Bright Lights Film Journal

Screening Hong Kong: The 33rd Hong Kong International Film Festival

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.

Amid the blurred kaleidoscope of so many film viewings, odd works and strange facts stood out. For example, that Nigeria has the world’s third-largest film industry, most of its annual 1,500 or so films apparently made in English (Dorothee Wenner’s Peace Mission, right). That Udayan Prasad’s The Yellow Handkerchief — a “rich slice of Americana” (as the catalog description says), starring William Hurt as a drifter seeking personal redemption — was based on a Japanese feature. That Josianne Balasko’s marvelous A French Gigolo, co-starring herself and Nathalie Baye as mature businesswomen still seeking love, paid or unpaid, wasn’t a remake of American Gigolo. That Larry Charles’ Religulous, featuring political satirist Bill Maher, with its level-headed dissections of man-made gods and disastrous belief systems built thereon, will never be seen by the converted — and that America’s 15 percent of agnostics (says Maher) should definitely form a lobby group. Basically everything in Agnes Varda’s whimsical The Beaches of Agnes, a recap on her film life, love life (with Jacques Demy) and her own filmic sources. That I could sit stone-faced through Ning Hao’s popular, laughter-inducing (to hear the audience) Crazy Racer, which really looked like a remake of Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, through which I sat stone-faced 44 years ago. That Gotz Spielman’s Oscar-nominated Revanche, about a bank robber’s quest to kill the cop who shot his girl dead during the heist, could be the most original (and reflective) thriller seen in some time.

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.

Take The Beauty and the Dumb (1954, right), directed by Yang Huang. Evan Yang wrote it, adapting The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife by Anatole France, with the film’s producer-star, Li Lihua, playing the smart but mute daughter of a bank clerk (Liu Enjia) who steals money for an operation to restore her voice. Naturally, the father’s ulterior motive — marrying his daughter into money — goes comically haywire.

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.

The other Archive contribution was a special presentation of the recently discovered, just-restored Confucius (1940, right), written and directed by the renowned Fei Mu (Spring in a Small Town, 1948) and co-produced by Jin Xinmin. The packed screening at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre was introduced by emotional speeches from Barbara Fei and Serena Jin, daughters respectively of the director and the producer. The film is still being restored but, currently, the missing “bits” could easily be read into the whole.

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 concerns the misfortunes (to put it mildly) of one of China’s great poets and literary editors, Hu Feng (right), widely considered the disciple and heir of China’s greatest modern writer, Lu Xun (1881-1936). Though Lu Xun, a fierce critic of social injustices and never formally a Communist, was claimed by the Party as its own (a strategic method of attracting writers to the fold), Lu’s disciple, Hu, and many who knew him or sympathised with his views, were demonised and attacked as the Hu Feng anti-Communust “clique.” That meant arrests, imprisonment, complete separation from families from the mid-1950s through the tragic insanities of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). It all ended in the 1980s with insipid “rehabilitations” or forgiveness (for those who had physically survived) and little financial compensation.

This is a still-raw and little-known part of Chinese modern history, part of the cultural wars of the 1950s — including specific works and artists of theatre and cinema, too. Roped into these wars, though completely separate from the literary subject of Storm, was a Hong Kong film, Sorrows of a Forbidden City (1948, right), about the conflict between the Empress Dowager, Cixi, her son Guangxi (the nominal emperor), and his wife Zhenfei. In 1967, this Hong Kong production (subjected to CCP criticisms in the 1950s) became one of the most condemned “poisonous weeds” of the era. The Party organ Hongqi, as well as Chinese Literature and the Peking Review (July 1967), each printed the same staggeringly long expose on the film, qualifying as the longest movie review of all time. Its director, mainlander Zhu Xilin, died of a heart attack in 1967, apparently in reaction to the unexpected attack.

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.

This shows in what some critics have praised as Storm’s “tension” between two mindsets — Peng Xiaoliang’s direct experience vs. the distanced, near gallows humour of Wei, who is closer to the reactions of most of us, ignorant of the events: the film’s audience. Her commissioned animations of contemporary “anti Hu Feng” cartoons is one instance of that.

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.