The Hong Kong International Film Festival keeps on changing pretty radically every year because… well, Hong Kong changes pretty radically as it is buffeted by the advantages and disadvantages of proximity to the vast, burgeoning complexity of China. This year there were big differences in the program, but before getting on to those, let me touch on the changes in the experience of attending the festival.

To go to HKIFF has always been to go to Hong Kong. You don’t just sit in a multiplex for two weeks. The screenings have always been scattered all over the city, and so you mix in with the crowds on the MTR and get good at knowing what exits will shave off a few vital minutes in order to make that next session. I still haven’t forgiven the city for moving the Star Ferry terminal so far away from City Hall. The ferry from the Cultural Centre to City Hall used to be one of the more delightful ways to get from one screening to another in under 15 minutes, but now you find yourself with a lot of legwork still to do once you make land Island-side. The property values close to Central have seen more cinemas close, and the need to match cinemas with digital formats have had the consequence that screenings are scattered more widely from Mongkok to West Kowloon to Tai Koo on the Island, meaning that it is increasingly difficult to get to consecutive sessions.

Song of Silence

The changes to the program were pretty prominent this year. Over the past few years, HKIFF has become the place to see Chinese independent films and documentaries. Last year my festival highlights were Old Dog and Bachelor Mountain, but this year films like this were notable absentees. Chen Zhuo’s Song of Silence with its chain-smoking protagonists moping around almost made me nostalgic for the recent past. Maybe it had the same effect on the jury who gave it the Young Cinema prize.

Those who got into town a few days earlier for the Filmart trade show heard a series of panels that gave the impression that the commercial eagles who seem constantly to be circling Chinese cinema had finally come to nest and were ready to start laying golden eggs. Every day a new announcement about the commercial accommodation between China and Hollywood seem to wash over the Convention Centre. It seems as though low budget Chinese filmmaking has simply been swept away in the process. Maybe I’m wrong in this assessment, but the HKIFF program certainly looked pretty thin in interesting alternative Chinese films this year.

11 Flowers

Wang Xiaoshuai stands out as something of an anomaly here, with his fine mid-range film, 11 Flowers, a second foray for him into films about the Cultural Revolution after 2005’s Shanghai Dreams. To his credit, Wang has never been the filmmaker that other people have wanted him to be. After Beijing Bicycle he was supposed to be Jia Zhangke and more recent films such as In Love We Trust and Chongqing Blues have been received with muted enthusiasm because they haven’t been grungy enough or hiply miserable enough. Now that Jia Zhangke is chasing commercial success, Wang is still in the middle of the road—and it is not bad place for him to be. He has emerged as a solid, art film maker, who is making dramatically coherent and consistently intelligent films. There might be nothing particularly new about the genre of films that shows a historical event through the eyes of a child, but Wang handles it extremely well. He draws out the interconnection of the personal and the political by paralleling the group dynamics of the kids with the wider society.  In both instances, the fear of being cast out of the peer group is a source of constant terror. The end of the Cultural Revolution and the recognition by the young kid that he needs to believe in something as an individual, suggest that the need to grow up is registered at both a personal and social level.

Were there any signs of the dawn of a new global commercial Chinese cinema at HKIFF? The awful mess that is Dante Lam’s The Viral Factor confirmed many fears and shows what can happen when a director of taut little thrillers gets a bunch of pan-Asian cash thrown at him. The 3D animation, Legend of the Rabbit, was probably closer to the money as a local response to Kung Fu Panda – and it is no mistake here that the panda is the villain who has to be vanquished at the end. However, the joint venture deal between Dreamworks Animation and the Shanghai Media and Entertainment Group represents a change in tactics: if you can’t beat them, co-produce with them.

It used to seem that Johnnie To was the only director left in Hong Kong, but now that he is working more on the mainland, Pang Ho-cheung has come to the fore as the leading director reflecting on the current position of Hong Kong filmmaking. He provided two films for the festival that corresponded to the two options open to HK filmmakers. Opening night film Love in the Buff is about Hongkongers going to the mainland. Shawn Yue and Miriam Yeung fell in love in Love in a Puff, and they have to fall out of love, move to Beijing and do the same thing all over again in this sequel. The point of the film is that no matter where Hongkongers go, they will always remain Hongkongers. They aren’t more attractive than mainlanders—on the contrary, the Ralph Bellamy-like jilted lovers in this comedy of remarriage, are much more decent human beings than their deceitful, smartarse Cantonese counterparts, but we’ve seen enough of Pang’s films to know that he doesn’t buy the idea that men and women can simply be in love. For Pang, there is an inevitable element of adversarialism at the heart of any good relationship.

Vulgaria

Vulgaria explores the other option open to Hong Kong filmmakers – stay home and tough it out by living on your wits and making cheap, nasty little films. As cheap and nasty films go, this one is a bit of a triumph. Chapman To plays a producer who will do just about anything to get a film made. Pang has always had a weakness for politically incorrect dirty jokes, but he has outdone himself here with a series of sketches in which the hapless protagonist finds out just what it takes to get a film up in HK these days. Unfortunately, the answer to that turns out to be remarkably simple – you have to have sex with donkeys. Will our man be up for that? This is Hong Kong, so of course the answer is yes. While Love in the Buff was full of romance, Vulgaria is full of romanticism, insisting on the heroism of those who still fight for lost causes.

The longer the festival went on, the more I found myself going from one Japanese film to the next. About Pink Sky, Matsuko Delivers, A Letter to Momo and Kore-eda’s surprisingly genial I Wish all significant pleasures, but two films stood out.

Postcard

The death of Shindo Kaneto in the months since HKIFF gives his final film, Postcard, greater resonance. It is a pretty good way to go out, especially if you are 99. This is one of those films whose virtues are overwhelmingly theatrical. The story is not too dissimilar from Scott Hick’s recent teeny pot-boiler The Lucky One. A veteran returns from the war and falls in love with a woman associated with a fallen comrade. The narrative is quite predictable, but this has the consequence of putting the audience into a more contemplative position, where we pay greater attention to how the journey is being accomplished. There are long dialogue scenes where the movement of a character draws forth a camera movement to reframe the action. The film is full of quiet pleasures to savour, leading up to a final explosion of colour. A fine way to end your career, and your life.

Life Back Then

The other Japanese film that stood out for me was Zeze Takahisa’s Life Back Then. Zeze’s Heaven’s Story in 2010 made people start to notice him, and he and Sion Sono have emerged as the major figures in independent Japanese cinema. The two directors make for an interesting comparison. Sono’s films are increasingly drenched in sex and blood, seeking for transcendent moments of perversity. Zeze, who has a background in pink films, seems to be going in the opposite direction. Life Back Then starts out as yet another film about a recessive young man, but the emotional stillness of the beginning is only a ploy to increase the dynamic range of a narrative whose last 30 minutes is blistering in its quiet emotional intensity. The story revolves around a man who takes a job with a company that cleans up the apartments of people who have died while living alone and whose families simply want them swept out of memory. Here, he meets a young woman as damaged as himself, and they stumble hesitantly towards an intimacy that is never going to be easily maintained. The film is an unabashed tearjerker, but bringing an audience to tears is a skill at which Japanese filmmakers have long excelled. The intensity of its climax creeps up on you, as it is an intensity produced out of restraint.

The other thing that was distinctive in Hong Kong this year is that the city seems to have gone gaga over Bollywood. Amir Khan’s Three Idiots was the top DVD around town, and Delhi Belly (a film also produced by Khan) had crowds lining up, keenly anticipating a rockin’ good time. They were not disappointed. If India has been one of the last hold-outs against global Hollywood, Delhi Belly with its reworking and localising of The Hangover, can be read as yet another way of living with Hollywood. The comedy gets off the ground through the premise of a trio of bumbling buddies who mix up a parcel of smuggled diamonds and a stool sample of one guy’s diarrhoea. You can’t go wrong with bumbling criminals or with poo jokes, throw in some women-in-burqas humour and some retro-Bollywood satire with a Disco Fighter fantasy character and you’ve got a combination you can take to the bank pretty much anywhere. OK, so the central idea is an international one, but we’ve seen for many years now that Indian film industries are good at adapting whatever they can lay hands on, copying it and still having it come out as unmistakably Indian.

Blindfold

The other interesting new trend at HKIFF this year was the increased prominence of Indonesian films. While some were rather too laboured (The Mirror Never Lies, Postcards from the Zoo, Lovely Man), Garin Nugroho, who seems clearly the most interesting director in Indonesia produced a social issue film about the dangers of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. The Blindfold manages to be both elegant in its construction and forceful in its politics. Some years ago, Nugroho made Of Love and Eggs, a film that placed the mosque literally and figuratively at the heart of the community. Religious extremism is what results when family and community break down. A poor, young man can afford to stay in school or to repay his mother for her sacrifice; an ambitious young woman sees the sect as a path to the recognition that society denies her; a domineering mother loses a daughter who is seeking a separate space. On one hand, it is easy to condemn violent fundamentalism, but Nugroho is a filmmaker of consummate skill who understands how to keep this critique fresh and forceful through the intelligent use of variations in style, interspersing the use of wide angles and telephoto lenses, mixing montage with long takes.

There are some things that endure about the Hong Kong film festival: the trips to the Archive, where this year there was a retrospective of films featuring the character of Wong Fei-Hung, the Hong Kong Panorama and a focus on a local director (Peter Chan Ho-Sun) and a variety of other strands. Visitors to Hong Kong continue to come for the focus it provides on Asian film. The festival continues to sprawl over two and a half weeks and longer if you mix in Filmart, the Asian Film Awards and the Hong Kong Film Awards, which bookend it as they spill out across the city. HKIFF will undoubtedly continue to change as the Chinese cinema takes on new forms and the Chinese government pushes other regional festivals such as those in Beijing and Shanghai. The interesting question, as it looks to the future, might be the issue of how it will arrive at a new focus in the next few years.

Hong Kong International Film Festival
21 March – 5 April 2012
Festival website: http://www.hkiff.org.hk/en/index.php