Wave of the future
Surveying the list of Hong Kong filmmakers appearing in the Paris Cinema International Film Festival's 'Hong Kong In Focus' programme - during which 80 films made in the past six decades will be shown - one is inevitably drawn to the veterans who have received international acclaim throughout the years.
There's Johnnie To Kei-fung, who was in the French capital on Friday to preside over the opening of the Hong Kong showcase (a collaboration between the French event and the Hong Kong International Film Festival), which included an all-night marathon screening of four of his films and a masterclass.
Also on the list are New Wave auteur Allen Fong Yuk-ping, martial arts master Yuen Woo-ping and actress Wai Ying-hung, who will also appear later this week at meet-the-audience sessions.
Beyond these household names, however, are some that Hong Kong and Parisian cinephiles or cinema-goers will probably not know - yet. But the presence of Vicky Wong Wai-kit, Wong Chun, Leung Chung-man and Mo Lai Yan-chi at the French festival is proof of a new upswing in Hong Kong cinema, with up-and-coming directors exporting their wares abroad as their predecessors did in the 1980s and '90s.
The young quartet are in Paris as prize winners of Fresh Wave, a short film competition founded in 2005 by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (ADC) to provide under-35 filmmakers with production subsidies, mentoring, and a platform to showcase their works. And at the Paris Cinema festival, the platform is even bigger - and more international.
'The programme is a great opportunity for budding directors to learn about the audience in Europe,' says To, who masterminded the establishment of Fresh Wave as chairman of the ADC's film and media arts group. 'They can also compare their works to those produced by their European counterparts, as a review of their [own] films.'
To knows very well the cachet international festivals can bring: his standing as an auteur is built on his appearance at the Cannes, Berlin and Venice festivals during the past decade with films such as Election, Vengeance, Mad Detective and Sparrow. He hopes his Fresh Wave proteges will benefit from Paris, when he shifts the limelight from himself to the up-and-coming filmmakers.
Vicky Wong, whose film Decisive Moment won Fresh Wave's best cinematography award in 2010, says the screening of his work in Paris will give him the opportunity to interact with his audience.
'After the show we'll stay for a Q&A session or just have a little chat with the film-goers to know what they think about my work,' says the 32-year-old, whose film revolves around a once-famous photographer struggling with a creative block after taking his last shot. In April, Wong's film was screened, alongside three other Hong Kong entries, at the Udine Film Festival as part of Fresh Wave's first overseas showcase. He was touched by the audience's response and found the experience encouraging.
Wong Chun, meanwhile, says he's worried about the French audience's reaction to his film, 6th March, which won the best script award at last year's Fresh Wave. 'My film is about democratisation and social problems in Hong Kong,' the 23-year-old says. 'Back then, I wrote it solely for the Hong Kong audience.'
Leung's film Gwangong vs Alien (2011's best creativity winner), Lai's 1+1 (overall Fresh Wave and best film awards 2010) and Wong Hin-yeung's Basket (overall Fresh Wave and best creativity awards 2009) will also be screened.
Vicky Wong and Wong Chun say Fresh Wave has helped them tremendously on the rocky journey to screens on foreign shores: for starters, the competition gives the participants HK$40,000 to finish their films.
'My first short film had a zero budget,' Vicky Wong says of his debut, Variable, an entry for the Hong Kong Independent Short Film and Video Awards in 2009. 'It was just me and my friends writing, directing and acting at the same time. Luckily, the film had a rather good reception so I participated in Fresh Wave and received funding for another film.'
To the novices, however, the guidance from their Fresh Wave 'mentors' is as important as the money - as Vicky Wong has discovered in his meetings with Chan Hing-kai, the director and screenwriter of Naked Ambition and La Comedie Humaine. 'His professional advice helped me a lot in improving my scripts,' he says.
Wong Chun adds: 'The great thing about Fresh Wave is that it doesn't limit your choice of topic. It gave me a lot of space to create without having to consider the preference of investors.'
Fresh Wave also frees the young directors from having to create according to the rules of the mainland, where many industry figures have flocked in order to secure a footing in a market with a much bigger audience base.
'We have seen sporadic success from Hong Kong directors on the mainland in the past few years, but that doesn't mean [Hong Kong] cinema is flourishing,' says To. 'In fact, it narrows the artists' creativity.'
There's reassurance in Hong Kong's continuing ability to intrigue and attract foreign audiences to its movies, and to the culture enshrined in them.
'In the 1980s, many gweilos came to see our movies, and would leave the cinema with a big smile on their face, saying, 'The Chinese can fly!'' says To of the decade that became the local film industry's most prosperous era, a time when Hong Kong movies influenced Hollywood. 'In the next couple of years, they started to fly, too,' the veteran director says.
Wong Chun adds: 'For example, [I know] a Malaysian who doesn't live in Hong Kong and didn't speak a lick of the language here but who liked our films so much that he learned to speak Cantonese through our films.'
While the outlook for Hong Kong cinema doesn't seem rosy, To says he is optimistic about the local scene and the new directors emerging from it.
'The future of Hong Kong cinema belongs to the young. The medium may change but the content-makers will always remain an important part of our culture. Look at Taiwan just a few years ago - its cinema was dead. Now it has become vigorous again. It was the new directors who brought it back to life,' he says.
'Personally, a revived Hong Kong cinema may not be full of productions I like but it's the responsibility of filmmakers of a period in time to represent their generation - whether they're good or not.'