A festival of documentaries is unflinching in its examination of social issues, writes Clarence Tsui
For an independent, low-budget film festival conceived and organised out of a small office in a Wan Chai tenement block, the Chinese Documentary Festival boasts an impressively varied programme.
The festival, the first in Hong Kong dedicated solely to Chinese-language documentaries, showcases six feature-length pieces and six shorts from mainland, Taiwanese and Singaporean filmmakers, exploring issues from the Cultural Revolution to the plight of indigenous communities in Taiwan. The jurors are veteran Hong Kong director Ann Hui On-wah, Taiwanese cultural critic Lung Ying-tai and one of Hong Kong's most experienced film critics and festival programmers, Law Kar.
It's an impressive lineup, given that the festival is in its first year. There have been several local cinema showcases featuring cutting-edge, independently made documentaries (the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Asian Film Festival have given prominence to documentaries, and these efforts have been augmented by smaller events such as the annual IndPanda short film festival), but none dedicated solely to the form.
The festival is the brainchild of Tammy Cheung Hung, a filmmaker who has won local and international plaudits for documentaries on the plight of Hong Kong's impoverished pensioners (Rice Distribution and Moving) and beleaguered high school students (Secondary School). And it all began at the most unglamorous of places: the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
'I was there several months ago and got to see a documentary from the mainland - a very well-done one, but something I'd hardly heard of,' Cheung says. 'I realised it hadn't been shown at any film festival. Film festivals in the west consider you for the shortlist based on your name ... The quality seems not to matter, so that's why standards really fluctuate in these festivals. What we want to achieve is to show something that's a bit different from the norm.'
Two feature-length documentaries on the bill - Hu Jie's Though I Am Gone and Homeless FC by Lynn Lee and James Leong - have already been shown at other local film festivals this year, which seems to undermine that claim, but to fault the event on this would be churlish.
Cheung and her colleagues at the not-for-profit film collective Visible Record have unearthed some gems. Although they're hardly polished masterpieces, the documentaries are passionate about their subject matter and more thought-provoking than much of the contrived fare that has swamped mainstream film festivals in recent years.
For example, there's Wang Hao's Paediatric Department, a piece that could rival Michael Moore's Sicko or The Death of Dr Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu's fictional dig against bureaucracy in Romanian hospitals) in its power to expose how the requirements of decent health care fall prey to the ruthless cynicism of the profit motive and the market.
Wang, a doctor-turned-documentary-maker, returned to his former workplace, a state hospital in Ningguo in Anhui province, and spent six months filming his former colleagues as they struggled amid plummeting budgets, a deteriorating work environment and stagnant salaries after a private hospital opened in the city, drawing their patients and staff away.
Among the Taiwanese offerings is Lien Chih-kai and Huang Yu-fang's 27-minute short Hla Huy.
The title, which means 'In the Mountains' in the aboriginal language of Atayal, is about the problems faced by Xiaolong, an Atayal orphaned as a child, who as a young man leaves his depressed rural community to look for a future that simply isn't there for Taiwan's marginalised indigenous communities. Having drifted into crime and spent time in prison, Xiaolong finds himself belonging nowhere as the city abandons him, his ethnicity and his tattoos putting off potential employers and his rural homestead already having been razed to make way for urban sprawl.
Other Taiwanese entries include Life with Happiness by Lin Wan-yu and Hsu Ya-ting, another damning critique of how the authorities ignore minority communities, in this case as they threaten to demolish a lepers' sanatorium to make way for an extension to Taipei's metro. The Chinese title of the 30-minute documentary refers to the name of the institution, Lo-sheng ('Happy Life'), which has become home to hundreds of sufferers rejected by the governments and by society.
Huang Mei-wen's Lake-Cleaning People, meanwhile, looks at a group of eco-volunteers in a rural township in Shinchu county, and Lu Teng-kuei's The Daybreak examines how those who lose their eyesight in the prime of their lives navigate through an unsighted milieu.
The three documentaries fall into the shorts category, leaving Someday - Lin Hao-shen's moving record of her mother's care for her own Alzheimer's-stricken mother - as the sole Taiwanese film in the feature-length section.
Cheung is an enthusiastic champion of Taiwanese documentaries, which tend to be overlooked by festival programmers abroad. 'Everyone has their eyes trained on the mainland,' says the filmmaker, who selected the 12 films for the final shortlist from a field of 94 entries. The festival called for submissions mainly through the internet or via connections with Visible Record's collaborators outside Hong Kong.
'In the west or in Japan, when they have documentaries from the mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong, they'll always watch the mainland ones first - there's not as much interest in the ones coming from the latter two places.
Film festivals are all about showing the exotic, and the mainland only opened its doors recently - and it has a wealth of issues waiting to be looked into, stuff which is more radical. Taiwanese shorts tend to be more about civil society, more subtle issues.'
Cheung says none of the 18 Hong Kong entries made it past the first round. 'They are uniformly bad,' she says, adding that the local documentaries she has seen are shallow. She says she's not surprised by the low standard of the Hong Kong entries, attributing it to the younger generation's lack of sensitivity to social change.
'A lot of young people approached me saying they wanted to make documentaries but couldn't find a topic - but there's so much happening around them. They can't see things even when they are happening in front of them.'
With Cheung trying to finalise details for a much bigger festival in April, it's up to Hong Kong's budding filmmakers to prove her wrong.
Chinese Documentary Festival runs from Jan 7 to 14 at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Programme details are at visiblerecord.com/en/festival/08/