The 41st Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) was launched amidst political turmoil and much soul searching about the state of the local film industry. While tales of the declining fortunes of Hong Kong cinema are hardly new, this year prognostications of doom rang particularly loud, as inescapable as the grinning presence of Louis Koo, who appeared prominently in the festival’s publicity, as well as in a memorably villainous turn in Benny Chan’s Kung Fu Rio Bravo remake, Call of Heroes. That film, present in the Panorama showcase of 2016 commercial releases, is the kind of solid genre outing that used to be the bread and butter of the local industry. In the discussion forum on post-97 Hong Kong cinema, academic Stephen Teo, programmer Colin Geddes and critic Thomas Sotinel raised a multitude of explanations for why they no longer make ‘em as they used to. Unsurprisingly, the rise of China’s domestic box office coincided with the swift decline of Hong Kong’s previously robust commercial industry. Geddes also intriguingly posited that simultaneous “day and date” release strategies have actually reduced the currency of Hong Kong and Chinese commercial films on the international film festival circuit, limiting the global reach of the films beyond the diaspora.

HKIFF offered a powerful rebuke to such doom-saying by opening with Chun Jiao jiu Zhi Ming (Love Off the Cuff, Pang Ho-cheung): a thoroughly Hong Kong film, and an old-style star-driven affair. Pang has been uncharacteristically quiet of late, and at first it may have seemed a little underwhelming that he would make his return to the director’s chair with the third instalment in the series of romantic comedies that began with Chi Ming yi Chun Kiu (Love in a Puff, 2010). But fans need not have feared, as the reunion of Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue still has teeth, retaining the bawdy and subversive sensibilities throughout. The previous instalment, Chun Kiu yi Chi Ming (Love in the Buff 2012), was calibrated to permit dual readings, both endorsing its characters’ mutual decision to rebuff the mainland and reunite in Hong Kong, while simultaneously exposing their folly in rejecting seemingly perfect lives in Beijing. Off the Cuff is a different proposition, and seems to be a decisively Hong Kong for Hong Kong affair, brimming with local references, and containing so many glitzy aerial shots of the Hong Kong skyline that it could, at times, be mistaken for an airline commercial. Unsurprisingly, it hit its mark in a night of red carpet glamour at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

Shawn Yue also impressed with his committed performance in Yat nim mou ming (Mad World). This film played as part of HKIFF’s Hong Kong Panorama in a victory lap of sorts, following a slew of nominations and a win for Best New Director for debutant Wong Chun at the Hong Kong Film Awards on the eve of the festival, and winning the HKIFF’s Audience Choice Award. Yue plays young executive Ah Tung, attempting to restore a degree of normality to his life after being institutionalised with bipolar disorder. The film navigates the social stigmas against mental illness and also, crucially, the burdens that are placed upon carers. Eric Tsang transcends his usual comic typecasting in his dignified turn as Ah Tung’s well-meaning father, and was rewarded with the Best Supporting Actor Prize at the Awards. If its narrative beats and dramatic structure are a little predictable, they are no less effective for it, and in its admirable social agenda, this small-scale, performance-driven drama shows a very different side to Hong Kong society than Love Off the Cuff.

Hong Kong

Mad World

While Love Off the Cuff and Mad World are two prominent titles rooted in their sense of localism, HKIFF artistic director Li Cheuk-to remains committed to maintaining the festival’s international focus. Here, HKIFF’s April timing largely works against it, scheduled as it occurs just before Cannes. This means that HKIFF has always been hard pressed to acquire major international titles. So this year HKIFF showed some of the best titles from Cannes last year, packaged as part of its themed strands: Personal Shopper (d. Olivier Assayas) played with Assayas a guest of the festival, and Sieranevada (d. Cristi Puiu) and Aquarius (d. Kleber Mendonça Filho) were packaged as part of respective festival strands on Romanian and Latin American cinema. Elsewhere throughout the program were familiar names: Eugène Green, Albert Serra, and old hands Alejandro Jodorowsky, and the late Andrzej Wajda. As is often the case, the horror movies that generated the most discussion. La region salvaje (The Untamed, Amat Escalante) and Raw (Julia Ducournau) provoked some of the strongest responses at the festival, while local chameleon Herman Yau pulled a prank that would have done William Castle proud at the world premiere of his Shi Mian (The Sleep Curse), personally distributing hot dogs (sans bun) to audience members in their cinema seats – despite strict instructions banning food in festival venues – in a playful piece of foreshadowing of a memorably grisly dismemberment to come in the film. Kiyoshi Kurosawa followed up the impressive Kurîpî: Itsuwari no rinjin (Creepy, screened at the 40th HKIFF) with Le secret de la chambre noire (Daguerrotype), which transplants the tech-horror of many of his earlier films to France, inflecting it with a decidedly gothic flavour in the process.

The festival’s retrospectives included Robert Bresson, Filipino director Mike De Leon, and Jacques Rivette’s mammoth Out 1, noli me tangere (1971), but the highlight was the opportunity to catch each of Edward Yang’s feature films, commemorating ten years since his untimely death. Given the relative unavailability of the majority of his films, it was a treat to watch a baby-faced Hou Hsiao-hsien in the lead role in Qing mei zhu ma (Taipei Story, 1985), obsessively attempting to return to the past via video-taped baseball games, as his life comes apart around him. Kong bu fen zi (The Terrorizers, 1986) and Ma jiang (Mahjong, 1996) offer hierarchical dissections of the different strata of Taipei street life, with Yang’s unerring visual sensibility intact, evident too even in his debut, Hai tan de yi tian (That Day, on the Beach, 1983). That film, and its star Sylvia Chang, remain as enigmatic as ever, marking also the cinematographic debut of Christopher Doyle, who gives a hint of things to come in the lurching camerawork of a moment of drunkenness. While Yang remains best known for the epic sweep and profound humanism of Yi Yi (2000) and Gu ling jie shao nian ren shi jian (A Brighter Summer Day, 1991), taken in toto, it is striking how much humour is ingrained into his films. His screwball Du li shi dai (A Confucian Confusion, 1994) played to a particularly uproarious reception in a sold out screening at the Hong Kong Science Museum, the crowd delighted by its complex wordplay.

Hong Kong

See You Tomorrow

Two other titles in the Hong Kong Panorama offer an intriguing pairing – both works of first-time feature filmmakers making their debuts with mainland productions. Derek Tsang, son of Mad World’s Eric, is best known as an actor in his own right (appearing onscreen in Love Off the Cuff), but makes his feature film directorial debut with the Mandarin language Soul Mate, a surprisingly sensitive melodrama about friendship’s power to endure all number of hardships, as circumstances force small-town childhood friends Qiyue (Ma Sichun) and Ansheng (Zhou Dongyu) onto divergent life paths. Elsewhere in the Panorama, Wong Kar-wai’s fingerprints are all over Hong Kong-China coproduction See You Tomorrow. Produced by Jet Tone Films, and starring regulars Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Takeshi Kaneshiro, Wong produces and adapts first-time director Zhang Jiajia’s novel. Rendered with the hyper-saturated colour and visual bombast of a Tony Scott film, the broad, farcical tone of See You Tomorrow wrong-footed many viewers. But it represents another interesting career turn for Wong, and the arrival of a bold visual stylist in Zhang. Taken in tandem with Soul Mate, both films indicate that the mainland is increasingly offering avenues to make slick commercial films on a smaller scale than Chi bi (Red Cliff, John Woo, 2008) and Zhi qu weihu shan (The Taking of Tiger Mountain, Tsui Hark, 2014).

Soul Mate and See You Tomorrow present China’s largest cities – Beijing and Shanghai respectively – as aspirational beacons for their characters. There was a time when Hong Kong filled a similar role in the mainland imagination, and another strand of the festival gave us pause to consider how conceptions and depictions of Hong Kong have shifted since the 1997 Handover. This Paradigm Shift program offered free screenings of a curated selection of 14 films deemed representative of post-97 Hong Kong filmmaking. This program began with a gala presentation of Fruit Chan’s newly restored Heung Gong jai jo (Made in Hong Kong,  1997). Along with Go do gaai bei (Full Alert, Ringo Lam, 1997) and Ye shou xing jing (Beast Cops,Gordan Chan and Dante Lam, 1998), these films find 1997 as a moment of personal anxiety, as identities fracture, paranoia reigns, and loyalties are tested. The tactile grain of the film stock only intensifies the visual impact of Hong Kong streetscapes that have rarely looked grittier. Hong Kong’s long celebrated visual bombast has rarely been more propulsive, as hard nosed genre sensibilities combine with neorealist on-the-fly production. The immediacy of this vision contrasts dramatically with the Paradigm Shift program’s end point, Wong Kar-wai’s stately Yi dai zong shi (The Grandmaster, 2013), shown in 3D.

Hong Kong

Factory Youth

The Grandmaster was, of course, a Hong Kong/China coproduction, and is emblematic of the kind of fears that proliferate at the moment: that Hong Kong directors might sacrifice some of their distinctive sensibilities in the transition to making mainland films that also cater to mainland censors and sensibilities. And while no local titles at this year’s HKIFF rivalled the dystopian futures imagined the highly controversial anthology film 10 Years (Kwok Zune, Wong Fei-pang, Jevons Au, Chow Kwun-wai, Ng Ka-Leung, at the 40th HKIFF), two epic documentaries provided incisive critiques of institutional injustice in China. In Factory Youth, director Guo Xizhi ventures into the enormous factories and residential complexes of Southern China, as young people break with generations of farming to assemble mobile phones. The film begins with an observation of process based labour, before gradually humanising its subjects via their overheard conversations on the job, frankly discussing relationships, the suicides of other workers, unwanted pregnancy and abortion, and filling their downtime by obsessively gaming in their cramped residential quarters. Most striking is the exuberance of youth, and these young people’s ability to transcend the mundanity of their surroundings and the alienation of their labour. The film’s midpoint marks Lunar New Year with a 4AM 4WD drive through an ancient town, as dance music pumps through the stereo and the vehicle plunges into an uncertain night. But late in the film, Factory Youth takes on a self-reflexive turn that, at best, seems misguided and ideologically inconsistent with the film’s ethical position, undoing much of the good work of its earlier passages. Qiu (Inmates, Ma Li) uses desaturated colour and long takes to emphasise the mundanity of its setting in a psychiatric hospital, as its subjects talk through the Kafkaesque illogic of their situations in extreme long take. There are some genuinely arresting moments in the film, and indeed it was rewarded with the festival’s documentary jury prize. Yet the cynical viewer could be forgiven for questioning the degree to Inmates gargantuan 287-minute running time represents a commercial strategy to align itself with the Wang Bing tradition, and wondering whether the film couldn’t have maintained its epic scope with a three-hour duration.

Hong Kong

Knife in the Clear Water

Wang Xuebo produced Tharlo (Pema Tseden, at the 40th HKIFF), and makes his directorial debut with the rigorous Qingshui li de daozi (Knife in the Clear Water). Shot in the rugged landscapes of the Ningxia province in northern China, amongst the Muslim Hui ethnic communities there, the protagonist, Ma Zishan (Yang Shengcang), is a grizzled goat herder observing 40 days of mourning after the death of his wife. Custom dictates that he sacrifice an animal in tribute to his wife to complete the purification ritual. Shot with a 4:3 aspect ratio and carefully composed long takes of the mountainous landscape, the film’s unobtrusive observational mode gives the viewer plenty of space to contemplate its themes, drawing parallels between Ma and the docile presence of the old bull he prepares for slaughter – both have outlived their usefulness in this harsh land. Chronicling ancient ways with an aesthetic beauty that is tempered by brutal conditions, the film carries the force of an immovable object, the implacable weight of history.

Lav Diaz also explores the burden of history in the characteristically epic Ang Babaeng Humayo (The Woman Who Left). Diaz’s status as the Philippines’ pre-eminent international cinematic export threatens to eclipse the career of his contemporary, Brillante Mendoza. One of the most eclectic Philippine filmmakers, Mendoza is perhaps best known for turning heads and stomachs in equal measure with Kinatay at Cannes in 2009. Ma’ Rosa is closer to his earlier Lola (aka Grandmother, also 2009) in its social realism and focus on a woman protagonist in a desperate situation. The titular Rosa, remarkably embodied by Jaclyn Jose in a performance that won Best Actress at Cannes 2016, runs a tiny convenience stall and sells meth on the side, until she’s apprehended by the drug squad early in the film. Her corrupt captors will accept a sizable bribe in exchange for her freedom, and the duty falls to her children, who must raise the funds in the course of the night. Filmed in meticulously staged long takes, the camera prowls the police station, and while its handheld nature proved too much for some viewers, it is only fitting that such an alarming insight into Duterte’s Philippines carries a jolt.

Hong Kong

Diamond Island

French-Cambodian director Davy Chou’s debut feature, the documentary Le sommeil d’or (Golden Slumbers, 2011), excavated the architectural remnants of the Cambodia’s lost, pre-Khmer Rouge national cinema. His first narrative feature, Diamond Island, expands on the short that he made in the interim, Cambodia 2099 (2014), and gazes boldly into the future of this rapidly urbanising country. The protagonist, Bora (Sobon Nuon), leaves his village life to work as a labourer on the titular development of high density housing being constructed on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Without overplaying its hand, the film deftly contrasts the squalor of living and labour conditions with the aspirational structures the itinerant workers are building, and the rituals of escapism they are able to carve out for themselves once they clock off. Clad in bright costumes, and lit by cell phone screens and colourful LED lights, Chou’s cast of nonprofessional actors carry magnetic screen presence, and the film drifts along on its sense of cool, as its characters ride into the night on their motorcycles, heading into an uncertain future, accompanied by a pulsing electronic score. Understated, the film leaves much to ponder about the relentless march of progress, and the countervailing pull back to the past – a fitting capstone for HKIFF, as Hong Kong itself considers the nexus of its crossroads.

Hong Kong International Film Festival
11-25 April 2017
Festival website: http://www.hkiff.org.hk