Spirit of renewal
Contemporary cultural events always have a strong logo that articulates their raison d'?tre - and this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival is no exception.
Created by local illustrator Tom Lau Tak-ming, the striking logo features a flame-haired face surrounded by light and feathers, referencing the phoenix, the mythical bird which is reborn in fire. A promotional blurb says the image symbolises 'passion in dreaming up ideas and making films'.
So this year's festival - which runs from March 21 to April 5 - has rebirth at its heart but its executive director Roger Garcia is quick to point out that it's not starting from scratch. 'I hope people don't get the wrong idea [from the logo] - I don't think we've self-destructed yet,' he says with a laugh. 'To [Lau], this phoenix is about creation. It's more about renewal ... and every year we try to renew the audience's interest, faith and passion about cinema. That's what a film festival should do.'
One way to reinvigorate interest in Hong Kong and Asian cinema is by introducing new blood, Garcia says. 'We need young and emerging filmmakers to keep cinema going. It's important that we develop new audiences and discover new filmmakers if we are to keep Hong Kong relevant.
'And as a regional cinema hub, we need to keep looking for, showcasing, and highlighting trends in Asian cinema.'
To highlight this objective, the festival organisers have renamed its flagship contest, the Asian Digital Competition, as the Young Cinema Competition. Garcia says the change reflects his view of the Hong Kong festival's position in the increasingly crowded international circuit.
'One of our strengths ... is that we are still in the discovery business,' he says, referring to the festival's legacy of introducing mainland and Asian directors years before they find international success at European film festivals.
'I want people to think Hong Kong is still a place where they can make new discoveries. Of course it's difficult nowadays, as people know so much about what's going on, but still we rely on our programming team and their tastes and their [sense of] discovery.'
Two Chinese-language films will make their world premiere in this competition: Chen Zhuo's Song of Silence, set in a town in Hunan province, looks at the rebuilding of bonds between a troubled teenage girl, her estranged policeman father and the free-spirited singer who lives with him. And D.J. Chen's Young Dudes examines the tensions of 21st-century urban life in Taipei, revolving around the adventures of an odd threesome (played by Taiwanese actor Edison Wang Po-chieh, Chinese-Japanese star Tsuyoshi Abe and Ukrainian model-turned-actress Larisa Bakurova), and backed by a soundtrack featuring 1970s rock numbers from Mott the Hoople and The Doors.
Two films from Japan and South Korea are also in the running for the competition's Firebird Award, as is Filipino director Marlon Rivera's The Woman in the Septic Tank, a satire of his country's recent cinematic output. The most prominent entry, however, is Postcards from the Zoo - the second full-length feature from young Indonesian auteur Edwin - which recently appeared in the main competition at the Berlin festival.
Meanwhile, the Humanitarian Awards for Documentaries has been renamed, simply, the Documentary Competition. This year's entries broach issues that include caste-based conflicts in India (Jai Bhim Comrade), geopolitical realities in the Middle East (the Arab Spring as seen through Back to the Square; Israeli-Palestinian schisms wrought large in Soldier/Citizen), sulphur miners risking their lives working in a live volcano in Indonesia (Where Heaven Meets Hell), and mainland painter Liu Xiaodong's reflection on art (Hometown Boy).
Making up the trio of the festival's awards is the Short Film Firebird Award. Now in its third year, it has 20 entries from around the world, with efforts from experienced filmmakers and first-time directors alike. But unlike the festivals in Cannes, Venice or Rotterdam, Hong Kong's is not competition-driven. Neither is it premiere-driven, Garcia says. 'We'd rather programme a good movie that has been shown at many festivals than a film that's never shown anywhere else just for the sake of that,' he says. 'I don't make a fetish of having world premieres - everybody likes them, sure, but I don't make it a holy grail. Our festival is largely for the Hong Kong public, who pay for it, so we want to show them good movies.'
Some featured movies that have made a splash at foreign festivals include the latest films from the likes of Aki Kaurismaki (Le Havre), David Cronenberg (A Dangerous Method), Sarah Polley (Take This Waltz), and Takashi Miike (13 Assassins and the 3-D Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai).
There will also be the premieres of the latest works by local boy-done-good Pang Ho-cheung (Love in the Buff and Vulgaria).
More demanding cinephiles will find challenging fare from Bruno Dumont (Outside Satan), Bence Fliegauf (Just the Wind), Miguel Gomes (the black-and-white Tabu), as well restored prints of Fedor Ocep's The Living Corpse and Roberto Rossellini's The Machine that Kills Bad People.
The festival will present a showcase of recent Polish films (with Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness and Lech Majewski's The Mill and the Cross the centrepieces); last year's section on American independent cinema continues, comprising acclaimed but off-beat entries such as Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter and Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene. Delving further into the margins, there's a programme dedicated to Japanese experimental filmmaker Takashi Ito, plus a magisterial four-hour documentary on Austrian artist-theoretician-scholar Peter Kubelka.
Retrospectives on Japanese auteurs Yuzo Kawashima and Koreyoshi Kurahara, plus a selection of films by Georges Franju (including his early documentaries, and his features Head Against a Wall and Eyes Without a Face) run alongside showcases on Amoy-language cinema from the 1950s and a collection of Wong Fei-hung films from the past six decades.
'To me, the boundaries [between commercial and art films] are disappearing,' says Garcia. 'For a festival, audiences think in categories, which I try to overcome. I think cinema is about interesting movies, wherever they come from - and by interesting movies I mean films that expand the vocabulary of cinema and the horizons of the audience, which make viewers think of the world in a different way.
'In terms of a festival, we show films we think are popular ... this means films by a David Cronenberg or a Theo Angelopoulos, or Pulp Fiction or genre films - but at the same time we show Peter Kubelka's experimental films. My great hope is that audiences will watch a bit of everything, rather than just focus on things they know.'
Garcia recalls a radio programme about film he recently heard in Los Angeles. 'One guy was saying there's this film geek who goes to a lot of festivals and he doesn't choose films by titles but by time slots. If he's free at 12.30pm on Tuesday or 4pm on Thursday, he'll buy a ticket and see whatever it is,' he says.
'I think that's a great way to approach cinema, because it's the way that the surrealists did it in Paris in the 1920s, when Andre Breton went from cinema to cinema and sampled movies, whatever they were.'
Garcia is looking into educational and community outreach programmes to make the festival accessible to those who rarely venture to its venues in the Central-Wan Chai-Tsim Sha Tsui triangle. As a first step, three films - King Hu's Come Drink With Me, Hirokazu Kore-eda's I Wish and Francois Truffaut's Small Change - will be shown to students as part of City Hall's 50th anniversary celebrations, with free coaches to transport them from their schools to Central.
'We should at least be trying to show some festival films in places like Tin Shui Wai, Tuen Mun or Kwai Tsing,' Garcia says. 'I'm very keen to continue, preserve and promote the communal film-going experience. We cannot do that unless we put our money where our mouths are - and one way to do that is to bring films to theatres situated next to where young people study and live.'