Coming out now
As publicity catchphrases go, the one for this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival thrives in its ambiguity - or so it seems, at least, as executive director Shaw Soo Wei reveals the slogan this time round will be 'Come Out'.
'We hope people will come out and play a big part in the festival, to dare to discover the unexpected this year, and to come out of their homes and enjoy an unforgettable time with their friends and family,' she says.
When it is suggested the phrase can be interpreted beyond its literal meaning - it can also refer to the self-disclosure of a person's sexual orientation - Shaw laughs. The programme encourages the public to 'come out in many different ways', as the festival boasts of 'films that celebrate many different interests and lifestyles'. It is for audiences 'to come out and discover themselves', she says.
Notwithstanding any self-reflective rites of passage next month, Shaw and her team have certainly done some soul-searching while putting together the 34th edition of Hong Kong's flagship film extravaganza. Gone, for example, is the desire to play host to one of the lengthiest festivals in the world: starting on March 21, screenings will be spread across 16 days, a drastic cut from the 23-day runs of the past three years.
While the move was partly down to economics, the longer events were also draining 'marathons' for the organisers, says the festival's artistic director Li Cheuk-to.
Shaw says the more condensed festival will also bring a sharper focus to the proceedings. 'One of the reasons is to give greater impact and recognition to the films and filmmakers selected at the festival,' she says.
'The objective is to bring films and talent to an audience - not just simply local audiences, but also jury members, film critics and the [global] media.'
Given the festival's claims of a soaring number of film industry dignitaries and media personnel who will attend - Shaw reports a 77 per cent rise in press accreditations on last year's proceedings - it is logical that the organisers shape the event as a celebration of Hong Kong's own filmmakers.
And there are rich pickings: the festival boasts eight world premieres of local productions - including the opening film, Ivy Ho's Wan Chai-set romantic comedy Crossing Hennessy; Heiward Mak Hei-yan's first commercial foray Ex, which concludes the festival, and Kenneth Bi's compensated-dating drama Girl$.
The festival also plays host to the first Hong Kong screenings of Canberra-based Clara Law Cheuk-yiu's Like a Dream (which made its debut at the Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan) and Scud's Amphetamine (which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this month).
The festival will do what it can to promote local cinema, says Li. 'It provides a platform for enhanced exposure to foreign buyers and critics - and it helps to raise the standards of Hong Kong's output,' he says.
Shaw sees the festival helping to put the city under the global spotlight as well. Four filmmakers - Mak, Law, Herman Yau Lai-to and Fruit Chan Kuo - were recruited to deliver a series of short films called Quattro Hong Kong, an exercise which goes with the festival's inaugural international short film competition, and co-produced by the government's Brand Hong Kong initiative.
'The local audience is very important but it does go beyond that,' says Shaw, who worked as a marketing and branding consultant for Disney-ABC before she took over the festival in 2008. '[Officials] are well aware of how a film festival's image globally can bring brand equity to Hong Kong as a city in itself ... festivals around the world have proven to be able to deliver a significant economic impact to the city, driving tourism and employment, and to give a city a very sexy and glamorous brand.
'We are fortunate to have many government agencies working together for a singular goal - but we can always do more. And faster.'
Before the festival can reach such giddy heights, however, the main task for the organisers remains how to deliver a unique event which can fend off the challenges of its regional counterparts. The Pusan International Film Festival, for example, has stolen quite a bit of the Hong Kong festival's thunder by shaping itself as the champion of cutting-edge Asian cinema since its establishment in 1996.
The festival's response is in its long-running special sections dedicated to mainland (Chinese Renaissance) and Taiwanese films (Young Taiwanese Cinema), as well as the two competitions for Asian digital films and humanitarian documentaries. The selection in the latter includes films about the Rape of Nanking (Torn Memories of Nanjing, which Matsuoka Tamaki made based on her book of testimonies from veteran Japanese soldiers), the Khmer Rouge trials (Enemies of the People) and the repression of rural complainants trying to voice their grievances in Beijing (Zhao Liang's Petition).
Li says it is 'meaningless' for the festival to try to compete with Cannes and Berlin - something the Pusan and Tokyo festivals have tried in recent years. 'We are very modest - it's about unearthing good local and Chinese-language movies and promoting them,' he says.
'The red-carpet events are for the sake of the sponsors - but we take a two-pronged approach in running the festival ... for each dollar we spend on these functions we get twice or three times the amount back from our sponsors. At the end of the day, it's because the government doesn't provide us with enough funding.
'But we are also worried that the younger generation won't go to the screenings any more,' Li adds. 'So there's a need to build a festive atmosphere and hope that we can make converts out of people who might initially buy tickets for the films just to be part of the crowd.'
Postal booking for the Hong Kong International Film Festival begins on Sunday; programme information at www.hkiff.org.hk