The Way We Are

18 March – 6 April 2008

The Hong Kong International Film Festival is a curious beast, a marathon survey of selected Asian and broader international films that have been released over the previous year. It mixes together not widely seen work from Mainland China, Hong Kong and the broader Asian region – as well as numerous works from the region that have travelled widely on the film festival circuit – with recent films shown at the large European festivals and films (such as Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, and Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) that have already had long (or long past) commercial runs in many places elsewhere in the world. As a physical experience the festival is both somewhat relaxed – several days passed with few films of interest and very lean showings in general during weekday daytime sessions – and quite intense – the constant movement through the streets and micro-shopping districts of the city adding to this feeling. The Festival can also be a little disorientating, with some films and venues garnering large audiences while others suffer very sparse attendances. Notable in this regard was the early screening of Manoel de Oliveira’s inconsequential, patently silly and, I hate to say it, seemingly embalmed Christopher Columbus, The Enigma, which played to an audience of eight, including five of us from Australia (and David Bordwell).

The cinemas themselves are also quite scattered in their geographic positioning – the constant journeys from Kowloon to Island side get a little tedious after a while – and uneven in their basic qualities as screening venues; ranging from commercial multiplex cinemas, the city hall and the convention centre to cinemas embedded in various museums, the cultural centre, arts centre and film archive. Nevertheless, part of the fascination of the Festival is the range of these venues and the disparate experiences they offer. The screening of the Oliveira was made more palatable – and odder – by its screening at a multiplex cinema (The Grand) in a vast new shopping centre (and reclaimed region of Hong Kong) that at times resembled Tativille (particularly in its long corridors). A quick glance at the Festival guide itself suggests a varied smorgasbord of offerings but closer examination reveals the logistical difficulty of getting between some of the venues and the fact that what looked like a very strong retrospective program – featuring extensive showings of work by Edward Yang, Ingmar Bergman, Eric Tsang, Charles Burnett, Wakamatsu Koji, Zhu Shilin, as well as several other individual films and small focuses – was actually shown mostly after the conclusion of the Festival. The lone screening of Yang’s work during the Festival, Yi Yi, as well as a fairly flimsy foyer exhibition and the launch of the decidedly more valuable publication focusing on his work, was typical of the frustrating way the retrospectives were organised. Considerably more of Zhu Shilin’s films were shown but many without English subtitles (fair enough) and all at the Archive (which has limited capacity and is often sold-out). As these introductory comments suggest, the 2008 Hong Kong International Film Festival was both an enjoyable and somewhat frustrating experience. But as any festival’s success stands or falls on the quality of the film’s actually screened, and gauged by this barometer the 2008 edition was a pretty successful festival.

United Red Army

Only two of Wakamatsu’s films were shown during the Festival itself, a disappointment considering the retrospective of his work at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. That said, on viewing Go, Go Second Time Virgin (1969), a visually striking, rigorously minimalist (particularly in terms of its setting), extremely low budget but tediously nihilistic (also read, “banal”) and misogynistic attempt at a political statement, I started to think that this might be a blessing in disguise. But the other Wakamatsu film screened was another matter all together, and could be linked to a series of films in the Festival that highlighted the ambiguous histories and achievements of earlier revolutionary causes (the key comparison is to Barbet Schroeder’s Terror’s Advocate, an unwieldy, aesthetically under-whelming but fascinating and extremely timely portrait of notorious lawyer Jacques Vergès, defender of anti-colonialists, radical leftists and fascist dictators alike). United Red Army, Wakamatsu’s most recent film, is an exhausting, exhaustive and unwieldy account of the growth and extraordinary implosion of the extreme-leftist faction. The early parts of the film are dramatically uneven, the film’s digital cinematography at times a little murky, and the initial barrage of dates and events both informative and somewhat numbing (which I think is the point). In these “vast” early stages the film reads like the testament to past experience that it undoubtedly is (although not a member of the Red Army, Wakamatsu did have connections to the group during this period). Once this long opening section has played out – and the film itself clocks in at a daunting 190 minutes – it develops into an intimate and overwhelming portrait of the psychology of the group and the strict ideological and cultural parameters and modes of behaviour that lead to its murderous self-destruction. The last section where the remnants of the group are holed-up in ski chalet highlights the corruption, physical reality and still intact idealism, even humanism, of the surviving members. United Red Army is in no way a perfect or even truly satisfying film, but it has a “retrospective” immediacy, viscerality and complexity that are uncommon in films about the recent past. It is also million miles away from a nostalgic and romantic view of the leftist legacy.

The Festival provides a particularly useful opportunity to see a range of recent Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese productions. The second of these focuses has become even more important in light of the decline of Hong Kong cinema in the last decade or so. Many of these films also receive scant screenings on the Mainland, and the Festival has taken on the important role of highlighting these often low budget fiction productions and a burgeoning documentary practice (characterised by the somewhat oppressive minimalist monumentalism of Wang Bing). Of the Hong Kong films shown it was only really the films coming out of Johnnie To’s Milky Way Image Company that held much excitement or contained much of the dynamism associated with that cinema in the ‘80s and ‘90s (a fascination that was compounded by a visit I made to To’s studio that reinforced the invention of the work and its ability to draw upon and endlessly refashion the spaces, props, forms and bodies it has at its immediate disposal). The Festival didn’t show To’s newest film, Sparrow, which premiered at Berlin, but did screen two other recent collaborations. Mad Detective (co-directed by Wai Ka-fai) relies upon an exhilarating and often dexterously deployed narrative conceit, attempting to show events through the point of view of its “mad” protagonist. The film ultimately outstays its welcome, and is a little too gimmicky and fetid, but it maintains a tremendous energy, wildness and level of invention. The “portmanteau” film, Triangle, works surprisingly well – even in terms of its storytelling – and provides a cogent illustration of what might constitute directorial style within the context of Hong Kong genre cinema. Although it tells an ostensibly coherent, if somewhat hackneyed, story involving ancient treasure – typically combined with a criminal plot involving warring Mainland and Hong Kong forces – its chief interest lies in the fact that each part was directed by a significant figure in Hong Kong genre cinema. The contrast of these three parts, that utilise many of the same elements and characters, and are required to keep the story going (at least to a point), tells us a considerable amount about and helps to distil the styles of its three directors: Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and To. Tsui’s initial section is particularly telling, maintaining a degree of narrative momentum while also demonstrating an increasing lack of interest in storytelling other than to provide the framework for other effects, diversions and abstractions. Lam’s part is the most hard-boiled and generic and, not surprisingly, To’s section provides the most fluid and coherent cinema.

The Sun Also Rises

Amongst the other Hong Kong films on offer, both Sylvia Chang’s Run Papa Run and Samson Chiu’s Mr. Cinema rely too readily on an easy nostalgia for the recent past. Although it has many weaknesses, Mr. Cinema is perhaps the more interesting of the two, containing a perfunctory willingness to deal with a broad sweep of Hong Kong history that, much too superficially perhaps, thematises shifts in political and cultural allegiances in Hong Kong from the 1970s until the present day. Unfortunately, the film’s promised account of cinema’s relation to these shifts – Anthony Wong’s central character is a leftist projectionist programming, none too successfully, communist-imbued Mainland Chinese cinema – has little resonance, and does little to truly challenge the common amnesia of Hong Kong cinema when it comes to dealing with its own history. In contrast, the scene featuring an outdoor screening in Wen Jiang’s The Sun Also Rises (a Mainland film), creates a much more resonant and complex portrait of the role of cinema in “projecting” – quite literally, at times, onto characters and actions – particular ideas and values. Of the non-Milky Way films, the most interesting Hong Kong film was Ann Hui’s The Way We Are. Basically a kind of “artless” art movie, Hui’s digitally shot portrait of everyday life in Hong Kong is miles away from the visual kinetics of To’s work, highlighting the banality – with a degree of grace – of daily actions. In many ways it’s a fairly mundane and pedestrian – almost literally so – film but it did provide a neat antidote to the facile period artifice of Run Papa Run and Mr. Cinema.

Although the Mainland Chinese films I saw were, to some degree, soberly impressive when seen en masse, they did nevertheless exude a certain sameness. Films such as Robin Weng’s Fujian Blue, Peng Tao’s Little Moth, Gao Qunshu’s Old Fish and Diao Yinan’s Night Train suggest that there is a potent documentary realism at large in contemporary Chinese cinema, particularly within the low budget digital realm, which is supremely indebted to the example of the New Iranian cinema (and possibly the Dardenne brothers) and Jia Zhangke. Although a little under-whelming in parts, Old Fish breaks from this pattern somewhat by fusing these understandably realist and quotidian concerns with elements of genre cinema. The film focuses on the everyday actions of a soon to be retired cop who becomes, matter-of-factly, a bomb disposal expert. There is a degree of tension in the film that reminds me a little of Powell and Pressburger’s The Small Back Room and Robert Aldrich’s Ten Seconds to Hell, but whereas those films rely upon psychological development (and neuroses), Old Fish is predominantly satisfied to suggest the ubiquity and ordinariness of both the old man’s actions and the planting of the bombs themselves.

Amongst the other major highlights of the Festival were: Yoji Yamada’s temperate, controlled and wonderfully classical Kabei – Our Mother; Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine, an epic and emotionally devastating portrait of a mother’s loss after the kidnapping and murder of her child (the meeting between the mother and killer reminiscent of similar scenes in Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low); Hong Sang-soo’s Rohmeresque (it even has the hand-crafted title-cards announcing the passing of time), Paris-shot Night and Day, his best film since Turning Gate; Suo Masayuki’s I Just Didn’t Do It, a wonderfully balanced, subtle and realistically absurdist account of what happens to a young man after he is arrested for allegedly molesting a girl on a packed commuter train and doesn’t immediately confess (his defence, as outlined in the title, is a clarion call that meets with disdain from the police); the three very solid avant-garde programs (the work of Ken Jacobs, Nathaniel Dorsky, Jeanne Liotta and Ben Rivers, in particular); and José Luis Guerín’s much talked about and intrinsically cinematic, In the City of Sylvia. Each of these films has a quiet exuberance that struck me as infinitely superior to the somewhat tired (though still very enjoyable) whimsy of Eric Rohmer’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon; the symbolic bombast of Ermanno Olmi’s One Hundred Nails; the crepuscular ponderousness and pretentiousness of Bela Tarr’s The Man from London and Alexander Sokurov’s Alexandra; the surprising lifelessness of Carlos Saura’s highly-staged performances for Fados; and the schematic approach to the complexities of global capitalism in Ken Loach’s It’s a Free World…. All of these films were contained within a section of the program called “Master Class” which did no favours to the concept of the master director or the seeming value of a long, and often-distinguished, career (let alone prepare one for the horrors of the latest Peter Greenaway film). Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World was also a disappointment, moving closer to Discovery Channel travelogue and bite-sized character profile than the visionary realms and strange “familiarity” of The Wild Blue Yonder.

In the City of Sylvia

But in the end it is Guerín’s film, along with its “documentary” counterpart, Some Photos in the City of Sylvia, that will stay with me the longest. A profound but “light” dissertation on the capacity of cinema to exist in the moment, as well as its ability to give us a palpable sensation of a specific place and time, its constant shifts of point-of-view, perspective and framing reinvigorate the tradition of what might hesitantly be called cinematic flaneurie. Although many critics seem to prefer In the City of Sylvia’s Markeresque companion film, I think that the fiction feature is the greater contribution, one that is enhanced by the documentary “evidence” provided by Some Photos in the City of Sylvia. It also gives some revealing context for what might initially seem like a facile preoccupation with beauty – particularly in In the City of Sylvia’s mesmerising café and tram sequences – that is actually – or at least seemingly so – a more “accurate” depiction of place and time than it might first appear. There is still something a little bothersome about the attractiveness of almost everyone in Guerín’s film, but there is no denying its extraordinary command of cinema’s capacity to give us time – an awareness and state of being that Hong Kong could learn a thing or two about.

Hong Kong International Film Festival website: http://www.hkiff.org.hk