One of the last big film festivals, running at 17 days, the Hong Kong International Film Festival offers the hardy filmgoer plenty of opportunities to race back and forth across the fragrant harbour by ferry, subway, tram (for those in no particular rush), or, when in a particularly urgent moment of need, taxi, in an attempt to get to as many sessions as possible: a fittingly breakneck tempo for one of the world’s busiest metropolises. With many of the major titles from the second half of last year’s festival season represented – Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, Joãos Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra de Mata’s The Last Time I Saw Macao, and Carlos Reygadas’ unfairly maligned Post Tenebras Lux being the titles I particularly enjoyed having the opportunity to catch up with – it is nonetheless the diverse slate of new films from across the Asian region that is always the principal source of interest at HKIFF, although this year’s retrospective screenings of Kinoshita Keisuke films delighted many, along with restorations of Usmar Ismail’s Lewat Djam Malam (After the Curfew, 1954), and Bu Wancang’s impeccable Nobody’s Child (1960), a film beloved of the appreciative local audience.
Hong Kong’s commercial cinema has been in the doldrums for some time, but some rejuvenation is being found in the form of co-production with the mainland, at the risk of some of the essential Hong Kong flavour being lost in the process. Such results are visible in the form of some notable Hong Kong/mainland co-productions: two Ip Man pictures (Anthony Wong’s Ip Man: Final Fight, and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster – the Berlin-cut of which was relegated to a single, late night screening at HKIFF due to the Chinese cut having already been theatrically released in January), but perhaps most significantly in the latest film from that stalwart of HK commercial cinema, Johnne To, with Drug War the first of his signature crime thrillers to be filmed entirely on the mainland. Sadly missing the inventive set-pieces of To’s best films (Sparrow  being a particular high watermark for his recent work), Drug War is still a functional, expertly-put-together piece of genre filmmaking. To has always excelled at mining tension in unexpected moments, and such a moment comes here when the detective played by Sun Honglei, deep undercover, is compelled to repeatedly ingest drugs in a test of loyalty by his quarry, the manic gangster Ha Ha. Drug War concludes with a spectacularly nasty shootout, rendered all the more bone-jangling by the propensity for Hong Kong movie houses to turn the volume way up, and install subwoofers, William Castle-style, beneath the cinema seats.
With Hong Kong’s film industry looking perpetually shaky, and the pickings from the mainland considerably leaner than a decade ago, Taiwan continues to impress as a major centre of innovative cinema. The standout film of the Young Taiwanese Cinema stream at HKIFF was Hsu Chao-Jen’s Tian mi mi (Together). Hsu has been around for a long time, directing for television and working as an assistant director to Edward Yang, among others, and it is Yang’s influence that shines through most obviously in Hsu’s carefully nuanced accumulation of observations on Taiwanese domestic life. Like Yang, Hsu is able to telescope out from his focal point (here, young actor Huang Shao-yang as Xiao Yang, a high-school age student principally concerned with hanging tough with his scooter gang and cultivating a fairly crummy moustache), to take in the surrounding milieu (Xiao Yang’s classmates, parents, and sister) without losing his intimate connection to his characters. In Tian mi mi, Xiao Yang, despite his studied nonchalance, becomes a pillar of stability for those closest to him, always on hand to offer instant noodles to relatives and friends perplexed by their own fickle capacity to fall in and out of love. Quietly humorous, introspectively sombre, Tian mi mi is an assured and auspicious debut for its director. Stylistically, Hsu hews closely to the visual compositions of his countryman Hou Hsiao-hsien, staging tableaux across multiple planes of action in detailed telephoto framings, but Hsu’s ability to draw profundity from the most minuscule of gestures is entirely his own.
Arvin Chen’s sophomore follow-up to Au Revoir Taipei (2010), Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? was the definite crowd-pleaser of the festival, eliciting big laughs and occasional screams of delight from the packed Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre audience. Beginning with a self-conscious quotation of Ozu set to Hsu Wen’s wonderful orchestral score, the film quickly settles into lightweight rom-com mode, with its somewhat heavier than usual subject matter (the stirring of long-repressed homosexual desires resurfacing to tear marriages apart) given saccharine treatment: among other things, this film offers among the most innocuous portrayals of homosexuality put on screen, represented here as a kind of supportive, badminton-playing social club for dashingly handsome, sweater-clad men – needless to say, sex is almost non-existent in this film). If anything, Chen plays it too nice, and as a result, in the final stages of the film, finds himself backed into a corner, unable to conclude his multiple storylines without dealing unhappy endings to at least some of his relentlessly sensitive and well-intentioned characters. To his credit, Chen opts for the bittersweet conclusion that is somewhat at odds with the tone of the preceding passages, but ultimately the film is more honest for it. An ensemble film full of strong performances – many of them played against type, such as Mayday guitarist Stone as a hapless nerd – upon reflection Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? is both more complex and confused than it first appears to be, but if the delighted applause at the premiere tells me anything, it is to simply enjoy what you can in this bright, luminous film – and didn’t the audience swoon as South Korean soap-heart throb Lee Hae Woo emerges from the television set to console the heartbroken Kimi Hsia Yu-Chiao over ramen.
At the opposite end of the spectrum to Chen’s lush whimsy is Midi Z’s Poor Folk. Continuing in the same gritty neorealist fashion as his debut, Gui lái dí rén (Return to Burma, 2011), Midi Z reverses the narrative trajectory of his previous film. Vacillating between Bangkok and the small town of Dagudi in Northern Thailand – first port of call for many illegal entrants from across the Myanmar border, Poor Folk is a film of two discrete halves. Beginning with an immersive handheld following shot as two shady characters battle through dense reeds in search of a red plastic bag, the first half of the film follows these small-time crooks as they get in way over their heads attempting to offload a supply of pseudoephedrine that as it turns out, may not actually be appropriate for the synthesis of amphetamine. Droll, dark humour runs through the first half of Poor Folk, which is gradually replaced by a bleaker, more desperate tone as its focus shifts to human trafficking across the Myanmar/Thailand border. Despite the harsh subject matter, Midi Z never allows his performers’ tone to become shrill. It is very easy to envisage how a more hysterical reading could have been lent to this material, but the consistent deadpan of Poor Folk better demonstrates harsh reality as everyday humdrum. An episodic patchwork rather than a straight narrative, Midi Z’s strength as a director lies in his eye for memorable social settings, as when two gangsters have their minds blown by Tolstoy over breakfast, and lounging prostitutes debate the relative merits of Hong Kong or Beijing as tourist destinations, and whether or not Gong Li now lives in Singapore. Born and raised in Myanmar, and educated in Taiwan, it is the influence of contemporary Chinese cinema which is most apparent through his use of handheld digital photography, long takes, and collaboration with non-professional actors; but in its vitality, and its sardonic wit, Poor Folk overshadows many of the comparatively tepid entries in the parallel Chinese New Talents festival stream.
Ishikawa Hiroshi’s return to directing after a seven year break, the contemplative Petal Dance, which had its world premiere at HKIFF, begins with an embrace in a windy field, and proceeds to explore the bonds that bring together four young women as they shield one another from the looming shadow of suicide. This potentially heavy subject matter is navigated with a deft hand at every turn, as Ishikawa makes great use of his stellar cast in wintry locations, and a muted, grey colour palate with occasional pastel splashes. Simple, understated, and tightly controlled (these are virtues), Petal Dance finds its director in masterful form. In a markedly different vein is Ishii Yuya’s Fune wo Amu (The Great Passage), a significant change of pace for a director previously known for his madcap comedies. Beginning in 1995 as bookish nerd Majime (Matsuda Ryuhei) is enlisted by a publishing house for the gargantuan task of assembling a new dictionary, as the years pass, and paper-card filing systems give way to computer spreadsheets, the project shapes our protagonist as he gains confidence and grows into himself. A whimsical celebration of the particularly Japanese value of overwork, this was a clear crowd favourite from beginning to end, although the greatest enjoyment is to be found in Majime’s spectacularly awkward courtship of his landlady’s forthright granddaughter (Aoi Miyazaki). The cinephiles in attendance also relished the rare opportunity to see a film projected on 35mm, and what a difference it made.
Sion Sono’s Bad Film, shot and abandoned in 1995, and finally edited in 2012, is a sprawling epic of no-budget excess. Shot with non-professional actors from Sono’s Tokyo Gagaga collective (the director himself also appearing as a major character) on location, seemingly without permission, on the gritty backstreets of Koenji over which ethnic Japanese and Chinese gangs battle for territorial control, Bad Film assumes the scope and grandeur of a Godfather as (re)made by Troma Entertainment. There is no justifying the film’s absurd 160-minute running time, and Sono clearly doesn’t know how to end the film (likely the overwhelming quantity of material was the reason it remained unfinished for so long), yet one has to admire the ludicrous scale of Sono’s low rent ambition. And there is much to recommend: the decision to shoot on Hi8 with extreme wide-angle lenses provides a very distinctive visual style, and Sono’s knack for memorably self-contained set pieces is evident at this early stage of his career, with a tremendous energy to some of the fight scenes shot in crowded public streets.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (directorial credit shared with Christine Cynn and an anonymous collaborator/s), the most boldly original documentary film in recent memory, threatened to eclipse many lesser non-fiction works at HKIFF through sheer weight of magnitude. Much has already been written on the thorny moral landscape the film inhabits – Killing does many things that have never been attempted in documentary, perhaps for very good reason. It is also the most darkly funny work to gaze upon the horrific visage of genocide, embracing the essential absurdity of the unthinkable. After the screening, Oppenheimer presided over a question and answer session in which he was able to shed some light on the origins of this unlikely project. Originally envisaged a documentary about survivors of the mid-1960s communist purges in Medan, Oppenheimer was met with opposition from police, military, and local authorities, proving traumatic for both the crew and the local inhabitants. Determined to realise his film in one form or another, he resolved to record as many of the perpetrators of the violence as possible, and strangely found many of them all-too-willing to appear on camera and discuss the violent acts they had participated in – indeed, such boastful claims enabled many of these individuals to consolidate and maintain positions of power within the same communities which were devastated by these institutionalised killings. Questioned by some audience members over the issue of exploitation in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer stressed that his intention with the film was not to demonise or castigate the perpetrators, but to demonstrate how those who commit the most horrific acts remain, despite their crimes, essentially normal people. Symptomatic of the moral complexity of the film were Oppenheimer’s protective statements that he does not want the protagonist of his film, Anwar Congo, to become a pariah for the widespread acts of violence, while the daughter of one of Congo’s victims was so moved by the film that she now routinely contacts Oppenheimer to check on Congo’s health. The Act of Killing is the kind of film that necessitates vigorous discussion in its wake. As the initially speechless audience found voice, Oppenheimer generously conversed for an hour after the screening concluded, relocating to the lobby as the cinema was cleared to make way for another session.
One of the highlights of HKIFF was the retrospective of rare works by James Broughton, accompanied by Stephen Silha and Eric Slade’s new documentary portrait on Broughton, BIG JOY: The Adventures of James Broughton. Something of a missing link between the Beat generation and 20th Century American avant garde filmmakers, yet diametrically opposed to the chilly tendencies of his contemporaries in the structural film movement, Broughton’s was a principally corporeal cinema; BIG JOY firmly establishes Cocteau’s influence on the young Broughton, and the American director’s delight at receiving the Prix de Fantasie Poetique at Cannes from Cocteau himself in 1954 for The Pleasure Garden (1953). While losing some points for its irritatingly heavy-handed use of music, BIG JOY nonetheless finds a lot of interest simply in Broughton’s life story itself, complemented by candid and engaging interviews. Director Silha, a guest of the festival, has an infectious enthusiasm in person, and his deep connection to his subject is clear. Hopefully this documentary will travel well and bring Broughton’s art to new audiences.
The fastidiously quotidian Henji (Trace) begins with the kind of home-video footage of pregnancy and childbirth that could make any cautious viewer’s stomach turn, but given that parents, Chinese Huang Ji, and Japanese Otsuka Ryuji, are both established documentary filmmakers in their own right, this project emerged organically from what was originally intended to be nothing more than a private work of documentation. As the camera follows a visit to family members in rural China, and the attempts to get a Chinese passport for the newborn child, a grander allegorical narrative emerges about everyday life for a Chinese/Japanese couple at a point in time when tensions are fraying between those two countries. There has been a very strong tradition of digital documentary filmmaking in China in recent years, thanks to the freedom and flexibility offered in consumer-grade digital cameras. Henji is no exception, as its inauspicious beginnings and deceptively simple form yield a complex and meaningful time capsule of its moment. Another very different portrait of the country was on display in San Zimei (Three Sisters), with which Wang Bing continues to pursue his single-minded vision; a miserablist epic of grinding repetition, a film of crawling lice, pigs, mist, dry, hacking coughs, and an almost tactile sense of mud, everywhere. One knows what one is going to get with a Wang Bing film, and San Zimei is no exception: although falling short of the high watermark set by his most epic films, this a work better admired than enjoyed.
A standout from South Korea was Leesong Hee-il’s triptych One Night and Two Days, one of many new Asian films with gay themes to be shown at HKIFF. Comprised of three distinct films, each of which unfolds within a condensed time period, the first, and longest of the titles (at 75 minutes) White Night, involves a flight attendant finding romance, and the man who bashed him years previously, over the course of a night in Seoul. The most dramatically conventional, and laboured (or at least overlong) of the three films, White Night gives a sense of the lonely place inhabited by gay men in South Korean society. More ruminative in temperament, Suddenly, Last Summer unfolds in the space of an afternoon as a high school teacher drives one of his students home, and unwittingly enters into a battle of wills as sexual and psychological tensions fester and threaten to erupt. Going South, the most menacing and mysterious of the three, involves former lovers, two soldiers, one discharged, on a road trip that quickly disintegrates amidst drugging and kidnapping: a prone body is dragged from a car, lipstick is applied to the comatose captive, and slow tracking shots impassively observe the unfolding mayhem. Taken collectively at a robust 157 minutes, these three films illuminate the gay experience in contemporary South Korea, as quiet moments of contemplation give way to physical violence, passion and tenderness. Leesong is a director of considerable talent, and is hopefully well on his way to transcending the queer niche of the festival market, given the broad appeal of these three varied works.
Hong Sang Soo is probably the pre-eminent South Korean auteur of the last ten or so years, and he continues to expand (or perhaps more accurately, refine) his distinctive body of work with two entries at HKIFF: In Another Country (surely approaching the end of its festival shelf-life) and Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, which continues to pitch somewhere between the sensibilities of Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen. In Haewon all of Hong’s trademarks are on show, never better unified than in the lengthy scene wherein a male college professor, engaged in a clandestine relationship with a female student, joins several of her classmates for a night of drinking, and the tone gradually shifts from joviality to mortification as embarrassing revelations come to light. Largely lacking the self-referential gameplay of Hong’s recent efforts, Haewon shares the easy going sentiment of In Another Country, but also taps into a deeper vein of pathos than its more ebullient predecessor. It should come as no surprise that Hong’s trademark stylistic traits are intact: long takes punctuated occasionally with conspicuous zooms, repetition of locations and situations, and a pervasive sense of sadness underscoring moments of wry, deadpan humour. A taxi is summoned through the power of telekinesis, Beethoven plays through the warbly Walkman speakers, and a young woman falls asleep in a library.
In the final days of any festival slog, the images on the screen can begin to blend into undifferentiated hours of colour and motion, at which point salvation can often come from unlikely quarters. Such was the basis of my encounter with Jang Kun-jae’s Jam mot deuneun bam (Sleepless Night), which I stumbled into almost accidentally after a particularly bleary day. Shot with harsh digital photography in the most maudlin of domestic settings, Jang perceptively evokes the aimless, occasionally terse hours spent in the company of a long term partner in the hours before and after work. Lengthy discussions arise on the topics of marriage, dating and child-rearing, and are dispelled just as quickly, and a late night walk is taken in search of a missing bicycle. Jang’s protagonists, a yoga instructor and a factory worker, are emblematic types who have chronologically crossed the threshold of adulthood, but are jointly still attempting to adapt to the expectations that passage entails. An almost defiantly small film, there is an elegant simplicity to Sleepless Night, a salient reminder that sometimes it is simply enough to do one thing, and do it well.
Hong Kong International Film Festival
17 March – 2 April 2013
Festival website: http://37.hkiff.org.hk/eng/main.html