Although the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) is a noncompetitive event, it is more than a “Best of” World Cinema. This year, the 21st HKIFF (March 25 – April 9) packed an array of fourteen programs, including “Global Images” (new international cinema), director tributes and “Archival Treasures,” which included Louis Feuillade’s ten-episode serial, Les Vampires – all 457 minutes of it!
Since this is 1997 – with the July 1 ‘handover’ of Hong Kong imminent – it was an opportunity to reassess both the past and likely future of HK cinema itself. This was achieved by a three-day international conference (April 10-12) following the HKIFF’s retrospective programme of forty-five HK films, key works between 1947 and 1994, titled “Fifty Years of Electric Shadows.”
For nearly fifty years, Hong Kong has been one of the most productive film centers on earth – alongside Japan, India, and the U.S. – without subsidy. In 1954, for example, with a population then of around three million, HK produced more than 200 features, some in minority dialects but mostly in either Mandarin or Cantonese, the primary ‘competing’ languages. Annual production peaked at just over 300 in the early Sixties. Once seen, some of the more luminous stars of the period are not easily forgotten – Bai Guang (a classic ‘noir’ bad girl), Tzi Lo-lin, Li Lihua, Lin Dai, and Betty Le Di, among other female superstars. Like Ida Lupino in Hollywood, Bai Guang and Tzi Lo-lin were those rarities in the Fifties – women directors of commercial films.
The HKIFF’s “retrospectives” continue to flesh out the story of Hong Kong’s film heritage. Where else can you see the childstar Bruce Lee suddenly pop up in Fifties’ Cantonese melodramas – a career rarely discussed sufficiently in Lee’s ‘biographies’?
As a reminder that there is more to HK cinema than the fan-pieces available on the Internet, one of the festival’s best films – Asian or otherwise – was Wild Wild Rose (1960), a superb film noir, loosely based on the Carmen theme. Set largely in and around Wanchai night clubs, the film is from an era – up to the mid Sixties – when female stars dominated HK films. Few performances in memory, Garbo and Monroe included, match the onscreen electricity of Grace Chang here in the title role. Wild Wild Rose was directed by Wang Tianlin, the father of Wong Jing, a prolific filmmaker in HK today.
Generational lines were further evident in Li Hanxiang’s The Enchanting Shadow (1960), later ‘remade’ by Tsui Hark as A Chinese Ghost Story, just as John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow is termed a ‘remake’ of Lung Kong’s Story of a Discharged Prisoner (1967). Mr Lung returned from the U.S. (where he occasionally works as an actor) to introduce his Hiroshima 28 (1974), an effective drama that passionately denounces nuclear weapons.
Thanks to the festival and to the recent establishment of the Hong Kong Film Archive, filmmakers are increasingly aware of their own precious heritage. Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story (screened at the festival) cleaned up at the Annual HK Film Awards (April 13) with nine wins, including Best Screenplay (Ivy Ho), Best Director (Chan), Best Film, and Best Actress (Maggie Cheung). It looks back a tad to the weepies and melodramas of the Fifties and Sixties, although Comrades is an Eighties/Nineties romance between two emigrant mainlanders, beautifully written, with perhaps a nod to An Affair to Remember.
Chan’s film complemented a delightful homage to HK actress, Maggie Cheung. French director Olivier Assayas’s entry, Irma Vep (1996), concerns a Hong Kong actress named Maggie Cheung (Maggie Cheung), who comes to Paris to star in a remake of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires for a slightly mad and paranoid director (Jean-Pierre Leaud, looking uncannily like Francois Truffaut).
Today, in spite of industry fears about censorship from Beijing, falling local attendance, or the current brain drain to Hollywood, the miracle that is HK cinema will not cease on July 1. Indeed, the reopening of the mainland market (mostly shut since the early Fifties) should revive it, albeit gradually. There remains a cultural as well as administrative border between the new Hong Kong and China, explains television executive, Jermyn Lynn: “One of the biggest differences preventing China and HK from cooperating more together in TV and movies is that in China the order of interest is to educate, to inform and then entertain. In HK it is just the reverse.”
The Hong Kong Film Archive has finally been established to retrieve, preserve, and repair the local film heritage. The Archive continually rediscovers old films and has just purchased some 500 old prints from a theatre in San Francisco where the climate is kinder to film – long decimated by humidity, poor storage, and cultural apathy in HK itself.
The conference looked to the future beyond 1997 with only a touch of anxiety. On censorship, one speaker worried about the inconsistency of mainland policies. “For example,” said one, “If statistics show there are too many divorces, they may suddenly start cutting extramarital scenes!” Direct censorship from Beijing will continue to be applied only to co-productions in which the mainland has a financial stake – such as the long-awaited The Soong Sisters that opened in HK on May 1 after more than a year on the shelf. Filmmakers hoped that Beijing will rethink its current policy of ‘one-only versions,’ whether coproductions are shown in China or in foreign markets. (A full version of the original Soong script has been published and is widely on sale in Hong Kong.)
There were also winning contemporary films from elsewhere in Asia such as the hilarious Signal Left, Turn Right, directed by China’s Huang Jianxin. Literally a road movie (set in a part-time driving course run by the police), it cleverly reflects today’s changing China with five imperfect students seeking driver’s licenses for various reasons. There were the Taiwanese films with their trademark longshots (perhaps an economy measure), the most interesting of which was Tsai Ming-liang’s The River, apparently the third in a series about a family who talk to each other less and less as the series progresses. Initially very funny, the long takes begin to wear you down.
But the feature of this year’s HKIFF remains its panoramic view of HK film culture throughout half a century – an identity it can carry proudly into the future.