Between the Acts


Hong Kong—Five years after the handover to China, the future of the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) is clouded by a mixture of post-colonial anxiety, bureaucratic complexities, and the lingering effects of the Asian economic crisis.

A group of cinephiles founded the festival in 1977 to program foreign art movies not distributed in Hong Kong, but it soon also became one of the most important showcases for Chinese and Hong Kong cinema. By the mid 1980s, the HKIFF had become a forum for Chinese filmmakers, ignored in their own country, to show their work to the world. In 1985, the HKIFF screened Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth, introducing audiences to the Fifth Generation. The post-Tiananmen Square years saw the development of Chinese independent films and video, warmly welcomed by the HKIFF. For the Chinese authorities, however, every independent production—because it is made through a “work unit” not accredited by the Beijing Film Bureau—is illegal. While British censorship discouraged the selection of work that could displease Beijing, Chinese authorities also exerted direct influence, sometimes withdrawing “legitimate” productions. Under the double bind of colonial and communist censorship, HKIFF curators had to negotiate, compromise (as in 1992, when the festival canceled the screening of the documentary Tiananmen Square), and sometimes resign (as curator Wong Ain-ling did in 1996, after being attacked in mainland Chinese newspapers).

Under colonial rule, the festival was supervised by the Urban Council, a body of elected and appointed officials that was Hong Kong’s de facto local government. Shortly after the 1997 handover, the Chinese authorities replaced the Urban Council with the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. Subjected to new financial and organizational vexations, the festival’s artistic team resigned collectively in 2000. Last year, film industry professionals prompted the creation of a committee to design a new administrative structure that would insure the HKIFF’s independence—the Toronto and Vancouver festivals, which draw funding from a combination of government and corporate sponsorship, being possible models.

Autonomy still seems a distant goal. Paralleling the fate of Hong Kong itself, last year the HKIFF was handed over to the Arts Development Council (ADC), a hybrid, baroque structure created in 1995 by the outgoing colonial administration. Under its debonair guise of “advocate of the arts,” the festival’s new sponsor (whose members are appointed by the government) might be no less controlling than its predecessor: “We are the film festival,” asserts ADC chairman Patrick Ho. “We hire the festival director and his staff, we pay their salaries, and we manage the budget.”

One of the benefits of the ADC, however, was that it started funding independent films—traditionally neglected in Hong Kong. In 1999, the festival launched “The Age of Independents” to show groundbreaking work from all over Asia. Independent artists have as much at stake in the festival as mainstream filmmakers, and, in November 2001, a group of them asked producer Peter Tsi to become festival director. At 37, Tsi is an efficient, well-liked producer (who had worked for auteurs such as Edward Yang and Kirk Wong) without known political ambitions; moreover, he has good relations with mainland authorities, having led delegations to China in 1997 to discuss issues of co-production and censorship. He had only three months to put the festival together, but the HKIFF opened on time March 27, featuring no less than 215 features and 20-odd shorts.

Beijing objected to the impressive lineup of Chinese indies, which included critical favorites such as Emily Tang’s Conjugation and Wang Chao’s The Orphan of Anyang, and applied pressure on directors like Tsui Hark (whose Legend of Zu was a co-production with China), Zhang Yang, and Ning Ying to withdraw their films. Tsi was unfazed: “I’m quite optimistic about the evolution of the Film Bureau. It is only creating problems to punish the Chinese independents who have not paid a membership fee to the administration. It’s no longer a question of censorship.”

Just as the pressures of the market may be forcing Beijing to curb its authoritarian stance, some of the HKIFF’s recent changes result not from bureaucratic demands but an awareness of how its interests connect to those of the local film industry and the Asian independents. Two years ago, in a partnership with the Festival, Wouter Barendrecht of the Fortissimo distribution company organized a film market (patterned after Rotterdam’s CineMart), which was revived this year.

“Pan-Asian is ultimately pan-world,” filmmaker Peter Chan declared in the 2002 market’s opening speech. As it recovers from the slump and explores diversification, the industry could not have found a more suitable spokesperson. Raised in Hong Kong and Thailand, having directed films in Hong Kong (Comrades: Almost a Love Story) and Hollywood (The Love Letter), Chan created Applause Pictures in 2000 to produce the work of young directors throughout East Asia. His first ventures were festival darlings (Thailand’s Jan Dara, Korea’s One Fine Spring Day). For Chan, Hong Kong is, more than ever, where things happen: “We’re Western and Asian, we understand both worlds.”