April 4–19, 2006
My opening night schedule was planned with the kind of meticulous care which would have even made Michael Haneke proud (although commentary on contemporary colonialism or audience implication in cinema wasn’t part of the equation). I had a concise projected time-line of when my flight and my colleague’s would get in and travel times to the Grand Theatre. My plane got in at 6pm, my friend (flying from LA) got in at 7pm and we’d be ready to hit Pang Ho Cheung’s Isabella at around 8.30pm in Tsim Sha Tui. It was Orson Welles who commented that there are only two feelings one has on an aeroplane: boredom and terror. Thankfully the latter wasn’t applicable but the former got me thinking about two chief concerns, how I was going to eventually write up the festival report and what could go wrong if my scheduling went out the window for the opening night. Both dilemmas resolved themselves within the next 24 hours, a bittersweet conclusion to a good four hours of mid-air anguish.
Back in Brisbane on the way to catch my flight a friend reassured me, “With any luck you’ll get in late and he’ll get in early and everything will be fine.” And sure enough I got in early and he got in late; I was out the gates at around quarter to six, he was out at around 8.30. So after wandering around through the magazine racks loaded with enough high-end glossy covers to warrant a pair of sunglasses and downing a few bottles of Pepsi, I got seated in a lounge chair and thought about what lay ahead. I can’t help but get that giddy, excited feeling when I flick (or more accurately click) through a festival’s write-ups on their offerings usually released a month before the opening night. Written with a sheer economy of language and with a tease of what’s to come, everything sounds so great. And then the cynic inside me reminds the hopeless optimist to turn the bullshit detector on and apply the same stringent vigilance that one applies when reading property listings in the weekend papers. I remember seeing a digital feature at a certain American independent film festival a few years ago and the term “quasi-verite” was floated around, in that case it was roughly the equivalent of reading “renovator’s dream” and then turning up to a dilapidated outhouse infested with fire-ants. So shortly after that excitement dissipates and the clinical detachment starts to seep into my judgement, I click on a bunch of titles which either sound mildly appealing or have had generally good write ups in Film Comment, Sight and Sound or Cineaste and hope for the best. Nothing this year grabbed me by the throat when I perused the lineup for Hong Kong ‘06, a few I’d seen previously overseas or on DVD (Hidden, Princess Raccoon, The Child, Nightwatch, Match Point) but I was hoping for a handful of highlights to report back on (an expectation more than met but keep reading…). So I arrived late and missed Isabella; the next day I went to the press office to look at the opening night photos. I was directed to a folder of photos; flicking through them was a pretty standard affair of glitz and glamour but I did spot one shot which leapt forward at me like a Shaw Brothers snap zoom. Standing on the red carpet was Kuriyama Chiaki and beside her Hou Hsiao-hsien. Kuriyama was at the festival promoting Scrap Heaven (Lee Sang-il, 2005), Hou present as part of the Chinese Masters panel (also in attendance Zhang Yuan, Jia Zhang-ke and Ann Hui). A curiously odd pair they made but I wondered whether or not I’d ever see them side by side in the future (the chances of Kuriyama starring in “Café Lumière 2” are about as slim as Brett Ratner’s chances of ever winning a Palme d’or). It’s no revelation that the balance between art and commerce has always been a fine line in Hong Kong cinema and its festival has successfully walked that line between satiating art cinema aficionados and genre fans, finding the precarious equilibrium between that new Dardennes, Raul Ruiz or Aleksandr Sokurov and that Hong Kong action flick selling DVDs and VCDs by the truckload down on Haiphong road.
As usual there were a list of high profile films which were culled from juggernauts like Cannes, Venice and Berlin: the Dardenne brothers’ The Child, Michael Haneke’s Hidden, Suzuki Seijun’s Princess Raccoon, Sokurov’s The Sun, Woody Allen’s Match Point, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Invisible Waves, Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking and Abel Ferrera’s Mary. The retrospectives and special programs were an eclectic mix to say the least: James Benning, a Tribute to Action Cinematographers (Sammo Hung, Lau Kar-leung, Yuen Wo Ping, Ching Sui-tung among others), a collection of Kong Ngee classics, a focus on Japanese genre director Nakagawa Nobuo, a very slim Werner Herzog tribute, a handful of titles from the Milkyway Image studio (founded by Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai) and avant-garde pieces from the Centre Pompidou.
I did make it to Isabella (2006) on the second day of the festival, as always the clash of all clashes was inevitable. The casualty? The Chinese Masters forum with Hou, Jia Zhangke, Zhang Yuan and Ann Hui. Nonetheless I picked my head up and walked in to the Grand Theatre with the clear intention not to think of the other event taking place simultaneously. Pang’s four films have been a mixed bag, his first two, Maai hung paak yan (You Shoot, I Shoot, 2001) and Daai cheung foo (Men Suddenly in Black, 2003), showed definite promise, his last two disappointingly slight. Isabella marks a welcome change from the juvenility of Gung ju fuk sau gei (Beyond Our Ken, 2004) and Quing chun meng gong chan (A.V., 2005), an atmospheric tragic-comedy set during the last months of colonial rule in Macau. There seems to be a trend in Pang’s films to deconstruct established codes of masculinity in genre, from the (economically) impotent hitmen of You Shoot, I Shoot through to the Porky’s-style horny teens of A.V. and their misadventures in DIY porno-filmmaking. This time Chapman To’s dubious cop is given a lesson in parenthood, an ocean away from the infernal affairs of crooked cop film operatics and pyrotechnics. Boasting some of the greatest product placement for Carlsberg beer and probably the performance of a lifetime for pop starlet Isabella Leong whose nymphish charms practically drip off the screen, it was difficult not to be seduced by Pang’s film. Leong’s charismatic performance was best typified in a karaoke scene to an Anita Mui pop song playing on the radio, Chapman To can only look on with quiet content and awe – I felt largely the same. If the narrative lacked a certain momentum at times, the moody locales and Berlin prize-winning score by Peter Kam were more than enough to generate the kind of diverting ambience which is an optimistic sign of better things to come from Pang.
A lack of fusion between its parts accounted for the generally unsatisfying whole which was Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Invisible Waves (2006). Teaming him up once again with Christopher Doyle and Asano Tadanobu, the “pan-Asianness” of the production never quite delivered on its own promises hinted at in the film’s first third. On one level the anachronisms seemed at the very least intriguing: the hard-boiled noir plotting minus the crackling pace or thrills and a generally sombre and unnerving atmosphere peppered with slapstick humour at random intervals. The evocative lush, tropical mood made me want to get behind the film-noir in Waves, but the ghost/rebirth of Asano was probably the point at which my interest and patience began to wane. Doyle’s cinematography was as sublime as ever but there was a nagging feeling that this was far more of a sidestep rather than a step forward after the superior Ruang rak noi nid mahasan (Last Life in the Universe, 2003).
Two Japanese genre flicks provided little in the way of substance but seemed to fill seats. Ranpo jigoku (Rampo Noir, 2005) continued the fine tradition of omnibus film failures. Consisting of four shorts of varying length and tedium, all loosely connected to subject matter in the style of Japan’s answer to Poe, Rampo Edogawa. Even with the presence of Asano Tadanobu and some stylish production design, there was little harmony between the quartet, “The Caterpillar” was a particularly tiresome exercise. Scrap Heaven played like a neutered Fight Club for generation i-Pod. Concerning the disaffected Japanese youth, the lives of a detective, an anarchist toilet cleaner and a drug store clerk (Kuriyama Chiaki) constantly intersect after their chance meeting on a hijacked bus. Amidst the diatribes there are some genuine laughs including an amusing final reel sight gag but there was little substance beyond director Lee Sang-il’s punkish visual flourishes to appeal to anyone outside the Japanese cult film set.
From the US TV series Masters of Horror, Joe Dante and Miike Takashi delivered two radically different visions of contemporary terror. Dante’s vision of Bush-era insanity reached dizzying heights with “Homecoming” (2005). Taking broad and blunt potshots at everyone from Ann Coulter to Karl Rove, the film plays like Dawn of the Dead if Michael Moore was in the director’s chair and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Although about as visually exciting as an episode of Goosebumps, Dante’s pastiche of the present Iraqi invasion and the massive spin campaign behind it presented a scarier prospect than any amount of werewolves or ghouls combined, all with a tip of the hat to Jacques Tourneur. Although scheduled for release on the Masters of Horror series, TV execs balked at the extremities of Takashi Miike’s contribution and it’s not hard to understand why. From the needle tortures to aborted foetuses, “Imprint” is the bloodied, urine soaked memoirs of a geisha, evoking both the dread of Odition (Audition, 1999) and the sheer excess of Ichi the Killer (2001). It was a direct reminder of what Miike fans of outrage have come to champion and detractors have come to detest. Performances were all over the place, the sound design dreadfully effective and the screening was sold out – a US DVD is sure to be in the pipeline, the prospect of a wide release anytime soon in Australia is minute to none.
Fresh from its Special Jury Prize win at Sundance this year, So Yong Kim’s In Between Days (2006) was a tranquil study of a Korean teenage girl in Toronto suffering the adolescent ups and downs of cultural assimilation and isolation; a cool observation piece which heralds a compelling new voice in American independent cinema. Yanagimachi Mitsuo’s Camus nante shiranai (Who’s Camus Anyway? 2005) suffered from the same kind of problems most films-within-a-film of recent times have had – once you get past the “wink wink nudge nudge” irony of the surface there seems to be something sorely lacking underneath. The film references fly thick and fast (Robert Altman, François Truffaut, Kenji Mizoguchi, Jean-Luc Godard and Luchino Visconti) but despite its good intentions and light humour it constantly hovered between an episode of The O.C. and La nuit américaine.
Shin Dong-il’s Bangmunja (Host and Guest, 2005) may have contained as many cinematic references as Camus, but tonally the films could not have been further apart. Transcending the obvious limitations of the buddy film, in this film a young door-to-door evangelist helps save the life of an ageing, bitter film professor, and a truly off-kilter relationship ensues between the pair over Turkish cinema, Bob Dylan singalongs and drunken Karaoke. Emotionally absorbing and handled with the kind of masterfully assured direction surprising from a debut feature, there was a lot to love about Host and Guest. At one point trapped in his bathroom and faced with death, unclothed and without energy, the film professor begins to lament his list of unfulfilled dreams, among them having not seen enough Godard and never making a feature film; I couldn’t help but form a wry smile at the screen with recognition of my own regular worries.
The mainland proved a wealth of pleasures, unknown and otherwise, with a selection that couldn’t help but miss some upcoming titles from Tian Zhuangzhuang, Jia Zhang-ke and Lou Ye whose work will no doubt unveil themselves sometime in the near future (at the time of writing Lou Ye’s Summer Palace was in competition at Cannes). Picking up the Silver award for the Asian Digital Competition section, Lai xiao zi (Walking on the Wildside, 2006) was a kids-on-the-lam road movie through rural China, a promising debut from director Han Jie. Jia Zhangke produced the film (his muse, Zhao Tao, even had a cameo) – not surprisingly there were more than a few scenes which were reminiscent of Jia’s Ren xiao yao (Unknown Pleasures, 2002). Prostitution and heavy violence infected the journey of three delinquents on the run after bashing a school colleague; the film was less of a character study than a sociological document of the world’s powerhouse country and the balancing act between economic and social progress complete with a currency of the present rural Chinese milieu. This truly stark portrait of the area’s aimless youth was comprised of a non-professional cast, lending a gravitas and verisimilitude where the film threatened to jolt from its verite casing. Drawing on elements from his own life, Han’s film showed much emotional intensity and honesty, if it lacked a calculated spit and polish it was only to the film’s credit.
The modest Wo men liang (You and Me, 2005), directed by Ma Liwen, was an endearing drama charting the antagonistic relationship between an elderly landlady and her feisty young tenant over the four seasons. At times the visuals were a little self-conscious but its emotional core appeared genuine enough although nothing tremendously revealing; an empathetic journey of two disparate Chinas struggling to reconcile generational change. Reconciling generational change cropped up in Zhang Yang’s Xiang ri kui (Sunflower, 2005) as well, a restrained and obedient recreation of China’s past complete with across the board fine performances by Sun Haiying, Liu Zifeng and Joan Chen. Epic in scope yet intimate in its focus on a volatile father-son relationship from the close of the Cultural Revolution through to the new millennium, sentimentalism marred the otherwise acceptable melodrama.
Lhing vjags kyi ma ni rdo vbum (The Silent Holy Stones, 2005) was awarded two prizes at the festival, the FIPRESCI and a special mention in the SIGNIS category, and is a delicately crafted tale directed by the first Tibetan born director, Wanma-caidan. Asia is the home of the VCD, a phenomenon unavailable in Australia (except in Chinatowns), and the popular video disc plays a prominent role as a symbol of the growing hegemony of technological progress on a Tibet struggling to balance modernity with tradition. The laconic pacing and subtle nuances only enhanced the sheer transcendental beauty of the film, an impromptu outdoor discotheque of local Tibetans was a gloriously captured slice-of-life moment and confirmation of just how globalised youth culture has become. The leisurely pacing and subtle nuances only enhanced the sheer transcendental beauty of the film, an impromptu outdoor discotheque of local Tibetans was a gloriously captured slice-of-life moment and confirmation of just how globalised youth culture has become.
Zhang Yuan’s Kan shang qu hen mei (Little Red Flowers, 2006) seemed destined for overseas distribution although the undernourished story was saccharine enough to erode the enamel of even the hardest of film-loving teeth. From a technical point of view there was a remarkable synchronisation between image and sound and the child performers were dazzling but the allegorical nature of the narrative kept tapering off at every moment to wallow in the cutesiness of its child stars. The episodic approach adopted over the course of 90 minutes became tiresome after about the first third when it was apparent that none of the thinly veiled subtext was going to be fully developed or reintroduced at a later point. During the Q&A following the film, one brave audience member stood up and questioned Zhang how he felt about charges he had lost his indie cred, it wasn’t difficult to wonder how that viewer came to arrive at such a question following the film. A brief pause followed and Zhang answered that it was still a story he cared very much about, a consistent factor in all his filmmaking endeavours. I was less convinced but the questions had already moved on to topics far less confrontational.
Mang zhong (Grain in Ear, 2005) was one of the key highlights in the “Chinese Renaissance” section, director Zhang Lu’s intimate exploration of a Korean-Chinese woman’s struggles in an industrialised Chinese town selling kim-chi dispensed with standard plot mechanics to focus on the quotidian. Composed nearly entirely of static shots and boasting a razor sharp economy and precision in its editing, Grain in Ear was not just an important social document of the Korean-Chinese experience, it was a marvellous technical achievement in composition and Bressonian restraint. For me there was also a faint echo of Yasujiro Ozu’s Kaze no naka no mendori (A Hen in the Wind, 1948), not just in plot, but in the way both films used areas of empty suburban space to convey not just the inhabitants’ interiority but the interiority of a social milieu which feeds into the individual’s identity and experience. Stylistically maybe Michelangelo Antonioni, who chartered similar territory, would be another counterpart (although Zhang’s politics seem far more overt than Antonioni’s), the shots in Grain in Ear had a hypnotising rhythm in their timing and framing lending even greater kinetic charge to the final coda, a single shot loaded with a glorious ambiguity and potency not too far removed from the final moments of L’eclisse in terms of existential malaise.
Antonioni seemed to be a much larger influence on Jieguo (Before Born, 2006), a loose riffing on L’avventura set in a Hainan island resort which had the seaside haze of bitter longing, emotional disconnection and a search for the mysterious Li Chonggao. The cold distancing Zhang Ming created between audience and film may have been deliberate but it never really achieved a strong connection with the underlying thematic concerns conveyed. And two digital offerings chartered the effects of youths in want of a paternal figurehead: Ying Liang’s Bei ya zi de nan hai (Taking Father Home, 2005) and Beijing-based maverick Cui Zi’en’s Shao nian hua cao huang (Withered in Blooming Season, 2005). A Sichuanese youth heads off into the big smoke to search for his wayward father armed with little more than a pair of geese in Taking Father Home. Aside from the apparent budgetary restrictions of DV, Ying Liang delivered an engrossing and comic journey all with an adept eye for the frame, the film picking up the Asian Digital Competition award. Cui Zi’en meanwhile concocted a raw sensuality in Withered in Blooming Season, a pair of enfants terribles bicker and bemoan each other yet there’s a lurking secret underpinning their relationship. As much a passionate commentary on the definition of “family” in modern China as an offbeat melodrama, this was the final mainland film I saw of the festival and an inspired, satisfactory note to leave on.
If the vast selection of mainland pictures proved that China’s independent scene is as healthy and innovative as ever, the same could not be said for the Hong Kong panorama, a hit-and-miss affair where the word “facile” seemed a most suitable adjective. Stanley Kwan’s epic Everlasting Regret (2005) was a dutiful and mild success despite the critical indifference from some quarters, based on the award winning novel “Changhen Ge”. Starring Sammi Cheng and Tony Leung Ka Fai, the film traversed four decades in Shanghai through the eyes of a local starlet (Cheng) as the personal and political tides of change rapidly transform around her. Boasting luscious production design by WKW regular William Chang and arguably Cheng’s best performance to date, Regret was not one of Kwan’s best but still rated a cut above most of the other HK films showcased. Wilson Yip Wai Shun’s SPL (Sha Po Lang, 2005) was a stylish yet hollow martial-arts/gangster hybrid starring Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung and Simon Yam. A few impressive set-pieces featuring Hung and Yen kept the pacing at a breakneck speed but there was a lingering feeling that it all amounted to precious little.
Chat gim (Seven Swords, 2005) fared little better, suffering from clunky plotting and a largely unremarkable visual style. Leon Lai, Shaw Brothers icon Lau Kar-leung and Donnie Yen star with Tsui Hark back behind the director’s chair, there was a synthetic grandeur to it all but with a near two and a half hour running time my patience whittled away as the plot lurched towards its conclusion, clearly designed with a sequel in mind (and if rumours are to be believed, already underway). Peter Chan Ho Sun’s Rui gao – Ai (Perhaps Love, 2005) was a disposable mix of dance numbers and cinematic in-jokes with a solid cast including Zhou Xun, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Jackie Cheung. Zhou took out best actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards this year for her role in the film, the production wasn’t spectacular nor awful, it just felt oddly unremarkable. After the Infernal Affairs trilogy, Andrew Lau and Alan Mak returned for what surely must be a calculated attempt for another franchise series, this time based on the popular manga Tau man ji D (Initial D, 2005). With all the furore over Memoirs of a Geisha and its cross-cultural blurring of “Asia”, Initial D took the same strategy casting name Chinese actors (Jay Chou, Edison Chen, Shawn Yu, Chapman To) as Japanese characters. With the emotional depth of a child’s wading pool, there was little to recommend of Initial D, the stilted romantic elements were drearily by-the-numbers and whilst a gleaming of excitement was manufactured from the car racing scenes the film rarely rated above neutral gear.
And then there was Johnnie To. I had numerous discussions with critics and festival-goers and am still to be convinced of Mr To’s brilliance. To the enthusiastic, Mr To is an iconic figure in Hong Kong cinema at the moment, often fêted with keeping the industry alive in its steady decline. I must admit I’ve only seen ten Johnnie To films (a few were collaborations with Wai Ka-fai) so I’m by no means an expert but from what I’ve seen they seem to waver between “trite”, “generic” and “good”. For the crackling rhythm of Daai si gin (Breaking News, 2004) or the structural robustness of Yau doh lung fu bong (Throwdown, 2004), nothing truly astonished, just the faint sound of knocking on the slightly elevated commercial ceiling erected around current Hong Kong action cinema. Hak se wui (Election, 2005, not to be confused with the Alexander Payne satire) was an uninvolving triad drama with warring gangster factions fighting over a prestigious (and decidedly phallic) baton which held the key to the organisation’s leadership. Once again there was nothing largely special about this studied examination of Triad mechanics to suggest To is little more than, as Tony Rayns dubbed him, a “prominent genre hack”. (1)
So leave it to Miike Takashi to deliver the festival its only metaphysical, queer, whodunit-prison flick in the form of 46-okunen no koi (Big Bang Love, Juvenile A, 2006). Not only was it a refreshing surprise to see Miike tackle subject matter which extended beyond gory outrages, missed calls and yakuza politics, that the film knowingly subverted all genre expectations in favour of an intelligent treatise on masculinity, time and existence was another clear reason why Miike presents such a conundrum to those so quick to dismiss his work. The film’s paradoxical concern with its central murder seemed not unlike the treatment of the overarching homicide in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place. Of course there would be a few people to enact Audition-style punishment on me for daring to mention Ray in the same sentence as Miike, but suffice to say it was one of Miike’s most interesting and complex pieces in a long time.
So despite the growing hegemony of Pusan breathing down its neck, the Hong Kong International Film Festival still put on a marvellous showcase, the roaring twenties may be history but here’s to the next glorious decade. It was a few weeks later that I went back over all the press photos, and again the image of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Kuriyama Chiaki stood out. I guess Hou will always represent a quality of cinema which unfortunately is becoming largely confined to the festival circuit, but of course with the advent of DVD that’s also extending to living rooms (Three Times is enjoying a limited theatrical release in the States also). The starlet Kuriyama Chiaki from Battle Royale, Azumi 2, The Great Yokai Wars and Kill Bill is for the most part a signifier of late night genre films to me (Ms Kuriyama’s CV is far more diverse but you’ll have to excuse my ignorance at having yet to discover her other work). The two of them side by side filled me with an enormous pleasure at seeing the embodiment of two distinct worlds coming together for one festival; that it all took place in one of the world’s great cities was the icing on the cake.