After three years of pandemic-related hiatus, Hong Kong International Film Festival returns to its regular late March/early April dates. The festival experienced seismic changes continuously for the last two decades and Covid-19 was only one of the more recent disruptive forces it had to deal with. The firebird that was chosen in 2012 to represent the festival and its awards seems more and more fitting. Originally envisioned as an audience-oriented festival modelled upon BFI London Film Festival,1 HKIFF has, since the early 2000s, struggled with a lack of public funding, corporatisation and the pressure to develop industry programs. As a result, Hong Kong hosts four major film events from mid-March to mid-April: film market (Filmart), Asian Film Financing Forum (HAF), HKIFF, and the Hong Kong Film Awards. The festival gradually became more peripheral on the wider festival circuit2 giving way to the rising prominence of Asian Film Financing Forum (HAF) that contributed to the co-production of many low and mid-budget Asian art films in recent years. However, Hong Kong managed to maintain its cinephilic profile and “best of the fest” programming, giving local audiences the opportunity to see a selection of titles premiered in Cannes, Berlin or Venice on the big screen alongside meticulously curated retrospectives. 

Now, following the government-induced (Covid and non-Covid related) cancellations or postponements of many bigger and smaller film festivals in China, as well as the ban on showcasing PRC films at the Golden Horse Film Festival, Hong Kong is the only place that celebrates contemporary Chinese-language cinemas regardless of political disputes. For the last several years, the festival’s Young Cinema Competition (Chinese languages) featured titles made in PRC regardless of whether they have obtained the dragon seal.3 Hong Kong is still in the transitional stage that gives enough space to manoeuvre and screen films that tackle difficult social issues and resonate with the heartbeat of global art cinema. 

I attended the 47th HKIFF as a member of the FIPRESCI jury which meant my schedule was organised around the films in the abovementioned section competing for the Firebird Awards. All eight titles were already travelling the film festival circuit after premiering at the Venice Film Festival (Shimen, Stonewalling, Huang Ji and Ryuji Otsuka), Pingyao International Film Festival (Yemu jiangzhi, Night Falls, Jian Haodong), Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival (Yijiazier gugu jiao, Coo-Coo 043, Chan Ching-lin and Hei de jiaoyu, Bad Education, Kai Ko), Berlinale (Xueyun, Absence, Wu Lang and Ming tian bi zuo tian chang jiu, Tomorrow is a Long Time, Jow Zhi Wei), and International Film Festival Rotterdam (Hai ou lai guo de fang jian, Kissing the Ground You Walked On, Heng Fai Hong and  Zai tuanyuan, To Love Again, Gao Linyang, 2022). While many film festivals in China put the premiere status of films in the program as the priority in the hope that it will elevate the festival’s reputation, HKIFF curators simply choose films they like. In 1985, a foreword by Law Wai-ming, HKIFF’s program coordinator for the International Cinema section, compared the joy of programming to the satisfaction coming from ordering food for strangers in a restaurant and observing them devouring the surprise meals. Not all dishes are exceptionally tasty, but the programmer tries to make the most of what is available on the menu. Most important is that the competition section at the 2023 HKIFF did give a comprehensive overview of the latest trends in Chinese-language cinemas.  

To Love Again

The title I was most looking forward to watching was To Love Again which disappeared from the festival circuit following IFFR in 2022 where it was awarded the Special Jury and FIPRESCI prizes. Its absence is not owing to a lack of interest from festival programmers or film critics but, instead, is due to the delay in the censorship process. At the time of its premiere, To Love Again did not get the dragon seal even though it was supported by Guan Hu and Zhang Yimou, who should be on relatively good terms with the Film Bureau after directing a series of high-grossing patriotic war films in the last few years. If there is no news from the censors after sending the film for review, some young Chinese filmmakers decide to premiere their film abroad instead of waiting endlessly for the feedback. However, they try to limit the international exposure and Chinese-language coverage just in case they might be able to release the film theatrically in China at some point in the future. Chinese film industry professionals still have to play the game of hide and seek since the government’s actions are impossible to predict. To Love Again returns to the topic of Cultural Revolution experiences that, in the last decade, has disappeared from the radar supplanted by stories taking place in the 1980s and 1990s – the first two decades of the reforms and opening up. Instead of assuming children’s perspectives like Tian Zhuangzhuang in Lan Fengzheng (The Blue Kite 1993) and Wang Xiaoshuai in Wo Shiyi (11 Flowers, 2011) did, Gao discusses the long-term consequences of the Cultural Revolution by centring on an old couple who keep each other company after each of their first spouses died. When they start thinking about burial arrangements, this strange afterlife foursome reveal the violence of the yesteryears. While the woman remembers the 1960s as a member of the Red Guard enjoying her youth and the camaraderie of friends, the man was prosecuted as a rightist and sent to the countryside for re-education. Fortunately, the film does not develop into a thriller as was the case of Wang Xiaoshuai’s Chuangruzhe (Red Amnesia, 2014). The opposite experiences lay a solid foundation for a non-obvious melodrama about patchwork families, elderly love and marriage, sometimes funny and sometimes heart-breaking. To Love Again is marked by the strong performance of the two main actors. Portraying the wife, Song Xiaoying is confronted with the image of red guard generation women in their old age – energetic animators of collective life, neat and bossy, unforgiving, always cutting their hair to shoulder-length – presented in Yang Lina’s Chunchao (Spring Tide, 2019) and Yang Mingming’s Rouqingshi (Girls Always Happy, 2018). Song manages to nuance the portrait by breaking the usual cheerful red guard spirit with silence and dread that comes from the realisation that the horrors of the past keep exerting their influence on the present and the future. Playing the husband, Li Xuejian maintains composure and effortless elegance. The voice disorder that the character deals with additionally highlights his stubborn and relentless spirit, manifested in the effort he puts into speaking clearly. Hsu Hsiao-ming, Zhang Lü and Mary Stephen – this year’s juries of the Young Cinema Competition (Chinese language) – singled out Li’s performance, giving him the award for the Best Actor. If the performances provide a solid anchor for the audience to then immerse themselves in the wider cinematic world, the choice of music – rock-inspired compositions sung by Wang Xiaomu – breaks the spell. By the end of the film, the soundtrack is non-stop, disrupting the suspense with an oversimplified attempt at emotional manipulation. Before working on To Love Again, 1991-born Gao Linyang wrote the script to Wei Shujun’s debut film Yema fenzong (Striding into the Wind, 2020) that centres on two 20-something Beijing slackers. Wang Xiaomu is one of the actors playing in the film, and while he very much fits the cinematic world of Striding into the Wind, it is not so in the case of To Love Again. Camaraderie does not always serve the film art. Finally, maybe I am already overly alert, but the design of the poster for To Love Again dominated by various shades of green looks very much like the poster for Long Day’s Journey into Night (Bi Gan, 2018) featuring Tang Wei in the green dress. With the critical and box office success of Kaili Blues (2015), writer-director Bi Gan did set up some patterns that many young filmmakers are willing to follow, and the Chinese film industry seem especially resistant to shake off. 

Night Falls

This year’s Pingyao International Film Festival’s winner of the Fei Mu Award for the best film, Night Falls, represents another major trend in PRC cinema – young filmmakers developing their semi-autobiographical first features in their hometowns as did Zhang Xian’s Zuijia daoyan (Best Director) or Zhang Dalei’s Ba yue (The Summer is Gone), among others. Jian Haodong’s film is a document of the Shanxi dialect, an unobvious road movie embedded in the local landscape and social realities. It proves that cultural industries develop smoothly in Shanxi province and that is also the general direction the local authorities point the Pingyao International Film Festival towards since 2021 upon taking the event over from the hands of its founders Jia Zhangke and Marco Müller. Jian Haodong’s debut film revolves around a 30-something man who goes back home for the Lunar New Year holidays after several years in Beijing. Life in the capital didn’t turn out to be an easy springboard to success and wealth. On the contrary, the man seems to be stuck in the precarious position of an anonymous migrant worker which is immediately contrasted with the jovial atmosphere on the way to his remote hometown. He constantly runs into old and new friends in various means of transportation. What singles out Night Falls from the crowd of art films about homecoming is the degree to which it complies with the Chinese Communist Party policy of rural revitalisation and encouraging childbirth. The story is organised around the main melody; the meticulously crafted screenplay conveys the message that migrating back to the depopulated countryside is not such a bad idea. No ambiguity and alternatives allowed beyond the binary opposition of the city (negative) and the countryside (positive). Returning to the countryside promises to make the man’s dreams come true: finding a partner and establishing a family. Either with the charming younger schoolmate he meets on a bus or the childhood friend who is now divorced, raises a daughter and works as a hairdresser. The figure of a sexy, single mum running beauty parlours is already a very cliche representation of women in Chinese-language cinemas and, at HKIFF, it features not only in Night Falls but also in another competition title – Wu Lang’s Absence – which also presents the aftermath of settling down in the countryside affected by the consequences of a real-estate bubble. In the film we see a newly married couple who move into a unit in a not yet finished housing block in a remote area without any amenities. Settling in a windowless and doorless space, they try to turn it into a home. Night Falls and Absence – the former taking place in the north, the latter in the south of China – can be viewed as one and the same story of 30-something men struggling to start their own family. However, the storytelling remains mundane and painstaking, making it difficult for the audience to feel empathy while the message that the filmmakers convey is so one-dimensional. 

Kissing the Ground You Walked On

Surprisingly, the borderline selfish characters in another competition title, Kissing the Ground You Walk On, are much more likeable and relatable. Seeing films set in Macau is still rare, especially the ones created by Macanese – up until last decade the local film industry was almost non-existent. However, since 2016, the government of the postcolonial port city mobilised to provide funds for local filmmaking. The project that became Kissing the Ground You Walk On was developed partly thanks to the grant. For Hong Heng Fai, his debut fiction feature is also a homecoming – a return from Taiwan to Macau, but also to theatre. The filmmaker was formerly a part-time stage actor and the Director of Horizons Theatre between 2011 and 2012. Kissing the Ground You Walk On centres on a middle-aged man who works as a real-estate agent after he has given up his career as a writer. He rents one room in his apartment to an aspiring young actor and is soon fascinated by the new tenant’s persona and lifestyle. The two men lack integrity and dedication in their personal and professional life. They are fallible, selfish and morally ambiguous characters that crowded the pages of 19th century novels and plays. Kissing the Ground You Walk On is a solid psychological portrait of wannabe artists but tries too hard to highlight the presumed attractiveness of the younger man – his voice sounds unnaturally deep and vibrant, most probably the effect was added in the editing process or while recording on set. However, Hong isn’t trying to manipulate the audience’s emotions. Instead, he leaves the ending, and the judgement of main characters open to many interpretations. 

The questions of morality reverberated strongly in Bad Education, the directorial debut from Taiwanese actor Kai Ko based on the screenplay written by popular author Giddens Ko. It is the only title in the competition that is a straightforward genre film. It centres on three male teenagers who went overboard playing truth or dare after high school graduation. As a result, they ended up messing with the local mafia and the whole storyline is an attempt to escape the punishment. The film opens with a scene of sexual assault committed by a taxi driver on an unconscious woman. Over the years, police reports have shown that these types of rapes happen very often in Taipei, and Ko uses it to ground the story in local reality. However, in Bad Education, the scene is nothing but an anecdote that paves the way for the struggles of the three teenagers facing crises of masculinity and brotherhood. In addition, the woman is assumed to be a sex worker and, upon waking up, she is presented as a drunk. Nobody cares about her well-being. Violence against women is taken so lightly that it makes Bad Education very dated, the opening scene no more than a cheap trick to hook the viewers to the narrative, making them feel not only uncomfortable but also responsible, as if they were witnesses to a real crime. Giddens Ko is skilled in building suspense, but the progression slows down until it completely implodes in the final scene in which the three boys are taught a lesson by a mafia boss. Played by Leon Dai, the ending turns into an overly stretched celebration of the cult actor’s employ as a regular Taiwanese thug. He seems to be tired of it himself and visibly gives far more heart in his performance as a Singaporean working-class father in another competition title, Tomorrow is a Long Time. A clichéd story of boys becoming men overnight, Bad Education does little more than complain about the lack of a father figure. 

Stonewalling was the only film in the competition that did not focus on discussing Chinese masculinity. In their third full-length feature, filmmaking duo Huang Ji and Ryûji Otsuka continue their work with non-professional actress Yao Honggui who starred in the couple’s two previous films – Jidan he shitou (Egg and Stone, 2012) and Ben niao (The Foolish Bird, 2017). In Stonewalling, they present a comprehensive picture of intersecting social phenomena in contemporary China such as influencer culture, student migration, business speculations and the burden of providing financial support to ageing parents. However, the focus lies on the issues directly affecting young women – surrogacy and egg donation. The film revolves around 20-something Lynn living in Changsha, the capital of southern Hunan province. She attends a course to become a stewardess and, persuaded by her success-driven boyfriend, she signs up for English classes. She works part time to help her parents out financially, constantly worrying about her mother falling victim to domestic abuse. Suddenly, an unexpected pregnancy pushes the story off track. Despite the government now encouraging families to have up to three children, in 2023, the birth rate in China reached the lowest point since establishing the People’s Republic in 1949. Simultaneously, as the law regarding surrogacy and egg donation is very restrictive, many couples seek resolution on the black market. Reproductive rights become an entry point to discussing economic, gender, class, and ethnic inequality in Chinese society. The filmmakers go beyond showing the systemic exploitation and Stonewalling turns more personal as Lynn goes back to see her parents, connects with them on another level, beginning to understand their struggles as determined by generational experiences. The mother-daughter relationship comes to the fore both on and off screen. The role of Lynn’s parents is played by Huang’s own father and mother who, up until now, were not able to see Stonewalling on the big screen. The duo decided not to submit the film to the censors, deciding the wait would be as futile as it was with Foolish Bird, which, after seven years, has not received any feedback from the Film Bureau. Due to the zero-Covid policy, Huang’s parents could not attend the premiere in Venice, either. The screening in Hong Kong was the best opportunity for them to celebrate the completion of the film with their daughter. They were travelling to Hong Kong to attend the Firebird Awards ceremony but, a few hours before the event, they were stopped on the border in Shenzhen due to a mistake in visa application. When the award for Best Actress was given jointly to Yao Honggui and Huang Xiaoxiong, Huang accepted the honour in her mother’s place. Her voice was breaking with emotion as she introduced herself on stage: “I’m Xiaoxiong’s daughter”. Moreover, the initial inspiration behind Stonewalling came from the filmmaking duo’s own daughter who one day asked Huang why she gave birth to her. 

Stonewalling Award Win

Interestingly, in 2013, HKIFF screened and awarded the couple’s documentary film Henji (Trace) in which Huang records the process of obtaining a household registration and a passport for a new-born against the backdrop of the China-Japan conflict over the Senkaku Islands. For the full 67-minutes, the camera follows Otsuka as he takes care of the baby. When Stonewalling was awarded best film, Huang passed the microphone to him. Otsuka moved from Japan to China in the 2000s and, since then, has been working in the Chinese independent filmmaking scene as a cinematographer and a director/scriptwriter. For a foreigner, being recognised for contribution to Chinese-language cinemas is the long-awaited validation. Stonewalling portrays the darkest depths of loneliness but, in real life, it can generate love and empathy beyond gender, class and cultural differences. It is also a realisation of the ideal of collective filmmaking, a sign that independent Chinese cinema is not dead but, as before, is subjected to a difficult choice between having the film theatrically released in China or relying only on overseas circulation. 

Back in the 1980s, HKIFF was the place to go for programmers and curators from all over the world including Ulrich Gregor (Berlinale Forum, Arsenal) or David Streiff (Locarno) searching for new directors and new films. I decided to attend HKIFF because of its importance in the history of Chinese-language cinemas. As the first audience-oriented film festival in Asia, in 1985, it was responsible for launching the works of the Fifth-Generation filmmakers onto the global stage. As it turned out, it was not only I who came to HKIFF fascinated by its history and heritage as the meeting point between European, American and Asian film professionals. Working on French film critic Serge Daney’s biography, Emmanuel Burdeau – jury member of the Young Cinema Competition for international films – visited Hong Kong to get to know more about Daney’s trip there in 1985. He walked around carrying archive issues of Cahiers du Cinema from September 1984 entirely dedicated to Hong Kong cinema and scans of Daney’s diary notes, which he most generously shared with me. Spending time with jury members and guests became my fondest memories of the festival: watching Mary Stephen recording an ice-skating rink inside the Elements shopping mall where all the competition screenings were scheduled; Ann Hui energetically walking into the cinema or grabbing a generous portion of pasta from the shared table, asking if I wanted to have some; discussing the coldness of Edward Yang’s films and the warmth of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s with Zhang Lü over midnight snacks and beer in one of Hong Kong’s food courts. Since the early 2000s, many reports and coverage from HKIFF mention the decline of local cinema. I would not go down that line. Instead, the low-key award ceremony hosted in the auditorium of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre was packed, with young people in the audience. Although the negative outcome of anti-extradition law protests left many Hongkongers dispirited and feeling doomed, the city remains an exception. Hong Kong is the only place in the PRC where an independent Chinese film can be screened and awarded the main prize. Let’s celebrate it while it lasts.

Hong Kong International Film Festival
30 March – 10 April


  1. Cindy Wong, Film Festivals: Culture, People, and Power on the Global Screen (Piscataway: Rutgers University Press, 2011), p. 194.
  2. Festival coverage published in Senses of Cinema speaks to this. Between 2000 and 2008, there were yearly reports ranging from an overview of the program to journalists’ more personal accounts, full of anecdotes about chance encounters. In the 2010s, however, the coverage waned, with the last report summarising the 2017 edition. The withdrawal of UK funding has also had an impact on sustainability.
  3. China’s Film Promotion Law requires all PRC films are checked by the censors who decide whether or not to give the dragon seal (longbiao 龙标), permission to screen the film in public.

About The Author

Maja Korbecka is a PhD candidate at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her research focuses include Sinophone cinemas, film festival studies and Southeast Asian cinemas. She is also interested in film curatorship and different forms of film criticism such as audiovisual essays and podcasts.

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