PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 April, 2012, 12:00am


It was Johnnie To Kei-fung's 57th birthday last Sunday, and Italy's Udine Far East Film Festival seemed a fitting place for him to celebrate it. With the help of the Brussels arm of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, the festival threw a joint bash for To - and Hong Kong cinema - at the Ambassador Palace Hotel.

It was, in a sense, a family affair: To was the first Hong Kong director to attend the festival, 15 years ago, at the event's 'number zero' test run. Since then, he's been back six times and even shot part of a film in Friuli, the surrounding region.

The Udine festival, which concluded its 14th edition yesterday, helped launch the director to international success. In return, To's involvement helped establish the event's name in Asia.

'Johnnie has been part of the festival from the start,' says Sabrina Baracetti, the festival president. 'He first came here 15 years ago with two films, All About Ah Long and The Longest Night. Ringo Lam Ling-tung came with him that year. When we counted, we discovered he had been back six times since then.'

Festival co-ordinator Thomas Bertacche, who presented To with the Golden Mulberry Career Achievement Award last week, says: 'Our festival started off with him. His films have always been perfect for us, as they are genre movies of a high stature. When we showed films such as Expect the Unexpected, they became big discoveries for our audience. They opened up a new style of filmmaking to them, and they came back to our festival to see more. Since then, Johnnie has moved to bigger festivals like Cannes. But I am not sure that their audiences appreciate him as much as we do here. Everyone loves him at Udine, and I think he can feel that.'

It wasn't only love that brought the director to Udine this year. He came with three young filmmakers from filmmaking initiative Fresh Wave, which he helped set up with the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Fresh Wave, which hosts its own short film festival, funds young filmmakers and pairs them with mentors such as director Mabel Cheung Yuen-ting.

'Hong Kong has given me a lot, and I wanted to give something back to it,' To explained in Udine. 'The industry today is different to what it was a decade ago. Things were good back then, but now it's suffering. It's difficult for young directors to find a way to start. So I helped set up Fresh Wave, which uses government funding to allow these young filmmakers to express themselves.'

To screened his Romancing in Thin Air at the Udine festival, but his focus this year was squarely on the new directors.

'He said these young people reminded him of how he was when he first came to Udine 15 years ago,' says Baracetti. 'We were very happy that they, and Johnnie, came.'