DISPATCH FROM HONG KONG: April's Cinema Month Dampened by SARS and Suicide
by Fiona Ng
April was all set to be the moment of redemption for film in Hong Kong, the month where the city's flailing film scene gears up for a kind of grand re-debut in the region. Three hitherto unrelated film events -- The 27th Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), The Hong Kong Asia Film Finance Forum (HAF), and The 22nd Annual Hong Kong Film Awards -- have joined forces to announce "Cinema Capital in April," a campaign seeking to re-establish Hong Kong on the global moviemaking map, if not the world. They were at least going to make the rest of Asia look...again.
Then everything changed in mid-March. Seemingly out of nowhere, atypical pneumonia - designated officially as the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) -- overtook the Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) and derailed the attention of its denizens from the one thing that has managed to pull them together during good times and bad: going out.
Since the outbreak, more and more people -- fearful of catching the lung virus -- are opting to stay in, leaving movie theatres, restaurants, and malls emptier than ever, a rare sight even at a time of chronic economic recession. And when going out is required, many people have taken to wearing surgical facemasks -- bank tellers, sales people at the Gucci store, bus drivers, friends and strangers walking up and down the streets, etc.
It's hard not to cite Tsai Ming-liang's "The Hole" as a cinematic analogy, except that the sci-fi apocalyptic overtone is not merely allegorical. And because everything is real, they are also much less spectacular and much more a matter of fact. In a city where unemployment shows no signs of weakening, some entrepreneurial spirits are even selling decorative covers -- adorned with Hello Kitty, UltraMan, Snoopy, etc. -- designed to go over the standard white facemasks. Hey, if you have to wear one, why not look good, too?
Admittedly, the mood relaxed after about three weeks. The residential building considered the source of the spread has been quarantined and the World Health Organization's preliminary guess was that the virus is not airborne. The people of Hong Kong -- unable to withstand being cooped up -- began to come out gradually. By the end of March, things were 60 percent back to normal. Then -- again out of nowhere -- Hong Kong pop and movie icon Leslie Cheung leapt to his death from a posh hotel located in the city's financial center at 6:41pm on April 1. The news sank the city deeper into a kind of anomie.
One day after that sad news, on April 2, the announcement came that the Hong Kong Film Financing Forum, slated to take place from April 7 to 9, has been postponed to a yet-to-be-determined date because of the SARS outbreak. And rumors began flying on the same day that the 22nd Annual HK Film Awards -- taking place on April 6 -- were going to either be postponed or scaled down out of respect for the late singer-actor. At the end, the awards show went on as planned, but with guests the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Chinese director Chen Kaige pulling out because of the SARS.
The night played out with "Infernal Affairs" and "Hero" tied for having the most wins with seven each. The action thriller "Inferno," the highest grossing local film in Hong Kong in 2002, got more of a bragging right for taking best film, best director for Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, best actor for Tony Leung, and best screenplay. While Zhang Yimou's martial arts epic (a China-Hong Kong co-production) nabbed nods in such categories as best cinematographer for Christopher Doyle, best art direction, and best action choreography. Best actress went to relative newcomer Lee Sin Je for her work in "The Eye." Despite 11 nominations, director Peter Chan Ho-san's wowing "Three" (one part of the triptych "Going Home") only took best new performer trophy for actress Eugenia Yuan. Similarly, indie director Fruit Chan's "Hollywood Hong Kong" went home empty-handed despite its six noms.
Postponement, bereavement and no-shows -- it is in this frame of mind that the "Cinema Capital in April" launches. With public paralysis at least stabilizing, it will be interesting to see how -- and to what degree -- the SARS problem will affect the 27th Hong Kong International Film Festival, slated to run today through April 23. Thus far, a sizable number of guests -- including mainland Chinese director Lu Xuechang (whose film "Cala, My Dog!" serves as the closing film) and Japanese director Yamada Yoji (his "Twilight Samurai" is one of the opening films) -- have cancelled their trip to the city because of the health scare. According to the HKIFF, about 40 percent of tickets have been pre-sold online or through the post and total sales for this year have exceeded last year's. Still, how many people with tickets will actually show up is another matter.
Which is unfortunate, for the HKIFF is truly a requisite fix for film junkies in the city. Truth be told, the festival has never been much of a platform for film premieres, but it does bring a lot of world-class, quality, foreign, and alternative (and some prized Hollywood) films to a city where they wouldn't otherwise have a theatrical release. Though what makes the yearly film festival such a gem is also the city's comparatively mainstream film viewing culture, which is made up of locally produced films and big and middling Hollywood noisemakers. In addition to U.S. product, mainstream Japanese, Korean, and mainland Chinese films also constitute the "foreign" contingent, something that makes Hong Kong a much better place than the States - for instance -- to see films from other parts of Asia.
It's not that there isn't a cinephile culture here, it's just that the population is not nearly big and profitable enough for distributors and theatres to bring over many of the smaller stuff. As such, many foreign "indie" films slip through the distribution crack, and those that manage to get picked up usually get shown at (the few) arthouses or are curated into special film series organized by museums or other non-commercial institutions -- but it could well be half a year to a year after they have been originally released. (Then again, some foreign films do get released in Hong Kong before -- and sometimes instead of -- the U.S.).
That is one of the appeals of the festival -- a bombardment of films you have read about, or heard of, packaged in one big bang. This year's line-up features almost 300 films from nearly 40 countries. The curatorial choices are mostly left of the mainstream, with a lot of "indie" big guns at the wing. Local neo action master Johnnie To -- who has been earning his bread and butter over the past few years in the industry with romantic comedies -- is going back to form with "PTU," a flick with action and a lot of cops, and one of the opening films of the festival. Unlike his previous films, "PTU" took two years to make -- a long time for a To film. When asked about it, the director said, "it was tough to figure out an ending."
Another Hong Kong film making its debut in the city is indie filmmaker Fruit Chan's first digital-video film "Public Toilet" -- a compilation of stories happening around the world chain-linked by the great white throne. "Public Toilet was more difficult to shoot because we had to travel to a lot of different places," Chan said. "We shot it on digital [because] it's portable and easier. Also, it saved a lot of money. The cost wouldn't have been possible if we didn't shoot it on digital."
Other random samplings include Taiwan's 2002 Golden Horse multiple winner "The Best of Times" directed by Chang Tso-chi, Abbas Kiarostami's "10," and Korean prolific documentarian-turned-fictional filmmaker Byun Young-joo's "Ardor." Then there are Kitano "Beat" Takeshi's comparatively soft-edged "Dolls," Chinese Sixth-Generationer Jia Zhangke's "Unknown Pleasures," Japanese cult horrorist Nakata Hideo's "Last Sense" (not a horror flick!), and director Alexander Sokurov's one-shot-wonder "Russian Ark."
The Avante-Garde program brings to the land works by such conceptual multi-media and film artists as Finland's Eija-Liisa Ahtilla and Canadian veteran experimentalist Michael Snow. As for the tributes, there's an Ozu Yasujiro retrospective containing 36 (out of a total 54) works made the Japanese master, and directors like Italy's Marco Bellocchio, and Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (most recognized for directing 1999's "Rosetta") also boast their respective spotlights. The festival's only world premiere is "Attitude" by Rob Nilsson, subject of festival retrospective.
Hong Kong's own Jeff Lau also gets his directorial oeuvre dusted and re-introduced. Lau's last film "Chinese Odyssey 2002" (produced by Wong Kar-wai and starring such Wong regulars as Faye Wong, Tony Leung, and Taiwan's Chang Chen) was actually up for the best film prize at this year's Hong Kong Film Awards, and will be playing at the festival as part of the "Hong Kong Panorama 2002-2003" program that features eight other local films -- a kind of "best-of" round-up for the year.
According to Jacob Wong, one of the programmers of the HKIFF, the fest had two motivations for including the Panorama section: For foreign visitors who didn't have the chance to see them, and interestingly, for local audiences who have passed them up the first-time around. "There are some [local] people that do not go to see local films. But some of them would go to see them if they are part of the festival," Wong said with a bit of a reflective chuckle.
What Wong is talking about is not just an idiosyncratic audience trend, but part of a bigger problem that has been plaguing the industry for the last few years. Box office for local films has seen a steady decline, and so has the number of local films being made. It's difficult for mainstream filmmakers to get funding, but even harder for local indie filmmakers during a recession and an unchanging commercial climate. Fruit Chan, whose "Public Toilet" premieres locally in the Panorama section, said, "Hong Kong is too small. The market couldn't and doesn't accommodate for this small group of indie filmmakers like us. Take me for example, I've been doing it for five years and I still feel that it is very difficult. [The fact that I have managed to do it for five years] is already a kind of miracle given the hyper-commercial nature of Hong Kong. There will always be a struggle in finding a bigger and different creative space in the city - be it finding a new audience to see your films or whatever."
Still, Hong Kong's defining character is its resilience. And because of that, there is always hope. "Hong Kong is a strange place," Chan continued. "In the past few years, there were a lot of good films and there were a lot of bad films. But whenever we feel that the HK film industry is hitting a wall, there's suddenly a film or two that will rejuvenate the whole industry and catch the audience's attention. I think Hong Kong is a weird place, but there's be a lot of creativity within this weird environment. And slowly, a lot of better stuff will come out."