Richard James Havis
Hongkongers might be down on local films, but they still have a lot to offer foreign viewers. So says Grady Hendrix, one of the quartet behind the popular New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF). This year's festival featured a 10-film selection titled 'Hong Kong Never Dies', sponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in New York.
'I've always been able to find at least two or three good movies from Hong Kong, even in the bad times,' says Hendrix. 'I hate to sound like a cheerleader, but Hong Kong has been making very good films again for the past few years. The independent scene is growing, and that's a positive sign. Films like Magazine Gap Road make good use of their low budgets. There have also been some very individual works by filmmakers like Johnnie To.'
Hong Kong Never Dies featured a range of films to demonstrate the SAR's movie diversity. Big-budget movies were represented by An Empress And The Warriors and Ip Man. At the other end of the scale, Magazine Gap Road and Mak Hei-yan's teen shocker High Noon also screened. Mak was a guest at the event and impressed New York critics with her savvy personality and hard-hitting opinions about youth problems.
In spite of the film's gritty portrayal of wayward teens, the Trade Office threw an after-film party in the young director's honour. Other guests included Wai Ka-fai, whose Written By had a world premiere at the event before going on general release in Hong Kong last Thursday. The director turned up to answer questions in front of a sell-out audience two nights running. The film's star, Lau Ching-wan, had to cancel his New York trip due to a work commitment, but gracefully sent a video Q&A that also featured an apology for his absence.
The Never Dies programme is the result of a Hong Kong Film Development Council movie outreach initiative, says Hendrix.
'The New York trade office came to us and said they'd like to sponsor a part of the programme. We said that would be great, but we couldn't just show the movies that they wanted to show. We're a festival, and we have to select films on their individual merits. We needed something wider-ranging than they were proposing for our audience. But it turned out that we liked some of their films, and the final programme meets them halfway.'
Hendrix also consults on Asian film for US distributors.
'The NYAFF staff stand at the back and watch how audiences react to the films,' he says. 'We've probably watched more Asian films with western audiences than anyone else on earth. Our audiences don't want to see miserablist cinema, they don't want to see stuff that's 'good for them', or is teaching them a lesson about a foreign country. They want to see a film that's fast and entertaining - something that makes them forget they are reading subtitles. There used to be an art house audience in the US, which would turn out for filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. But that audience has now gone. The Asian film audience today is younger than in the past and generally has a 50 per cent split between males and females. It's no longer just fan boys getting their jollies.'
The recent crisis in independent film distribution means that the NYAFF is now one of the only ways to see Asian films on a big screen in the US.
'Very few Asian films are going to get distributed in America in the foreseeable future,' says Hendrix. 'Our festival has actually benefited from this, as we are getting films more easily. Asian producers used to try and sell their films to big US distributors, and that often meant it was difficult for us to get permission to show them. But now they want their film seen at the festival, because they think that someone might watch it and buy it. We used to have to call them. Now they call us.'