Trip lightly into the season
While on scouting missions abroad, film festival programmers tend to gravitate towards the work of auteurs and cutting-edge upstarts. But Li Cheuk-to didn't conform to that norm when he went to Japan earlier this year to search for entries for this year's Summer International Film Festival (SIFF). He was, literally, looking for laughs.
'I asked people there specifically to show me their comedies,' says Li, who presides over the SIFF as artistic director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival. 'Japanese comedies have always been the most well-received films at the festival. Last year, for example, we had The Seaside Motel and Accidental Kidnapper, and those screenings were largely sold out.'
In an attempt to repeat last year's success, Li and his colleagues have prepared a feast this year. Now in its sixth edition, the SIFF has for the first time placed comedies at its core: of the 25 films to be shown, 10 fall into the section titled 'Summer of Laughs', including the two entries which bookend the event.
Kicking off the festival on August 9, You are the Apple of My Eye is a teen-romance comedy which marks the directorial debut of Taiwanese author Giddens Ko Ching-teng, while the 15-day showcase concludes on August 23 with Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen's latest attempt to channel his own neuroses on screen.
In between, the festival will present viewers with the latest gag-fests from South Korea (The Suicide Forecast, about an insurance salesman's efforts to dissuade his clients from killing themselves), Italy (Whatsoeverly, a social satire about a corrupt entrepreneur's desire to run for political office to protect his and his cronies' businesses) and France (the slapstick The Fairy from the actor-director triumvirate Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy, about a lowly concierge's growing affection for a wish-granting pixie among the grim docklands of Le Havre). And then there are the comedies from Japan: the tale of a young woman and her coterie of bizarre boyfriends in Cannonball Wedlock; Sankaku's bizarre love triangle involving a narcissistic man, his girlfriend and her teenage Lolita-like sister (played by a member of the pop group AKB48); and Ninja Kids!!!, Takashi Miike's screen adaptation of a long-running anime revolving around a group of hapless novice ninjas.
Tying in nicely with the theme, the tribute to Japanese actress Hideko Takamine - who died in December, aged 86 - features two films very different from the more celebrated and solemn roles she played in Mikio Naruse's films. With Carmen Comes Home (1951) and Carmen's Innocent Love (1952), the SIFF presents Takamine in a flashier, more cheerful guise. She plays a naive and vibrant stripper who, in the first film, endears herself to the initially disparaging folk in her home village, and then finds herself battling useless playboys and militaristic politicians as she struggles to survive in post-war Tokyo. Both directed by Keisuke Kinoshita, the films are brilliant satires of the social values dominating rural and urban Japan in the years immediately after the second world war.
Li says he regards comedies as one of the central components of the SIFF, as 'people want to relax and have some fun' in the summer. 'The impression of the festival being more reliant on comedies this year, I think, comes down to the fact that fewer films are being shown this year. There are fewer themed sections and so the comedies have become more noticeable,' he explains.
This year's SIFF is just half the size of previous editions, both in terms of duration and the number of films being shown: last year, 38 films were screened across nearly five weeks.
'It was in tune with what we've done to the festival proper,' says Li of the Hong Kong International Film Festival in the spring. 'For the past few years, the festival ran to 23 days, but this year we shortened it to 17. Our thinking was that there wasn't a need for festivals to resemble marathons.'
Something's got to give, however, and the emphasis on accessible comedies has meant a cutback on more serious and so-called art-house fare.
This year, the SIFF certainly looks lighter on entries coming from beyond East Asia. Apart from hosting Larysa Kondracki's political thriller The Whistleblower and Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris - which will be on general release on August 25 and September 8 respectively - the SIFF could count on just a handful of films to consolidate the international aspect in its brand. In addition to Whatsoeverly and The Fairy, there are Celine Sciamma's Tomboy, Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli's animation A Cat in Paris (shown during the HKIFF proper in March), and a four-film mini-retrospective of Claude Chabrol (Bitter Reunion, The Good Time Girls, The Unfaithful Wife and The Butcher).
This line-up pales considerably compared to that of last year, when the SIFF presented several French movies of more adult-oriented themes (the marital-breakdown drama of Leaving, the middle-age crisis comedy of Copacabana and Queen to Play), a string of films looking at global population flows (My Name is Khan, Pinoy Sunday, Eden is West and Backyard), two entries exploring Latin American class and social politics (The Milk of Sorrow and The Maid) and Connie Field's seven-parter Have You Heard from Johannesburg?, as well as the award-winning Yusuf Trilogy of Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu.
This year, auteurs are present only in the shape of new films by South Korean filmmakers Kim Ki-duk (Arirang) and Hong Sang-soo (The Day He Arrives).
Li says the SIFF is now programmed with the prime aim of attracting a younger generation of film-goers to the festival's fold. 'We've always retained a certain sense of crisis about losing a sizeable chunk of our core audience when they graduate [from university],' he says. 'That's why we need to cultivate a new and broader audience with the SIFF, hoping they will eventually stay with us and buy tickets to the screenings of the main film festival in the spring.'
He also attributes the shape of the programming to forces beyond his and his colleagues' control: some distributors are withholding their films from the SIFF so that they can be considered for major international film festivals in the autumn. This is why Hong Kong films are largely absent this year from the SIFF.
'Some directors may be hedging their bets on their work to be included at the Venice Film Festival, for example,' Li says, referring to the A-list event which will run from August 31 to September 10.
For the time being, local cinephiles will have to content themselves with a few laughs before the next round of themed film festivals - the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, the German and French showcases, the Hong Kong Independent Film Festival - come around in the autumn.
The Summer International Film Festival, August 9-23, at the Grand Cinema, UA Langham Place, the Arts Centre, the Science Museum and the Space Museum. Details at www.hkiff.org.hk