At rainbow'S end
Nearly a year has passed, but Mabel Cheung Yuen-ting can still recall the day when she and her partner, Alex Law Kai-yui, returned to Hong Kong from the Berlin International Film Festival, on February 22, 2010. They were shepherded, with much fanfare, from airport immigration control to a meeting room packed with photographers and journalists - who gave them a heroes' welcome. There followed a protracted photo shoot alongside actors Simon Yam Tat-wah, Sandra Ng Kwan-yue, the eight-year-old Buzz Chung and, most importantly, the Crystal Bear trophy they won for their film, Echoes of the Rainbow.
Cheung says the hustle and bustle took her 'by surprise'. It contrasted sharply with the limited attention she and Law attracted when they first left for Germany a fortnight previously. 'It was a film which left even our publicists puzzled - it's quite a difficult film to market,' says Cheung, who produced the intimate, small-budget film which adapted director Law's childhood experiences in the 1960s into a rite-of-passage tale about a young boy (played by Chung) growing up in a shoemaker's family.
'There was no epic romance in there. I'd say it is more like prose in parts ... so the Crystal Bear did come in very handy indeed. It helped generate a lot of headlines for us.'
As this year's Berlin festival concludes today, Cheung - again in Germany, this time as part of an international jury at the Generation Kplus section which hosted Echoes last year - can look back on a year in which film festival success has reignited a career that has stalled somewhat for a decade.
She says her next project - an epic drama about a group of people who journey from the crisis-ridden mainland to the relatively peaceful Hong Kong during the 1940s and 50s - was green-lit by her investors partly because of Echoes' success.
Meanwhile, Echoes has performed much better than expected during its two-month run in local cinemas, generating HK$23.1 million - making it the third highest-grossing Hong Kong film shown in local cinemas in 2010 and eighth in the rundown for all movies released during the year, beating even Clash of the Titans and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.
Judging by Cheung's post-Berlin fortunes, it seems awards and appearances at international film festivals still carry cachet with punters and investors alike. Such prizes are also a lifeline for directors making films that veer away from the commercial mainstream. Cheung agrees - but only to an extent. She readily admits that Echoes' storyline hardly qualifies the film as solid box office gold. Having last delivered a film in 2001 (the docudrama Beijing Rocks), Cheung and Law have been almost lost to a generation of young film-goers, with their reputation mostly built on the legacy of films such as The Illegal Immigrant (1985), An Autumn's Tale (1987), The Soong Sisters (1997) and The City of Glass (1999).
The win in Berlin changed the gameplan completely. The eminence of the Crystal Bear notwithstanding - it's a prize presided over by a jury comprising 11 teenagers aged from 11 to 14 - Echoes became the film du jour, displacing the Lunar New Year festive films from the cover pages of entertainment sections in local newspapers. The government issued a press release congratulating Law and Cheung on the film's success in Germany. 'You can't buy the kind of blanket coverage we had then,' Cheung says, adding that good results at the Berlinale - still an A-list festival alongside Cannes and Venice - 'certainly helped get the public to know about the film'.
Cheung, however, is hesitant about attributing the film's success solely to its triumph in Germany. 'We took only HK$500,000 in the film's opening weekend [in March 2010] and that's not exactly a very high number. I think it's all about whether the film is strong enough in itself to sustain a word-of-mouth reputation ... there are many reasons which contributed to the film's success, such as how the film generated a sense of nostalgia among viewers,' she says, referring to its many re-enactments of daily life in the 1960s.
Among the telling period touches are scenes of children attending classes in rooftop schools and tightly knit families braving the gravest tribulations with the utmost resilience. 'Of course, the film would have quickly tanked during its first week on release if there wasn't so much coverage dedicated to it because of the Crystal Bear,' Cheung says.
It's not unusual these days for films to be marketed as an entry in some international film festival or other, as publicity posters usually come dotted with the little laurels which denote a movie's participation in festivals in, say, Cannes, Rotterdam or Singapore. Seemingly, it would add cachet to a film's standing, but such festival acclaim doesn't work every time, even for the most well-known of Hong Kong filmmakers.
While Cheung and Law struck gold with Echoes, Johnnie To Kei-fung - one of the most bankable directors in Hong Kong today - struggled with Vengeance, the highly stylistic thriller which competed for the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2009. The film could only muster receipts of just under HK$2 million when it was released here three months after its premiere on the Croisette. Its performance paled significantly in comparison with the commercial and critical acclaim that local critics and audiences gave to the Election diptych, To's previous entries at Cannes.
'A film-festival pedigree might help in how we promote a movie - but if we are talking about [non-English] foreign-language movies, that's another thing altogether,' says Veii Chan, marketing director of Edko Films, the entertainment conglomerate which has spent the past decade distributing award-winning fare in Hong Kong. 'At the end of the day, local audiences only want to see familiar faces. It's difficult to attain mass appeal for alternative films, whatever awards they have won around the world.'
Vengeance is a film caught exactly in that limbo. Although set in Hong Kong and featuring Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Gordon Lam Ka-tung and Lam Suet, the film revolves mostly around an assassin played by French actor-singer Johnny Hallyday - an unknown quantity to many film-goers in Hong Kong.
And if it doesn't work for films made by a local figure such as To, imagine the difficulties of getting that pedigree to work wonders for films from countries well beyond the Euro-American mainstream. Chan has overseen the publicity campaigns for films such as Laurent Cantet's The Class, which attained near-universal acclaim on the strength of its Palme d'Or win at Cannes in 2008. In Hong Kong, it has been a tough sell. 'The popularity of these foreign-language films depends on whether Hong Kong's alternative-film audience are interested in the topic being broached in the story,' Chan says.
'The Class looks at the educational system - but that of France, which contains a lot of cultural differences from its counterpart in Hong Kong. It might be difficult to empathise with that.'
On the surface, the increased coverage of international film festivals in the local press and easy access to such information on the internet should have heightened the local audience's interest in films from beyond the mainstream. However, most such media reports are driven by an interest in which movie stars are in attendance at the festival in question.
'And more and more commercial films get selected into these film festivals anyway,' says Chan. 'It's all about getting maximum exposure for major film stars, and these are the people who get mentioned in the press because readers know about them.'
Indeed, some of the award-winning films which graced Cannes, Venice or Berlin were not even acquired for commercial distribution here. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the Thai film which scooped the Palme d'Or last May, was only screened in Hong Kong as part of last year's Asian Film Festival. Ken Loach's 2006 Irish civil war film The Wind that Shakes the Barley was also passed over by local distributors despite taking the top prize at Cannes.
Out of the winners of the Berlinale's Golden Bear during the past decade, only two films eventually secured a commercial release in Hong Kong cinemas: Hayao Miyazaki's anime Spirited Away from 2002, and Jose Padilha's Elite Squad from 2008.
It remains to be seen what fate lies ahead for the new Golden Bear winner to be announced later today.