Sorry, it's no Cannes do

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 May, 2011, 12:00am


While the eyes of the cinematic world focus on the Cannes Film Festival, Hong Kong is just a bit part player.

This year, Japan has two films at the festival's main competition and one in its more alternative-driven parallel showcase, the Directors' Fortnight.

Meanwhile, South Korea has three films in the festival's Un Certain Regard section.

But Hong Kong? With the exception of Peter Chan Ho-sun and his Wu Xia - which premiered as an out-of-competition midnight screening on Friday - the city's filmmakers are not much in evidence.

In fact, they haven't been prominent in the last few years - not only at Cannes, but also at the other two A-list festivals, Berlin and Venice.

Those who did appear tended to be veterans such as Johnnie To Kei-fung or Tsui Hark. Young filmmakers are almost nowhere to be seen.

And this at a time when a new generation of Asian filmmakers - including Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Naomi Kawase, Park Chan-wook and Eric Khoo - have found springboards at the so-called Big Three film festivals.

Remember when Ann Hui On-wah took her second film, The Spooky Bunch, to the Berlin festival in 1982, or a then-unknown and sunglasses-free Wong Kar-wai premiered As Tears Go By in the Cannes' Critics' Week programme in 1989?

The chance of an emerging Hong Kong talent making a debut at a major festival now seems a very distant possibility.

The question is, does the lack of a presence at such events reflect a lack of diversity in the output from the new generation of Hong Kong filmmakers and in Hong Kong cinema in general?

'Hong Kong cinema has become more commercial than before,' said Frederic Boyer, artistic director of the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes.

'It's difficult to find new directors who make new kinds of thrillers like, say, Johnnie To. We need something which is not a product.'

The Fortnight has played host to several budding auteurs in its 43-year history.

Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Nagisa Oshima and Jim Jarmusch are just a few of the filmmakers who appeared in the programme before becoming heavyweights.

The Fortnight has also provided a platform for filmmakers from other Asian regions. Korean director Bong Joon-ho's career surged after the screening of his thriller The Host in Cannes in 2006.

Hong Kong has also been represented during the Fortnight. Ann Hui's third film, The Story of Woo Viet, premiered at the showcase in 1982 and Michael Mak Dong-kit's Everlasting Love did so in 1984.

The last time a filmmaker from the city appeared at the programme was 10 years ago - Carol Lai Miu-suet's Glass Tears, a low-budget but intensely engaging drama about a pensioner and his rebellious granddaughter.

But film festivals are hardly an accurate barometer of the health of a country or city's film industry.

Roger Garcia, executive director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, said the Big Three festivals were important for publicity, marketing and potential sales rather than as a showcase for artistic pedigree.

Award-winning entries at these festivals could even go against the general nature of their national output, Garcia said.

This is shown by the acclaimed work of Thailand's Apichatpong and the Philippines' Brillante Mendoza, whose cutting-edge films defy the melodrama-driven film industry in the two countries.

But while these films show how a country can produce films of various artistic stripes, this is not something that can be said of Hong Kong.

'I don't see anyone from the new generation of directors delivering films which boast a highly personal touch,' says Johnnie To, the Hong Kong director and producer who is serving on the festival competition jury alongside producer Nansun Shi.

'There are quite a few who have made a name for themselves but they couldn't make their own style shine,' To said. 'At the end of the day, Western [programmers] measure your work by looking at whether you have your own individual flair. People like Tsui Hark and Wong Kar-wai have their own cinematic universes.'

To managed to establish himself as a film festival darling by doing exactly that.

Having made a wide variety of movies in his 30-year career, To began making highly stylised films that set the aesthetics of film noir against Hong Kong's unique geographical and social milieu in the late 1990s.

Ever since his 2004 film Election - a dark and menacing vehicle about the machinations of the Hong Kong underworld- nearly every one of his films has been screened at Cannes, Venice and Berlin.

His most recent foray onto the festival circuit was with Vengeance, which competed for the Palme d'Or in 2009.

As a producer, To had a hand in young Hong Kong film-maker Soi Cheang Pou-soi's Accident, which featured in Venice Film Festival's major competition in 2009.

'I knew his style couldn't really get him into festivals. That's why we put together Accident for him,' says To, whose trademark use of light and shadow is all over Cheang's film.

To added: 'That's a very cinematic film. I was telling Soi that whatever story he is telling, he should never veer away from maintaining his own visual stamp on the film.'

Cheang's follow-up to Accident is also present at Cannes this year - not as a completed product for competition, but as a project awaiting international sales at the film market.

An adaptation of the much-remade classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, The Monkey King is a 3-D blockbuster made on a nine-digit budget with the added star power of Donnie Yen Ji-dan and Aaron Kwok Fu-shing.

A thoroughly commercial enterprise, the film shares few similarities with Accident.

This new twist in Cheang's career reveals the conundrum faced by Hong Kong filmmakers on the rise.

The industry's default setting is set firmly on widely accessible, commercially-driven films.

Because of this, directors are probably busier trying to keep themselves in the game than on developing their own body of work.

This is a luxury limited to established filmmakers like To, who makes romantic comedies - such as the recent romantic comedy Don't Go Breaking My Heart - alongside his more edgy fare.

'You can see how it's the same few Hong Kong directors who would go to international film festivals in recent years,' says Emperor Motion Pictures' chief executive Albert Lee, referring to the repeated appearances of Wong Kar-wai and Johnnie To at recent Cannes festivals.

'The profile of the rest of Hong Kong cinema today doesn't match that required by those festivals. Our directors are more concerned with commercial cinema, so our presence is light in those events.'

Despite being a CGI-heavy action thriller, the Emperor-produced Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, directed by Tsui Hark, surprised many last year by being selected as a competition entry at the Venice Film Festival.

It lost out in the contest for the Golden Lion prize to Sofia Coppola's Somewhere. Lee said it raised the film's international profile, but could also have hurt it commercially.

'Festivals have always been seen as art house events, so if you carry that festival-entry label with you, people overseas would easily brand the film as something alternative,' he said. 'It affects how the film is to be marketed. Would mainstream audiences, for example, deem the movie as too arty?'

The situation today differs markedly to the situation in the early 1980s, when the members of the so-called Hong Kong New Wave frequented Cannes and especially Berlin. The latter was particularly influential in introducing Hui, Tsui and Yim Ho to international audiences, said Garcia, of the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Hui's 1982 film Boat People, which revolves around the lives of characters living in Vietnam in the late 1970s, was originally slated for the official competition at Cannes. But a protest from the authorities in Hanoi about the film's depiction of labour camps led to the film being shown as only an out-of-competition entry.

Hui said: 'The film received a great response there and it was sold to a lot of territories. It was distributed in France, for a start.

'It was why I wanted the film to go to Cannes anyway. The film cost HK$3 million and we lost the Taiwanese market because we shot the film on the mainland. We hoped a presence at Cannes could help us recoup the budget.'

Her trips to festivals decreased as the film industry became more established and commercialised in the mid-1980s.

'It became even a struggle just to finish our films, and we didn't have the strength to handle discussions with festivals anymore,' she recalled.

'The practical value of going to these festivals dropped.'

Hui eventually returned to Cannes with The Song of Exile in 1990 and to Berlin with Summer Snow in 1994.

But Johnnie To said: 'If you don't go to the bigger film festivals, you don't get to reach a bigger audience.

'In Cannes, for example, you show your films to screenings attended by critics from all over the world.

'It helps to bring a thousand more of these people around to your films, and they will write about them when they get home.'

Roger Garcia said most filmmakers remain happy to see their films shown as festival screenings and such events do give a boost to profile of the film scene in general.

'It was good, for example, to see Alex Law's Echoes of a Rainbow win in Berlin a couple of years ago,' he said.

'It gave the film and Hong Kong cinema some recognition and reminded audiences that we don't only make action films.'