One of the world’s largest cinema events is also one of the most ambitious
The 33rd Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF, March 22 to April 13, 2009) showed more than 300 films this year. It still floats on city-state funding — around 70 percent I’m told — though its brief is to wean itself of that dependency as soon as possible. However, its sheer programming diversity, that 300-plus films, and an expanding guest list — this year including actor William Hurt and director Oliver Stone — make it unlikely to survive on sponsorships alone.
Let’s not forget the festival’s grander achievements from previous years — for example, its eye-opening retrospectives of early Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s and 1990s, with related book-like catalogues crammed with essays that remain collectively an incomparable research resource on Chinese cinema. The HKIFF also enabled the establishment of the Hong Kong Film Archive, its institutional alter ego, in 1993. Each has revealed to us Hong Kong’s dense, extraordinary film history, until then almost totally ignored.
That, after Black Orpheus (derived from the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice), there could be another South American update of a “doomed lovers” literary classic as good — like Breno Silveira’s superb Once Upon a Time in Rio, with its shades of Romeo and Juliet. That four stories documenting the love lives of genuinely blind subjects (couples and singles — who surely cannot “see” themselves in this film) over the course of a few years, could be this unclassifiable gem — Juraj Lchotsky’s Blind Loves (Slovakia).
The Archive’s current program, In the Name of Love: The Films of Evan Yang, pays tribute to this novelist, screenwriter, and director responsible for so many HK film entertainments over three decades They include mandarin musicals and comic romances and examples of just how “cross-cultural” HK films could be in their seamless adaptations of foreign literature or foreign movies. Well, writer-director Yang did bestride two worlds as a man of letters — steeped in both Chinese and Western classics.
Then there’s Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif,” short-story source of John Ford’s great Stagecoach (1939), showing up in the Yang-directed Journey to Kwan Shan (1956). The action is simple. A passenger bus breaks down on a mountainside road, hemmed in by a landslide. The passengers, strangers to one another, seek shelter in a farmhouse and become involved — for good and ill — in each others’ affairs throughout their prolonged isolation. This Taiwan/HK production is more interesting when considered as Cold War propaganda exploiting glamour stars from HK to sugar its underlying message: all Chinese must pull together and help each other — with an implied result of returning again to a motherland temporarily being ruled by Communists. The cast, headed by Grace Chang (Ge Lan), make it watchable.
The Yang season was a good opportunity to see Li Lihua, the first HK star to take a leading role in Hollywood — in Frank Borzage’s China Doll (1958) opposite Victor Mature for John Wayne’s production company. A delight in The Beauty and the Dumb, Li is excellent as a 100 percent bitch in Blood Will Tell (1955), written and directed by Evan Yang. The film was long thought lost until a colour print emerged at the Kawakita Memorial Film Institute in Japan in the 1990s. Blood Will Tell remakes Blood-stained Begonia (HK, 1949) — itself a wonderful HK film noir starring Bai Guang, the greatest Bad Girl of Chinese cinema. Bai was a hard act to follow, but Li Lihua rose to the challenge just before going to Hollywood.
Confucius was made in Shanghai during the city’s “orphan island” period, when surrounded but not yet fully occupied by Japanese forces — that is, before the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941 changed everything. Unfortunately, the emotion did not translate to the film itself, an episodic view of the later life of a genuine Chinese saint whose creed of humanism is a form of man-made religion I could accept. A second viewing was impossible as its several screenings were sold out. So, for the record, Confucius created excitement above and beyond mere scholastic interest in its discovery and recovery.
Hong Kong’s film industry, clearly a miracle of human endeavor since the 1930s, merits a centenary bash of its own, apart from the mainland’s official centenary of 2005 recognising the first filmed dramas in 1905 Beijing. But I found myself participating in a seminar — chaired by HKIFF’s Artistic Director Li Cheuk-to — seriously denying this was a centenary year. See an excellent resumé of this denial by fellow panelist David Bordwell here.
The opening films did endorse the identity of Hong Kong cinema in directors Ann Hui (Shadow and Fog) and Derek Yee (The Shinjuku Incident) along with Jackie Chan, star of Yee’s entry — all are key artists in the local HK industry’s past thirty years, and many of their films clearly proclaim “Hong Kong.” Yet Chan himself is cited in recent interviews as lamenting the slow death of HK cinema, the territory’s best talents increasingly part of mainland-centred productions. That smacks curiously of “Euro-pudding” style films of recent times in which cross-continent investments resulted in “representative” casting and locales.
But that’s for historians to think about, decades hence. After all, to date, the Chinese film industries of Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and San Francisco (1930s-1950s) have managed to be distinctive while sharing many of the same artists and drawing on the same literary/historical sources. That diversity may still survive.
The best memories of this festival stem from a mainland/Hong Kong co-operation, a documentary co-directed by two women: Peng Xiaolian of the mainland’s “Fifth generation” filmmakers (famously represented by Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige), and Hong Kong’s S. Louisa Wei, originally a mainlander herself. Their film, Storm Under the Sun — eight years in the making — is a crime story, tailor-made for the detectives of International PEN had that body, formed in 1921, been aware of this amazing case so little known in or out of China.
China’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” of 1966-1976 formed the climax of this affair, on the surface one of extreme state reaction to its own fear of the pen, stemming from Mao Zedong’s dictum that writers were cogs in a greater wheel spun by the Party, or mere conveyors of Party-permitted thought; “subjectivity” would not be tolerated.
Storm, handling a more complex and far-reaching cultural war, might have sunk under its own gravity. Fortunately, it has two completely different directors in terms of their personal experiences. Louisa Wei admits to having none of the history that afflicted her co-director’s family for so long, resulting in the making of this film — though the subject’s evident risks worried her (Wei’s) immediate family.
The film’s greatest virtue is its biggest liability for a non-Chinese speaker. The subject is literature in its various roles and the savage consequences of a State’s fear of independent thought. So the film needs words, plenty of them, with the non-Chinese speaker trapped into half-consumptions of subtitles and images. A bilingual package of Storm has been released containing a DVD and book with the whole script (gripping reading) plus introductions by the directors and Ohio University’s Kirk A. Denton, an expert on the life and work of Hu Feng. I hope an expertly dubbed BIG screen version can be made.
With its accretion of banal detail and direct interviews with many who suffered (many of them since deceased), Storm Under the Sun remains my most jaw-dropping HKIFF experience, pre-empting everything the other films could throw at me — substantial and imaginative as so many of them were.