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by Brian Brooks
April 1, 2011 4:02 AM
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Cats and Dogs Rule Hong Kong Fest; U.S. Indies Get Proper Legal Screenings

Image courtesy of the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

The awards of the 35th Hong Kong International Film Festival were announced on Wednesday night, though the festival will continue through April 5. The showcase of world and Asian cinema gave its Golden Digital Award to Tibetan tale "Old Dog" by Pema Tsedan, about the tragicomic events surrounding the proposed sale of a mastiff. Interestingly, the winner of the Humanitarian Award for Best Documentary went to "Peace," by Japanese director Soda Kazuhiro, about people and their cats.

The Hong Kong International Film Festival, one of the biggest Asian film events together with Pusan in South Korea, consists of several components. The main industry event, the Filmart, has its own program and location in the city, which is not directly connected to the rest of the festival, and this year took place March 21 - 24 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

The Asian Film Awards or AFA, the continent-wide film prizes, are also handed out during the festival. For its fifth edition on March 21, the top prize went to Palme d'Or winner "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" from Thai director Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, with Best Director and Best Screenplay honors going to Lee Chang-dong's lyrical South Korean drama "Poetry."

Feng Xiaogang's Chinese smash hit "Aftershock," about the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, won two major awards as well: Best Actress for Xu Fan, and Best Visual Effects. Best Actor went to South Korean Ha Jung-woo for his performance in the genre item "The Yellow Sea," which topped the Christmas box-office charts locally. Technical nods included a very deserved win for Best Cinematography for Tran Anh Hung's slow-moving Haruki Murakami adaptation "Norwegian Wood" and Best Production Design for Japanese director Takashi Miike's enjoyable samurai romp "13 Assassins."

The biggest component of HKIFF is the festival proper, an audience-driven event that lasts for 17 days (down from over 20 in past years) at many screening locations both on Hong Kong Island and across Victoria Harbor, in Kowloon. This year's list of AFA winners already underlined that contemporary Asian cinema is as diversified as ever, with small and critically acclaimed arthouse films sharing the stage with major blockbusters, literary adaptation and genre films. The new Asian films presented in the festival's various sections underlined this once again.

Films in the Asian Digital Competition included the Japanese charmer "Good Morning to the World!!" - note the two exclamation marks! - in which Japanese director Hirohara Satoru explores the out-of-whack world of a teenage schoolboy. Shot on smudgy video, with camera placement and movements as undisciplined as the non-professional actors are precise, this loose-limbed look at an alienated boy in search of an adult or father figure he can look up to is at times funny but also impressively astute in locating precise emotions without the help of dialogue, especially in the film's strong final moments.

Also in the Digital Competition was Rotterdam Tiger winner "Eternity," taking the Silver Digital Award. The film from Thailand is a ghost story about a man revisiting his own life. The film signals a worrying trend in Asian and perhaps world cinema - also seen in Teng Yung-Shing's "Return Ticket," a film somewhat surprisingly executive produced by Taiwanese master Hao Hsiao-hsien - that arthouse films seem to be made not so much for an admittedly niche audience at home, but for an international festival and arthouse audience first. This commercial tinkering with what should ideally be authentic artistic expressions grounded in a particular culture did not capsize either of these works but makes the likelihood of finding truly original voices much harder, as blockbuster thinking - let's give audiences more of what we know they've enjoyed in the past - invades smaller and theoretically less commercial films.

Of course, filmmaking remains an expensive medium and financing often a nightmare, but as "Good Morning to the World!!" seems to suggest, it is not impossible to make a film that seems relevant and, if not sui generis, at least singular enough to avoid facile labeling of the type "it's basically X meets Y" or "it's Z on acid."

One of the strongest and most interesting sections of the festival was Indie Power, which yielded the FIPRESCI International Critics Award winner, "Bleak Night" (full disclosure: this critic was part of the festival's FIPRESCI jury). The film-school graduation film from South Korean director Yoon Sung-hyun, already showcased at Pusan and Rotterdam, delves into the weakness of the Asian male psyche, a recurring theme that, at least locally, has dominated critical conversation of Asian cinema for at least a decade. Like "Morning," the protagonist of "Bleak Night" is a teenage schoolboy at an all-boys school.

The film, also shot on HD, opens with a violent beating of a school kid and then proceeds to investigate the suicide of one of the students, though already in the first reel, Yoon Sung-hyun toys with viewers expectations, as the character who killed himself was not the child being beaten but rather one of the bullies. Working with several different timelines both before and after the suicide, the film spins a complex tale finding one's identity as an adolescent amidst peer pressure to conform or live up to certain expectations. It is here that it becomes clear that macho or strong-man behavior are much more complex in Asia than in the U.S. Interestingly, the direct reason for the suicide seems to forever remain just beyond the grasp of the viewer, though some of the classmates seem to know more than they are willing to share with each other or the audience. By avoiding a direct and straightforward cause-and-effect narrative, the dynamics between the youngsters becomes the de facto subject of the film.

Also playing in the Indie Power section are the Chinese rural dramas "The Old Donkey" from Li Ruijun and Hao Jie's "Single Man," two films that paint a bleak picture of life in the Chinese countryside. The former looks at the life of an old farmer who is forced off his own land and who refuses to rely on his five children, who have all moved to the cities for work. The latter looks at a particularly pressing problem: that of the scarcity of brides for men in a rural society that prefers male sons. While "Old Donkey" is a dour, straightforward drama, "Single Man" - not to be confused with Tom Ford's film, though one of the men is homosexual - uses many different elements including melodramatic flashbacks and moments of comedy to explore its subject.

The section also included audience favorites from other festivals, including killer-tire tale "Rubber," the bittersweet black-and-white cinematheque film "A Useful Life," and Michael Rowe's sexually explicit Mexican drama "Leap Year."

The section Rediscovering American Indies afforded local audiences a look at some of the best recent American independent works that haven't found distribution in Hong Kong. They include acclaimed works such as "Humpday," "Ballast" and "Frozen River" as well more recent fare such as "Winter's Bone," "Kaboom," "Aardvark," "Littlerock" and "Jess + Moss," with the latter making its Asian bow at the festival.

For savvy Hong Kong cinephiles, the screenings of these films by the festival offer a rare opportunity to watch these films not only projected on the big screen but also in a properly legal way, since, unfortunately, local distributors find these titles too risky. It is one of the festival's objectives to cater to the film-crazy local population in this way, despite the fact that many international distributors do not seem to see the value in screening at Hong Kong (only one 2011 Sundance premiere was presented in this section).

The 35th Hong Kong International Film Festival winners:

Asian Digital Competition:
Golden Digital Award - "Old Dog," Director Pema Tsedan
Silver Digital Award - "Eternity," Director Sivaroj Kongsakul
Special Mention - "The Sun Beaten Path," Director Sonthar Gyal

Humanitarian Awards for Documentaries
Best Documentary Award - "Peace," Director Soda Kazushiro
Outstanding Documentary Award - "Pink Saris," Director Kim Longinotto

Short Film Competition
Grand Prize - "Pigs," Director Pawel Romuald
Jury Prize - "Little Children, Big Words," Director Lisa James Larsson
Special Mention - "Nowhere Elsewhere," Director Annick Blanc
Special Mention - "I was a Child of Holocaust Survivors," Director Ann Marie Fleming

FIPRESCI Prize
FIRPRESCI Prize - "Bleak Night," Director Yoon Sung-hyun
Special Mention - "Good Morning to the World," Director Hiroshara Satoru

SIGNIS Award
SIGNIS Award - "Winter's Bone," Director Debra Granik
Special Mention - "The Human Resources Manager," Director Eran Riklis

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