Hong Kong themes give hometown heroes an on-screen presence at HKIFF
There's a strong local element to some of the categories but many interests - global, new and old - are catered to in the city's annual celebration of movies, writes Yvonne Teh
Even before the Hong Kong Arts Festival ends on March 24, some local culture vultures are already looking ahead to another of the city's annual bumper cultural events.
As with previous years, this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) will overlap a few days of the performing arts juggernaut. The 17-day festival, one of Asia's largest and oldest, will screen 306 feature and short films.
The opening film will be a gala presentation and world premiere of Herman Yau Lai-to's Ip Man: The Final Fight. The director's second film about the wing chun master (the first is 2010's The Legend is Born) looks at Ip Man's later years in Hong Kong, rooting the immigrant from Foshan's story into the city's history and culture.
The festival's ambassador, singer and actress Miriam Yeung Chin-wah, has Yau's film as one of her top 10 picks from the line-up. "How could I miss the [festival's] opening film? People will be amazed by the rich elements of Hong Kong culture and history in this latest biopic of the wing chun master," she says.
Yeung reveals a serious side in her picks, with the majority being documentaries. Holocaust film Shoah, she says, is an epic that "is known as and will remain the greatest documentary ever made". Of Gulabi Gang, Yeung says: "We should all be inspired by the courage and conviction of the Gulabi Gang, an organisation of activists in India who stand up for the rights of women against abuse."
At the HKIFF's opening press conference, The Final Fight lead actor Anthony Wong Chau-sang said he was careful to ensure his Ip Man spoke with a Foshan accent, and to show how his character grew to feel at home in Hong Kong after moving here in 1949.
HKIFF Society executive director Roger Garcia confirmed that the Hong Kong factor played a role in the film's selection as the festival opener. "Choosing Ip Man: The Final Fight, which is so rooted in the Hong Kong of the 1950s, pays homage to our city's rich history and helps show that Hong Kong cinema isn't dead."
The accent on Hong Kong cinema is highlighted by the fact that about a third of the films being screened are helmed by local directors. The festival features programmes dedicated to recent local films (Hong Kong Panorama 2012-13), Andrew Lau Wai-keung, Filmmaker in Focus (featuring films that Lau has lensed, helmed, or both), and a Hong Kong Film Archive tribute to film company Golden Harvest, founded by Raymond Chow Man-wai and Leonard Ho Kwong-cheong, that includes screenings of films starring action stars such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung Kam-bo and Angela Mao Ying.
International films are represented in programmes such as "Global Vision", "The Passions of Latina American Cinema", and "Swedish Sextet".
This year's line-up features films from 68 countries and regions, a number of which have already won awards and received critical acclaim abroad. As an example, the festival's closing film, Jafar Panahi and Kamboziya Partovi's Closed Curtain, is one of eight screening at the HKIFF that won prizes at this year's Berlin Film Festival.
The "Restored Classics" programme also features award winners, including David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (winner of seven Oscars in 1963) and Claude Lanzmann's two-part Shoah (whose 13 awards between 1985 and 1987 include two Baftas and a French Cesar, along with Berlin Film Festival prizes).
Among the plethora of premieres, prize-winning offerings and other high-profile works in the line-up, there are also films that could easily have been overlooked.
Asked to identify five films that he thinks should be on the radar, HKIFF Society artistic director Li Cheuk-to has picked some interesting choices that give an idea of how eclectic the festival's reach is. First are two films in the "Young Cinema Competition" that are receiving their Asian premieres. Li describes Li Luo's Emperor Visits the Hell as "without a doubt the greatest adaptation of the Chinese classical novel Journey to the West [aka M onkey], transported to modern China and backed by Henry Purcell's Cold Song [it is a] genius work of satire on contemporary China as well as [an examination of] the 'deep structure' of a nation's soul. Nothing changes, and it's one hell of a divine farce", the artistic director says.
He calls Nana Ekvtimishvilli and Simon Gross's In Bloom "a beautiful and painful film about youth and friendship in a milieu of violence. Also, an eloquent testimony to the revival of Georgian cinema".
Also receiving its Asian premiere is Ali Blue Eyes, an Italian offering in the multinational "Indie Power" slot. Li says the film, starring Nader Sarhan and his family and friends in a narrative strongly based on their own lives, is a "story of an Italian teenager of Egyptian heritage caught between his conflicting identities - aided by subtle use of hand-held cameras and a perfect location feel - [and] reinvents Italian neo-realism into something fresh and vital".
From the "Global Vision" category Li selects Lenny Abrahamson's What Richard Did. It's a "remarkably subtle but compelling morality tale set among the well-off elites of contemporary Ireland, it can resonate with the affluent young generation everywhere today. With its excellent young cast, this suspense thriller is dramatically powerful and appealing," he says.
Finally, there's Philippe Beziat's Becoming Traviata. A documentary in the "Reality Bites" group that is "much more than a backstage look at the contemporary staging of a classic, it is a treat for fans of opera and the performing arts as it captures how stage director Jean-Francois Sivadier and celebrated soprano Natalie Dessay strain for a perfect marriage of theatre and music", Li says.
And it's so perfect audiences might forego live artistic performances in favour of this cinematic chronicle of a 2011 French operatic production when it screens at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival.
The 37th Hong Kong International Film Festival runs from Mar 17 to Apr 2. For details, go to hkiff.org.hk
Ip Man: The Final Fight (Mar 17, 9.45pm, HK Convention and Exhibition Centre; Mar 17, 9.50pm, The Grand Cinema).
More Than Honey (Mar 18, 5.30pm, Mar 24, 8pm, The Grand Cinema). "Albert Einstein allegedly once said that if bees were to disappear, mankind would only have four years left to live. See this documentary if you think it's a joke."
An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker (Mar 19, 5.30pm, Mar 22, 7.30pm, UA iSquare). "This authentic story of a Roma family's plight and dignity bagged three awards at [this year's] Berlin Film Festival."
Beautiful 2013 (Mar 20, 7.15pm, Mar 21, 5.30pm, The Grand Cinema; Mar 24, 10.30am, HK Science Museum). "The micro-movie is in vogue."
World Animation for All (Mar 23, 7.30pm, Mar 25, 6pm, HK Science Museum). "What's a better family pastime than going to the movies and having some laughs with animation from all over the world?"
Shoah (Part 1: Mar 23, 7.45pm; part 2: Mar 24, 12.30pm, The Grand Cinema). "Director Claude Lanzmann achieves the unmatched feat of interviewing survivors, witnesses and even perpetrators of the Holocaust and presents a humanistic picture of the trauma."
Love, Marilyn (Mar 26, 5.30pm, UA Cityplaza; Apr 1, 3.30pm, HK Science Museum). "Get to know the intimately personal side of Marilyn Monroe with this film, in which respected Hollywood actors read her personal papers, diaries and letters."
Gulabi Gang (Mar 29, 12.30pm, Mar 31, 7.30pm, The Grand Cinema).
The Way We Dance (Mar 31, 7.30pm, HK Cultural Centre). "A moving and passionate tale about youth and dreams."
Rouge (Apr 1, 3.30pm, HK Cultural Centre). "It is time to see megastars Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui on the big screen again - they were a one-of-a-kind pairing."