Li’s Inside the Forbidden City, for example); or other genre films such as Jimmy Wang Yu’s first kung fu movie The Chinese Boxer (1971), the “Asian James Bond” flicks, and the tear jerking melodramas adapted from the novels of Qiong Yao (e.g. Tao Qin’s My Dreamboat). That said, there was nevertheless much pleasure to be derived from the handful of films that Celestial did present in original unrestored prints, including Li Hanxiang’s The Golden Lotus (1974), Zhang Che’s Have Sword Will Travel (1969) and Vengeance (1970). Newly restored prints were struck of King Hu’s Come Drink With Me (1966), Lau Kar-leong’s 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), Li Hanxiang’s The Empress Dowager (1975) – classics that are standard to any Shaw Brothers retrospective to be sure, but the studio had a much wider scope and many directors still undiscovered (notably master melodramatist Luo Zhen, and action directors He Menghua, Luo Wei, Xu Zenghong, and Cheng Gang).
Finally, the Shaw Brothers Retrospective also appeared to be like a tail-section of the festival, with its venue (the Hong Kong Film Archive theatre) located miles away from the city centre. The usual audience that patronises the Archive is also quite different from the festival audience. Although the SARS outbreak undoubtedly affected turnout this time, there is an obvious need for a renewed look at the relationship between the Archive and the festival. With or without the impact of SARS, the HKIFF looks set to forge its own road in the future. The 27th edition with its inclusion of new competitive sections and success in finding corporate sponsors (Cathay Pacific among them) is an indicator of HKIFF’s new direction towards becoming a non-governmental organization and fully-fledged independent festival – what the festival director Peter Tsi has called a “corporatized” festival. A 12-member board of directors will convene its first meeting in the middle of the year. The outbreak of SARS coinciding with HKIFF may have been an inauspicious beginning and there are challenges ahead, but there is already a feeling that the next edition of HKIFF will occur with a more definite sense of purpose even if only to win back the international guests, who absented themselves this time to come back to a safe and healthy Hong Kong next year.