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Screen Time

During the 35th anniversary of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, Penny Zhou looks at how the prominent event helped shape Hong Kong and Asian film industries.

By Penny Zhou | Mar 17, 2011

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  • Screen Time
    “La Dolce Vita,” one of the three “Restored Classics” at this year’s HKIFF
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    “Mrs. Tu Hau”, 1 of 8 Vietnamese classics selected by HKIFF curator
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    “Peace Hotel,” the headliner of the retrospective of Wai Ka-fai
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    “Modern People,” Japanese auteur Shibuya Minoru’s 1952 drama
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    “Jess + Moss,” part of the “Rediscovering American Indies” program
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    “Kooky”, European animated feature in the “Animation Unlimited” program
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    “The Illusionist”,European animated feature in the “Animation Unlimited” program
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    “Morgen”, feature film in The “Romanian Cinema” section of this year’s HKIFF
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    “The Book of the Dead”
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    “Cool It,” a controversial documentary on current environmental problems
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    Jiang Wen’s “Let the Bullets Fly” is nominated for six awards at this year’s AFA

For true cinephiles in Hong Kong, March only means one thing: films, and a lot of them. This March, the beloved Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) returns for the 35th time from Mar 20 to Apr 5 with a big selection of over 330 films from all over the world. For about two weeks, you can pack your schedule full with screenings, and hop around town to watch films you have never heard of, films you are curious about and films you have always wanted to see. But don’t think you’re the only one who’s going to be busy—industry people such as filmmakers, producers and distributors will also be experiencing hectic days as they celebrate achievements or try to make more films happen with the HKIFF Society’s two other major events: the fifth Asian Film Awards (AFA) on Mar 21, and the ninth Hong Kong-Asia Film Finance Forum (HAF) from Mar 21 to Mar 23.

The first edition of HKIFF took place in 1977, and was then organized under the Urban Council—which no longer exists—and was financed by the government, taking place in City Hall. At the time, there were already a couple of film showcases in Hong Kong, such as Goethe Institut’s German film programs and the Alliance Française’s French Cinepanorama, but no country or region in Asia had an international film festival, which made the first HKIFF—though it only screened 40 films—a groundbreaking event.

An early member of the festival and current Executive Director of the HKIFF Society, Roger Garcia, introduced the Hong Kong film retrospective programs the next year. “Back then, people thought old Cantonese films were just junk they saw on afternoon TV, which is not true,” Garcia recalls, “But once you show it to them in a theater, they take it seriously.” This move not only helped raise the recognition of the importance of Hong Kong oldies, but also helped start the Hong Kong Film Archive. In the meantime, Garcia started publishing English and bi-lingual books about Hong Kong cinema with his colleagues, writing about Kung Fu films. They were the first ones to do so, and within three years, they doubled the number of English books on Hong Kong cinema, from three to six, which helped significantly promote local cinema overseas.

An interesting phenomena, the Hong Kong New Wave, happened at the same time the HKIFF kicked off. An array of directors, including Patrick Tam, Tsui Hark, Ann Hui, Kirk Wong, Allen Fong and Yim Ho (who later became the core force of Hong Kong cinema), all started making their first feature films in late the 1970s and early 1980s. Together they formed the first real wave of young filmmakers in Asia. HKIFF was also growing at the same time, presenting a perfect opportunity to showcase their work, and the Asian film program, the first of its kind in world film festivals, was introduced in 1979.

As we moved into the 1980s, the so-called “golden age of Hong Kong cinema,” HKIFF was booming, along with the Hong Kong New Wave-inspired Chinese and Taiwanese cinemas. The festival premiered Chen Kaige’s early masterpiece, “Yellow Earth,” in 1985, heralding the emergence of the fifth generation of Chinese directors. HKIFF also accelerated the Taiwan New Wave, led by later auteurs Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Keeping pace with the growing Asian cinema scene over the years, HKIFF has developed its position as a major showcase for Chinese and Asian films, and is an ideal platform for independent filmmakers. But despite the increasing number of film screenings and venues (from just two—the theater and lecture room of City Hall—at the inaugural festival, to 12 venues this year), the fundamental idea remains the same. “It’s a film festival run by cinephiles, for cinephiles,” Garcia says, “Me and my colleagues share a common culture of cinema for both enjoyment and academics, which I’d like to convey to our audience through the programs. We try to present a vision of cinema—otherwise you may just go watch all the Hollywood flicks.”

The festival has always appealed to a younger audience aged from 17 and 18 to people in their mid-30s, many of whom are students. Garcia explains that the Hong Kong audience starts watching movies during their teenage years, and drop off in their early 30s, when careers and families become their priority. However, retired people in their 50s and 60s tend to come back to the cinema, becoming an important part of the demographic. The Society is still trying to reach a wider audience. Its recent film education program, the Jockey Club Cine Academy, which features activities such as educators’ workshops, master classes and a youth volunteer program, is part of its strategy to foster film literacy and cultivate a new generation of movie-goers.

Continuing the tradition of discovering and highlighting less-known film industries from the past or the present, this year’s HKIFF features a selection of Romanian cinema, a thriving area of European cinema, and a good spread of animation from France, the Czech Republic and Japan. There is also a tribute to Kawamoto Kihachiro, a great Japanese puppet animator who passed away last year; a rare selection of Vietnamese classics, and a retrospective of Japanese progressive filmmaker Shibuya Minoru, whose films reflect the social conditions of the reconstruction era of Japan in the 1950s. Along with a spectrum of recent Chinese and world cinema, from critics’ favorites to box office hits such as “Inside Job,” “Pina,” “Animal Kingdom” and “Sacrifice,” the programs are a good mix of new films that people want to see, and old films that people need to see.

Having been a long-time program consultant for the San Francisco Film Festival and many others, Garcia thinks HKIFF compares favorably because of its special retrospectives and tribute programs with a focus on Asian films. Compared to its peripheral status in global cinema 30 years ago, Asian cinema is now taking center stage thanks to a huge market and an array of talents. Gross-wise, according to “The Hollywood Reporter,” China’s box office grew by 61 percent last year, making it the third-largest box-office market in the world, following the US and Japan.

Meanwhile, many unique and interesting Asian filmmakers with extremely different styles and methods have been gaining critical and commercial recognition inside and outside the region. Filipino director Brillante Mendoza won the award for Best Director at Cannes 2009 for his crime drama “Kinatay,” while Thailand’s celebrated indie/experimental auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” was last year’s Palme d’Or winner. Miike Takashi (“13 Assassins”) from Japan, Jiang Wen (“Let the Bullets Fly”) from China, Taiwan’s Arvin Chen (“Au Revoir, Taipei”) and Doze Niu (“Monga”) are all prominent examples of Asian talents. The Asian Film Awards (AFA) were inaugurated in 2007 with the goal of celebrating excellency in Asian cinema. Coming to its fifth edition, the awards have also taken on the mission to become a platform for Asian filmmakers to gather and exchange creative ideas. This year, 30 films will compete for prizes in 14 categories, with the ceremony taking place on Mar 21. According to Ho Yuet-fung, Director of AFA, Korean, Japanese and Chinese films are the main forces among this year’s nominations.

Ho sees co-production as the biggest trend in Asian cinema. “Japan has a very self-sustained film industry; its domestic film market is incredibly strong. But their producers are also looking for collaborations so their film stars and projects to go international,” she says. The same thing is happening in Korea. A few Korean film companies such as CJ Entertainment, the current market leader in the country, have set up offices in Hollywood to export their products more efficiently.

Within Asia, China is arguably the hottest spot for co-production projects. Its massive market and room for creativity have certainly attracted Hong Kong filmmakers to “go north” and realize their visions there. Meanwhile, a number of big-budget projects with Hollywood investment and actors have been or are being shot in China right now, and we can look forward to seeing them on our screens in the near future. One example is Universal Studios production, “The Man with the Iron Fist” starring Russell Crow, in which renowned Hong Kong producer Bill Kong is involved. Garcia thinks that Hong Kong has a very good middleman role for making things happen between China and Hollywood, and should strengthen its position and leverage it in relation to international cinema. “Will it change the nature of our filmmaking? Probably. But hey, filmmaking changes all the time anyway, and that’s the very nature of the art and business of it. Hollywood films have changed definitively since “Star Wars” and “Jaws” in the late 70s. And the same thing is going to happen here, too,” he predicts.

With the mergence of Hong Kong-China film markets and globalization, international film financing and distribution becomes a vital link. Today, the process is getting increasingly complicated because financing comes from many different sources. But one advantage for young Hong Kong filmmakers is the introduction of new financing schemes, such as the Film Development Fund and Hong Kong-Asia Film Finance Forum (HAF). Another major challenge for them is to figure out who their audience is and how to reach them in order to expand the market. And while trying to tailor their films to appeal to both Hong Kong and mainland viewers, many local filmmakers experience dilemmas. The difficulties are not necessarily caused by different cultural backgrounds, but rather the fact that each audience is in a different stage of economic development. In China, there are many second and third-tier cities with a large rural population, whereas Hong Kong has a rather mature economy. And for filmmakers to make films for two very different segments of the economic scale makes for a very unique situation hardly found in any other country in the world.

However, the challenges do not stop local directors from experimenting. “Love in a Puff” director Pang Ho-cheung took a bold and interesting step last year by moving his base of operations to Beijing to observe the mainland film industry and market even more closely. But does this mean authentic Hong Kong films are dying? Can Hong Kong filmmakers still keep their cultural identity in the larger, Greater China film industry?

It would have been hard to give an optimistic answer to these questions a couple years ago due to the decrease of local-made films. But in 2010, we definitely saw a brighter future for local film industry in “Gallants,” “La Comédie humaine” and “Love in a Puff,” which are all Hong Kong-set comedies made with a commercial formula and an ironic narrative, and have all achieved critical and box office success. Meanwhile, actions films such as the “Ip Man” series are keeping Hong Kong’s traditional strength—martial arts cinema—alive.

On the other hand, Hong Kong arthouse/experimental cinema, which began in the 1960s, has also been developing. Nowadays, indie filmmakers can enjoy grants from the Arts Development Council. But Garcia, who started his career in experimental cinema, thinks that indie cinema in Hong Kong will remain a specialist area, just like in most cases in the world. “For me, young filmmakers working in this area are kind of like the researching development section of the film industry, and they’re very important,” he adds. “Weerasethakul is never tired of experimenting with new narratives, and his ‘Uncle Boonmee’ ended up winning a Palme d’Or. That’s very encouraging.”

But while the artistic value of Asian cinema has always been recognized internationally, Asian films are still not as popular as American or European films in the global market. For Ho—who has spent years working in the States at CBS and the New York City Economic Development Corporation—the reason is not that they are not good enough, but instead because the industry people have not found an efficient way to develop the distribution network to develop an audience capable of seeing from our perspective and appreciating our film culture. One film that successfully communicated with a mass western audience was Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and that changed the scene. “We need more films like that; films that make the non-Asian audience go ‘I understand it and I like it,’ and then be interested in exploring more,” she says. “First make our films seen, then understood.”

Now, Time to Make Your Film Happen…

The Hong Kong-Asia Film Finance Forum (HAF) was launched in 2000 and is co-organized by the HKIFF Society, Hong Kong Trade Development Council and Hong Kong Film & TV Market (FILMART). HAF’s mission is to encourage independent filmmakers and productions around the region. Every year, recruitment takes place in different Asian regions from September to November—the forum accepts proposals. Then a five-person reading committee, consisting of HKIFF officials, film producers and film distributors, will select finalists according to both their artistic and commercial value. The number of chosen projects each year remains stable, between 20 and 30. This year, 18 projects are shortlisted from an approximate number of 200 total submissions.

There is an online system for participants to submit their projects. The required materials include things like a synopsis, equipment information and names of attached directors and producers. It’s also very helpful to have in mind what the budget and schedule will be like, and what actors and film companies will be involved in with this project. You can log on to to learn more about the criteria. “Basically, we want the filmmakers to be serious,” says Jacqueline Liu, Senior Manager of HAF.

A screenplay or a decent treatment can be a good sign of your seriousness. Roger Garcia, Executive Director of the HKIFF Society, says that in his experience, people in Hong Kong tend to prefer writing treatments before working on the screenplays, whereas in the US people find it easier to write the story straightaway. “Either way, we need to assure that you’ve thought through the whole process, and the project has to have a good chance of being made,” he adds. “Once you’ve got that part covered, the next step is to find people to finance it.”

During the three-day forum, one-on-one meetings between filmmakers and financiers are set up. This year, about 300 registered financiers/investors are coming over for the forum. A business matching team will help them find ideal projects among the 28 finalists, and they can make appointments with projects—each of which has its own booth—they’re interested in. The day can start at 10am or 11am, then filmmakers will meet and pitch to different financiers; there are also HAF lunches at noon and happy hours at 5pm. “It’s exhausting,” Garcia says. “I have participated in HAF before as both a buyer and a seller.”

Apart from investors, sales agents and distributors are also a significant part of the forum. After all, these are the people who know what sells and what they can sell, and they have the resources and networks to get the movies made. Therefore, although they don’t invest on projects directly, it’s still important to get them interested. In addition, HAF often attracts European investors and distributors, who have access to government funds to produce films in developing countries, and are always looking for projects in Asia.

Liu considers HAF’s role to be like that of a matchmaker, who aligns financiers’ and filmmakers’ expectations. “This year, we have a Japanese project, ‘Revolution 1911,’ which is a big-budget studio project by an experienced director; and we also have a Chinese indie titled ‘Where is My Home?’ which is a young director’s second feature film,” she explains. “We welcome both types of films and directors. We use different approaches to help promote each.”

To face hundreds of financiers and sale agents, a strategy and an effective pitch are crucial. Garcia says it’s all about having a clear vision: what kind of movie is it? Who will the audience be—five people or 5 million? How am I going to raise the money? Is it by attracting the sales agents, or by getting another producer on board and getting some money from, say, Europe?

There is an increasing trend of Chinese-language projects from this area, including China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, which constitute more than half of the total number of projects this year. And from 2007 to present, 10 to 20 percent of the projects are from Hong Kong. With famous producer Teddy Robin on board, local independent director Adam Wong submitted his new project, “Root of Love,” and became one of the finalists this year.

After a few award-winning short films, Wong shot his feature movie, “When Beckham Met Owen,” in 2004, followed by his 2007 feature film, “Magic Boy.” Both works were funded by Eric Tsang, one of the most prolific actors and directors in Hong Kong. “I remember that I brought the first draft of ‘Beckham’ to the filming location of ‘Infernal Affairs 2,’” Wong recalls.

“Eric read it during the shooting break and liked it very much. Every time I tell the story of how my first two films got made, I feel so grateful to him.”

But for his third film, Wong decided to try another channel. “It’s my first time participating in HAF and it’s a necessary step for me to take—to see to the real world, face the real problems and challenges, and get more sophisticated,” he explains. “I can’t always be sheltered by one good guy.”

Wong and Robin met a few years ago during a filmmakers’ cultural exchange trip to Southeast Asia. Later on, they started developing projects together, and “Root of Love” is one of them. Wong says Robin is a passionate, frank and extremely demanding filmmaker who often harshly criticizes and rejects Wong’s and his writing partner’s scripts. But to their surprise, he approved “Root.”

Liu says it’s actually difficult to evaluate the direct impact of HAF on the chosen projects, as normally people don’t sign contracts right after their meetings. Even for HAF award-winners, making their films a reality is still not an easy task. But the risk does not deter them. “I’m aware of it,” Wong says. “But as a young filmmaker, to be exposed to the market and to learn how to pitch your story to dozens of producers and distributors is a great experience and exercise. It’s a cool thing to do.”

For the upcoming forum and the pitching process, Wong and his team are preparing visual aids for the projects, and planning on shooting some photos to illustrate the style and aesthetics of the film. Wong is also practicing pitching the story in English and Putonghua.

As a member of the young generation of Hong Kong filmmakers, Wong thinks the overall environment for them is tougher nowadays compared to 1980s and 90s, when hundreds of films were made in Hong Kong each year, among which there were a lot of movies of low quality. “That means filmmakers had a lot of chances to try out their ideas and practice. One film is not successful, no problem—you can always make another one. And eventually you can polish your skills and make something good,” he says. “Now, making films is difficult, and the stakes are higher. You sense the risk and feel pressure that if you don’t make something good now, you may not have a second chance in the future.”

So how do newcomers choose their paths? To play it safe, or follow their heart and think up every film as if it’s their last? Garcia emphasizes that it’s important for filmmakers to follow their own visions and ambitions. “Filmmaking is expensive nowadays and no one wants to fail, and some people are afraid of failing, which is even worse,” he says. And some movie-making conditions have gotten easier. For many years, indie filmmakers found it difficult to show their films to a broad audience, but the development of digital technology has profoundly changed that. The handiness and popularity of film equipment makes everyone a potential filmmaker; and through video-sharing websites such as Youtube and Youku, they can set up their own channels and promote themselves on the internet. “The means are all there,” he says. “The question is whether or not you’ve got something to say.”

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