The 24th edition of the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) unspooled from April 12 to 27, 2000. Since its beginnings, a quarter of a century ago, this has been the pre-eminent Asian film festival encompassing a carefully chosen selection of current international cinema from the west, a wide range of new Asian films from Turkey to Japan, and the annual retrospective of Chinese cinema which has a different topic as its focus each year. In addition there are side bars devoted to directors, new trends, archival treasures etc.

The festival is scheduled usually for two weeks including the Easter weekend, one of the few four day periods in the HK calendar when at least some of the potential audience members have four consecutive days away from employment or can take a small study break. But with Cannes now attracting some of the major films from the East and West, this positioning can have its drawbacks when new films from China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan are premiered outside their own territories in Cannes only weeks after HKIFF concludes and they then have screenings in Hong Kong before the next festival occurs.

SPACKED OUT (Lawrence Ah Mon, HK, 2000) and THE MILLION DOLLAR HOTEL (Wim Wenders, Germany/USA, 2000) were the opening night attractions. Both commenced commercial runs a couple of weeks after the festival ended. A CHANCE TO DIE (Chen Yi-wen, Taiwan, 2000) and DURIAN, DURIAN (Fruit Chan, HK, 2000) closed the festivities.

International Focus

Most of the major international selection played in prestigious evening slots in the “Gala Presentation” section. Many of these were already scheduled for HK release after the festival and many will be familiar to Australian and other international audiences: eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, Canada, 1998), FELICIA’S JOURNEY (Atom Egoyan, Canada/UK, 1999), JUHA (Aki Kaurismaki, Finland, 1999), BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (Wenders, Germany/USA, 1999), THE WIND WILL CARRY US (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/France, 1999), MONDAY (Sabu, Japan, 2000), NO ONE WRITES TO THE COLONEL (Arturo Ripstein, Mexico/Spain/France, 1999), GOYA IN BORDEAUX (Carlos Saura, Spain/Italy, 1999), TOPSY-TURVY (Mike Leigh, UK, 1999), BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (Spike Jonze, USA, 1999), THE LIMEY (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 1999), AUGUSTIN, KING OF KUNG-FU (Anne Fontaine, France/Spain, 1999). These films present a cross section of solid, non-mainstream arthouse fare while Jane Campion’s HOLY SMOKE was the only Australian film in the festival and was given a special Awards Gala screening.

In its Global Images section, the festival presented a diverse array of works most of which would be almost impossible to see outside a festival setting. LUNA PAPA (Bakhtiar Khudojnazarov, Austria/Germany/Russia/Switzerland/France, 1999) is a surreal journey through Central Asia; NORTHERN SKIRTS (Barbara Albert, Austria/Switzerland/Germany, 1999) looks at the lives of some young people mostly displaced from the former Yugoslavia and now living in Vienna; A PORNOGRAPHIC AFFAIR (Frederic Fonteyne, Belgium/France/Luxembourg/Switzerland, 1999) is a witty film scheduled for Australian release; THE CARRIERS ARE WAITING (Benoit Mariage, Belgium/France/Switzerland, 1999) is already known to some local festival goers from its screenings last year here; SET ME FREE (Lea Pool, Canada/Switzerland/France, 1999) is a truthful rite-of-passage film also scheduled for Australian release; THE FIVE SENSES (Jeremy Podeswa, Camada, 1999) is known to some local festival goers too; RETURN OF THE IDIOT (Sasa Gedeon, Czech Republic, 1999) is also familiar to some audiences here; THE HIGHWAY CROSSING (Arko Okk, Estonia, 1999), another shortish feature, shows how another former Soviet bloc country is dealing with capitalism.

1999 MADELEINE (Laurent Bouhnik, France, 1999) is part of an on-going cycle by this director examining the new decade through one character a year; BEAU TRAVAIL (Claire Denis, France, 1999) has been acclaimed as one of the most compelling of recent films from this country and this filmmaker; A CONSIDERABLE DISTURBANCE (Bernard Stora, France, 1999) is another provincial French drama set this time in Normandy; HUMAN RESOURCES (Laurent Cantet, France, 1999) examines the war between business and labour; IT ALL STARTS TODAY (Bertrand Tavernier, France, 1999) is a gripping French provincial drama that has been screened by both Australian festivals and arthouses here; KEEP IT QUIET (Benoit Jacquot, France, 1999) impressed hugely with its subtle humanity; THE LITTLE THIEF (Erick Zonca, France, 1999) from the maker of DREAMLIFE OF ANGELS once again looks at youth and romance in an unsentimental way; NEW DAWN (Emilie Deleuze, France, 1999), THE NEW EVE (Catherine Corsini, France, 1999), SACHS’ DISEASE (Michel Deville, France, 1999), SKIN OF MAN, HEART OF BEAST (Helene Angel, France, 1999), WHAT’S LIFE? (Francois Dupeyron, France, 1999) all reveal the huge range and depth of current French cinema.

DEALER (Thomas Arslan, Germany, 1998) follows Turkish teens in Berlin in the middle episode of a trilogy; SIMON, THE MAGICIAN (Ildiko Enyedi, Hungary/France/Switzerland, 1999) and NORTH BY NORTH (Csaba Bollok, Hungary, 1998) are both atmospheric and spiritual films; GARAGE OLIMPO (Marco Bechis, Italy/France/Argentina, 1999) looks again at the dictatorship in Argentina in the 1970s; GENESIS (Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Mali/France, 1999) employs an all African cast to retell the story of Jacob and Esau in sweeping colourful panoramas; UNDER CALIFORNIA – THE LIMIT OF TIME (Carlos Bolado, Mexico, 1998) paints an emotional picture with great beauty; BLOODY ANGELS (Karin Julsrud, Norway, 1999) is a hard-hitting thriller; THE JUNCTION (Ursula Urbaniak, Poland, 1999) is a gentle lowkey comedy; THE LETTER (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France/Spain, 1999) is another elegant, almost perfect film from this 91 year old director; LE FRANC and THE LITTLE GIRL WHO SOLD THE SUN (Djibril Diop Mambety, Senegal/Switzerland/France, 1994/9) are the impressive first two chapters of an unfinished trilogy by this late director; ALONE (Benito Zambrano, Spain, 1999) is an honest, impressive first feature; BELOVED/FRIEND (Ventura Pons, Spain, 1999) paints a delicate portrait of involved relationships; A GLASS OF RAGE (Aluizio Abranches, Brazil, 1999) is a passionate and emotional shortish feature; TWO STREAMS (Carlos Reichenbach, Brazil, 1999) looks back to the 1960s; RATCATCHER (Lynne Ramsay, UK, 1999) has been hailed internationally as a bright first feature; TRICK (Jim Fall, USA, 1999) is an appealing gay movie seen at many festivals elsewhere.

A regular sidebar in HKIFF called “The Zone” highlights some of the most arresting and challenging films of the last year. HUMANITY (Bruno Dumont, France, 1999) follows the director’s THE LIFE OF JESUS as a raw look at a small town in the French provinces during a police investigation of the rape and murder of a young girl. Its top prizes in Cannes in 1999 were very controversial. The claustrophobic effect of the film is extraordinary and very long-lasting.

IN THE RAYS OF LIGHT OF RIA FORMOSA (Jon Jost, France, 1998) provided a rare chance to see one of this maverick film maker’s recent digitally recorded works; NIGHTFALL (Fred Kelemen, Germany, 1999) is an extremely lengthy and lyrical work by this unique talent; SICILIA! (Jean-Marie Straub, Daniele Huillet, Italy/France, 1999) on the other hand is but 66 minutes long, but its stunning black and white interiors and exteriors enrich a profound exploration of exile; MOLOCH (Alexandr Sokurov, Russia/Germany, 1999) is an enigmatic gaze at Eva Braun and Hitler, seen in Melbourne at the festival in 1999 and scheduled for Brisbane in 2000; JULIEN DONKEY-BOY (Harmony Korine, USA, 1999) finds this unfettered director making his Dogma statement and pleasing many.

Eastern and Western documentaries included the following: MAMAZONIA – THE LAST FOREST (Brasilia Mascarenhas, Celso Luccas, Brazil, 1997) looks at the Brazilian ecosystem; CHIEF! (Jean-Marie Teno, Cameroon/France, 1999) investigates the abuses of power in Cameroon; THE SPECIALIST (Eyal Sivan, France/Germany/Israel, 1999) examines the horrors of Adolf Eichmann’s Crimes; BUDDHA WEEPS IN JADUGODA (Shriprakash, India, 1999) studies the discovery of uranium in a tribal area of India; JUAN, I FORGOT, I DON’T REMEMBER (Juan Carlos Rulfo, Mexico, 1999) finds the director interviewing people who might have known his writer father; PUNITIVE DAMAGE (Annie Goldson, New Zealand, 1999) studies a mother’s investigation of her son’s death in East Timor; HIGHWAY/BREAD DAY (Sergei Dvortsevoy, Russia, 1998/9) are two immediate documentaries from a unique filmmaker; MY OWN BREATHING (Byun Young-Joo, South Korea, 1999) is the very involving and affecting completion of a trilogy about Comfort Women; MR. DEATH: THE RISE AND FALL OF FRED A. LEUCHTER, JR. (Errol Morris, USA, 1999) follows the peculiar life of the designer of execution equipment and his involvement with those who would deny the existence of the Holocaust; GENGHIS BLUES (Roko Belic, USA, 1999) and A VOICE FROM HEAVEN (Giuseppe Asaro, USA, 1999) are winning music documentaries; CINEMA VERITE: DEFINING THE MOMENT (Peter Wintonick, Canada, 1999) covers many territories in its look at documentaries themselves; BERLIN-CINEMA (TITRE PROVISOIRE) (Samira Gloor-Fadel, Switzerland/France, 1998) examines cinema, architecture and more; AMERICAN MOVIE (Chris Smith, USA, 1999) has already been released in Australia and SEX: THE ANNABEL CHONG STORY (Gough Lewis, USA, 1999) was one of many screenings of this intriguing documentary that blazed its way through Asia at this time.

Carl Theodor Dreyer was celebrated by the screening of a miraculous new print of his first film THE PRESIDENT (1919) accompanied – in an unforgettable way – by one of the musical treasures of Hong Kong, organist Ernie Corpus.

A restoration of Dreyer’s VAMPYR (1932) followed some days later with a noticeably improved sound track and including both German and French endings. Many were impressed by the William Wyler late silent boxing drama THE SHAKEDOWN (1929) also accompanied brilliantly by Ernie Corpus.

Asian Focus

One of the continuing features of HKIFF is the annual Hong Kong Panorama devoted to screening around ten features from the previous year’s local cinema. It’s generally felt that innovation and resonance are absent from most of the recent crop of HK features. However, a good range of titles were screened that countered this feeling: Benny Chan’s rather thin designer policier GEN-X COPS, through Sylvia Chang’s touching TEMPTING HEART to the more weighty works of Johnnie To such as RUNNING OUT OF TIME and THE MISSION, while Ringo Lam’s VICTIM, Fruit Chan’s look at modern society in HK in LITTLE CHEUNG and Stanley Kwan’s most recent THE ISLAND TALE provided other balances.

In 1999, the programmers decided to honour the prolific force behind many Hong Kong productions, Johnnie To. This year the focus was on three great characters, the actors Anthony Wong, Lau Ching-wan and Francis Ng without whom recent Hong Kong cinema would be soulless indeed. Ten films honoured these performers through THE UNTOLD STORY and TAXI HUNTER (both by Herman Yau, 1993), Anthony Wong directing himself in NEW TENANT (1995) while Andrew Lau’s YOUNG AND DANGEROUS (1996) provided another look at Francis Ng in the first of this enduring cycle. Benny Chan’s BIG BULLET (1996) and Ringo Lam’s FULL ALERT (1997) showed the charismatic actor Lau Ching-wan at his peak while Francis Ng directed himself in the stylish 9413 (1998).

An overview of current cinema from Asia has been one of the mainstays of HKIFF but as mentioned above the timing of the festival can interrupt this flow now as producers of so many films the world over are determined to win prizes at Cannes. In earlier years the new films by Edward Yang (Taiwan), Jiang Wen (China), Lee Chang-dong (South Korea), Wong Kar-wai (HK), Im Kwon-taek (South Korea) and many others would be automatically included in the Asian focus of HKIFF. With Cannes barely weeks after HKIFF, and many months before the next edition in HK, and with theatrical and non-commercial screenings in HK of so many films from Asia now, many fine films from East Asia may never be presented by this prestigious festival again. One remembers seeing the premiere of the four hour cut of Yang’s A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY at HKIFF while his MAHJONG closed the festival when it was barely dry from the lab. Jiang Wen’s first feature was the opening film at a former HKIFF and Lee Chang-dong’s GREEN FISH was screened when it was brand new two years ago.

Nevertheless the range of Asian cinema at this year’s festival was broad indeed and often very satisfying. THE CUP (Khyentse Norbu, Bhutan/Australia, 1999) is becoming well known now to Australian audiences too. MALAISE (Rituparno Ghosh, India, 1999) and KARVAAN (Pankaj Butalia, India/France, 1999) represented the sub-continent while THE RED RIBBON (Ebrahim Hatamikia, Iran, 1999) is a strong look at love and war. YANA’S FRIENDS (Arik Kaplun, Israel, 1999) has been seen also in Australia recently.

New Japanese cinema was represented, with some controversy, by two new films by KUROSAWA Kiyoshi CHARISMA (1999) and BARREN ILLUSION, two very dissimilar works, the former an environmental thriller and the latter a futuristic urban love story. HYSTERIC (ZEZE Takahisa, 1999) is an Eastern Bonnie and Clyde melodrama but failed to convince many people that it wasn’t very forced. M/OTHER (1999) is SUWA Nobuhiro’s feature after 2 DUO and through its two and a half hours provides a masterly account of relationships on the brink when a child comes between the father and new lover. 2H (LI Ying, 1999) with its impressive usually monochrome images examines Chinese exile in Tokyo interweaving fiction and documentary. A charming diary film, ANNYONG-KIMCHI (MATSUE Tetsuaki, 1999) sensibly uses the filmmaker’s sister to narrate the account of a young Korean Japanese man’s realisation of his roots. Video works like THE NEW GOD (TSUCHIYA Yutaka, 1999) and ON (MAEDA Shinjiro) really failed to impress but TIMELESS MELODY (OKUHARA Hiroshi, 1999) is a stylised but affectionate portrait of three young people relating to the more adult world through music. THE WHITE (HIRANO Katsuyuki, 1999) follows the director himself cycling across Hokkaido in freezing weather.

The South Korean selection included two very mainstream box office hits on their home turf: ATTACK THE GAS STATION (KIM Sang-jin, 1999) in which a quartet angrily takes over a gas station and kidnaps a group of luckless staff and customers, and THE FOUL KING (Kim Jee-Won, 1999). The latter is very successful, wildly funny and often exquisitely shot, as we follow a meek office worker who trains to become an acclaimed wrestler. RUSH (Lee Sang-In, 1999) on the other hand died so fast hardly anyone saw it in South Korea: a surprising situation when the film is made with such joie-de-vivre and certain energy.

From Taiwan came DARKNESS AND LIGHT (CHANG Tso-chi, 1999), very much in the spirit of Hou Hsiao-hsien or Lin Cheng-sheng, following a teenager through an often improvised and touching tale. BLACK NAME (DONG Cheng-liang, Taiwan, 2000) is part doco and sometimes a fictional account of the island of Kin Men, located between China and Taiwan and frequently a place of great contention. Maverick Taiwanese director HUANG Ming-chuan’s FLAT TYRE (1999) began its career as a documentary about statues in Taiwan and evolved over a period into a fictional account of a filmmaker making a documentary about these monuments. As always with Huang’s work, there’s a refreshing and unique vision here. EATING AIR (Kelvin Tong and Jasmin Ng, Singapore, 2000) continues the path of what hip young Singaporeans feel is a mood of counter-culture. Hong Kong independent filmmaker CHANG Wai-hung provided his second feature, AMONG THE STARS, picturing the emotions of a group of people in contemporary Hong Kong, with the spirit of mid-period Antonioni hovering in the background. Other Hong Kong independents were Alex Lai’s BLUE AUGUST (2000) and Allen Fong’s TIBETAN TAO (2000).

An irony since the handover of HK to China is the absence of those ground-breaking independent features from China some years back. It’s no surprise of course that MAN MAN WOMAN WOMAN (LIU Bingjian, 1999), investigating gay life in Beijing and featuring a radio programme entitled Public Lavatory Time, should be withdrawn. The sole mainland feature was SUZHOU RIVER (LOU Ye, 2000), produced in part with European finance, charting the course of several stories in modern Shanghai. The spirit of Hitchcock’s VERTIGO is hovering in the wings but for once the freewheeling camera and nervous editing are far more arresting than any MTV.

This year’s FIPRESCI prize for new Asian cinema was split between 2H (see above) and 6IXTYNIN9 (Pen-ek Ratanarueng, Thailand, 1999). The latter was a popular film noir centring on a heroine who is coping with dead bodies, a box of money, obscene phone calls and malicious thugs. Maybe nothing very profound here but applauded as a good entertainment.

Each year HKIFF includes a regional focus. This year, entitled “Children of Paradise”, the gaze was directed to Iran with eight programmes of mainly new features including Majid Majidi’s THE COLOUR OF PARADISE, Mohammad Ali Talebi’s WILLOW AND WIND (1999) another of those suspenseful films about children and learning, Rassul Sadr Ameli’s THE GIRL IN THE SNEAKERS (1999) with teenagers in focus this time while Samira Makhmalbaf’s THE APPLE (1998) and Amir Naderi’s THE RUNNER (1985) are familiar to local audiences here. The collection concluded with Ebrahim Foruzesh’s THE LITTLE MAN (1998) from the director of the popular THE KEY and THE JAR from past years, Abolfazl Jalili’s SCABIES (1986), a controversial look at juvenile delinquency in Iran and a programme of three shorter works by Majid Majidi (THE LITTLE VILLAGE), Kiarostami’s BREAD AND ALLEY and Jafari’s PILGRIMAGE.

This year’s director in focus was Otar Iosseliani whose career began in Georgia before moving to France in the 1980s. FAREWELL, HOME SWEET HOME (France, 1999) is his latest film and an immediately recognisable one: bizarre happenings in a chateau reminiscent of FAVORITES OF THE MOON (1984) more familiar to some cinephiles in Australia. BRIGANDS (1996) parallels three stories through the centuries while CHASING BUTTERFLIES (1992)and AND THEN THERE WAS LIGHT (1989) rounded out the tribute. The director was in HK for the tribute.

One of the most important mainstays of HKIFF is its annual retrospective devoted to a particular topic in the history of Chinese cinema. BORDER CROSSINGS IN HONG KONG CINEMA, this year, surveyed the cultivation of markets in other Asian regions through importation of talent and co-productions. Around thirty features in this investigation included the Japanese co-production STAR OF HONG KONG (1963), a rare chance to see two Shaw Brothers films THE TRAPEZE GIRL (KOH Nakahira, 1967) and THE BLACK FALCON (DAI Gaomei, 1967), TAN Youliu’s QUEST FOR A LONG-LOST HUSBAND (1950) follows an erring husband who leaves his family in China to find fortune in Thailand, THE SERPENT GIRLS’ WORLDLY FANCIES (WANG Tianlin, 1958) is a mix of Chinese opera and Mandarin pop with a distinctly Filipino flavour, MA-XU Weibang’s rare final work from 1961 THE LOVERS AND THE PYTHON once again crosses the Thai border while REMOTE LOVE (TANG Shaohua, 1956), SWEET AS A MELON (JIANG Nan, 1956), THE BEAUTY OF BEAUTIES (LI Hanxiang, 1965), SONG OF ORCHID ISLAND (PAN Lei, 1965) and the classic OUTSIDE THE WINDOW (SONG Cunshou, 1972) are all Taiwanese centred. Looks at the homeland itself were provided in THE GOLDEN EAGLE (CHEN Jingbo, 1964), THE SHAOLIN TEMPLE (ZHANG Xinyan, 1981), HOMECOMING (YIM Ho, 1984), ROMANCE OF BOOK AND SWORD (Ann Hui, 1987) and even THE MAN FROM HONG KONG directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith in Australia in 1975. TSUI Hark’s A BETTER TOMORROW III (1989) and John Woo’s ONCE A THIEF (1991) rounded out with a more contemporary note.