Young filmmakers are breathing life back into the local industry
A new generation of young filmmakers are breathing life back into the local industry, writes Rachel Mok
If the number of local productions screened at this year's Hong Kong Asian Film Festival is anything to go by, the city's movie industry just might be undergoing a mini renaissance, heralded by a new generation of young filmmakers.
Festival organiser Gary Mak Sing-hei says that in recent years there have been few local films to choose from. But for the festival's 10th edition, he managed to find 10 - and he says it's not just the quantity that has been impressive.
"They are all so technically sound, and have such a Hong Kong feel to them that we want to show them to the audience," he says. "A lot of these films show the directors have a strong awareness about what is happening around them, and what's happening in society."
Veteran filmmaker Benny Chan Muk-sing's crime thriller The White Storm aside, all of these local films are by relatively new directors, many of whom are appearing at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival for the first time. Leading the pack are Juno Mak Chun-lung, the director of cult horror film Rigor Mortis, and Flora Lau, who made art house film Bends, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival and Cannes respectively.
There is also Philip Yung Tsz-kwong's social realist drama May We Chat, Lawrence Kan Kwan-chun's coming-of-age teen flick When C Goes to G7, and Ferris Lin Zeqiu's documentary Boundless, for which the filmmaker trailed director Johnnie To Kei-fung for more than two years.
Yung says that while well-established directors have been busy making blockbusters, there has been a dearth of medium- and small-scale productions in recent years.
"There is a demand for this kind of production - ones that tell smaller and more local stories, like films in the 1980s and 1990s," says the 34-year-old filmmaker whose film Glamorous Youth garnered him a nomination for best new director at the 2010 Hong Kong Film Awards.
Some of these smaller budget movies are for the commercial market, such as Yung's May We Chat. Shot in just over a fortnight, the social drama is a 21st-century version of the 1982 classic Lonely Fifteen, which tells the story of a group of runaway girls who turns to prostitution to earn a living.
"It is a realist film, yet it uses the style of an idol drama and is packaged commercially," explains Yung. "It is the first time I shot something so mainstream. But for a new director, it is a good way to get recognition and gain more influence over my future productions."
Similarly, When C Goes to G7 is a drama about adolescents and growing up. It isn't exactly what the 26-year-old Kan imagined his first feature-length work would be like. After winning a short film contest organised by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups in 2011, the organisation agreed to fund a full-length feature, as long as the work was a coming-of-age drama.
The Vancouver Film School graduate, who cites directors such as Christopher Nolan and Wong Kar-wai as role models, says his latest offering has commercial appeal despite being independently produced.
"The way we make it is independent, and the federation isn't a film company. But the packaging looks commercial, with a young popular cast and a theme appealing to younger audiences," he says.
Since he returned to Hong Kong from Canada in 2009, Kan's Marc.two studio has made music videos for Canto-pop artists and produced some commercials.
But filmmaking remains his greatest passion. "There is still a lot of space for trying different genres in Hong Kong. Not every story necessarily has to happen in a police station and we don't need five versions of Ip Man," he says. "Sometimes we go to see a blockbuster, sometimes we see an independent production. And there is plenty of room of creativity in between."
Another trait shared by this new generation of filmmakers is their willingness to work with - and learn from - experienced crew members. Yung has been active in the industry, working in multiple roles like producer and critic. But he thinks that there is no real substitute for hands-on crewing experience.
"I have worked in the industry for so many years that I know how the system works and how to communicate with staff from different departments. When young directors want to make their films in their own way, it may create conflicts with the existing system," he says.
Kan has experienced this first hand. Initially, he drew mainly from his Marc.two studio employees when forming a crew for When C Goes to G7.
"It is like 90 per cent of the crew was twenty-somethings … [but] by the end of the production, we were joined by some more experienced crew [and] there were some tensions. But overall, it made for a good learning process."
Lin Zeqiu, who recently obtained his master's degree in film production from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, is amazed by the efficiency of experienced local film crew.
A big fan of Johnnie To and his production unit Milkyway Image, the 28-year-old Lin came to Hong Kong to pursue his filmmaking passion after studying and working in television production in Beijing.
In a city where time is money, Lin finds it difficult to perfect his work. "I worked in Taiwan for a year, and when people heard I had been working on a documentary for years, they would offer to help me. They respected my effort," he says. "But my friends in Hong Kong either think I am rich or crazy. The culture here is just so different."
With the help of his mentor Shu Kei, dean of the academy's School of Film and Television, Lin managed to get esteemed director To to agree to be the subject of his graduation thesis Boundless, a 95-minute documentary.
Lin spent two years following the director, and another year interviewing people who have worked with him. The way local filmmakers are able to get professional shots on a tight budget, he says, was a major reason for Hong Kong cinema's success in the '80s and '90s.
"I am really amazed by the precision and efficiency of his film crew. There only needs to be one tiny mistake and a whole gunfight or explosion scene will be ruined," says Lin of the Milkyway Image staff.
"New directors may be more innovative, but there is so much to learn to be able to manage everything on set."
The more experienced Yung is glad that new directors are growing. But as the cost of making a film is lower in the digital age, he adds, the real challenge for young directors is to carve out a distinct niche in the market.
Should new filmmakers make movies that can make a decent return at the box office, so that investors will have confidence in them, or should they make a bold statement and demonstrate their own style instead?
"It is a tough thing to market yourself. Being a director is not as glorious as it used to be," Yung says. "When you make a film, you have to bear in mind that filmmaking is your career. It is not a one-off thing. Otherwise it won't work out."