Edko buyers choose films with eye on Oscar

Edko's commitment to art-house fare sees the film distributor hitting the jackpot of 2014's Oscar hopefuls, writes Yvonne Teh

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 March, 2014, 6:41pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 5:57pm

Tomorrow morning Hong Kong time, we'll find out - along with the winners of the other Academy Awards categories - which movie has won the best foreign-language film Oscar.

But regardless of which movie wins - the nominees are The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium), The Great Beauty (Italy), The Hunt (Denmark), The Missing Picture (Cambodia) and Omar (Palestine) - the people at Edko Films will be celebrating.

If you watch more films, it will open up your mind. You will know the lives of many different people even though they may be fictional
Audrey Lee yuk-lan

The story of how the company, which operates the Broadway cinema circuit, became the local distributor for all five films began about two years ago. At the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Edko creative director Leung Yuet-ngor attended a screening of The Hunt - and she couldn't wait to tell sales and acquisitions general manager Audrey Lee Yuk-lan about the film, so powerful is the impact of Danish director Thomas Vinterberg's thought-provoking drama about a preschool teacher whose life is shattered by a lie.

Lee was at Cannes to seal deals, including pre-buys of films still at the script stage. "I usually don't have time to see movies … I'll be in a meeting, negotiating, dealing with the pricing," she says. But Leung told her the story "in every single detail", Lee says. "It was like I had watched the movie myself." So Lee acquired the movie "even though the asking price was quite high". And when she finally watched The Hunt, she was equally impressed. "People should watch more films … [they] will open up your mind," she says.

Lee and her team, like the other distributors such as Golden Scene, Panasia and Intercontinental, buy films at foreign markets. Edko's sources include the American Film Market in California, and those associated with the Cannes, Toronto and Berlin festivals.

The other four foreign-language nominees were also picked up at Cannes last year.

Sales and acquisition director Esther Yeung Wai-lan, who has been with Edko for two years, sources films for theatrical release and also for MOViE MOViE, the pay-TV channel Edko launched in 2012. She sees her brief as ensuring the films brought to Hong Kong are culturally diverse as well as of high quality.

Sometimes that's simple: the film may have already won acclaim or awards. Take Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen's romantic drama The Broken Circle Breakdown, about the toll a child's cancer exacts on a couple. "I knew it had been selected for film festivals in Europe and won awards," Yeung says.

The film may use an unusual medium to tell the story. The Missing Picture was the first Cambodian film Yeung saw - and for her it was a "must buy". Rithy Panh's memoir recounting the horrors that Pol Pot's regime unleashed upon Cambodians uses clay figurines instead of real people, but that doesn't detract from the human tragedy at the heart of the subject. "I was very touched by it. I cried after the screening. I guess a lot of people cried," Yeung says.

Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty, the Italian director's comedic portrait of decadence and luxury, reminded Yeung of Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita.

Her familiarity with the work of Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad prompted her to check out Omar. She emerged from the screening convinced that it's "a special film, a very hardcore political thriller about the relationship between three good friends and the sister of one of them. It's about betrayal, and trust in that complicated society."

But at the end of the day, whatever their critical acclaim and gut reaction, commercial considerations matter too. "Edko is a company, not a charitable organisation," says Lee. So the company expects art-house films to have box office returns of at least HK$800,000. Compared to the target for commercial films that's a relative pittance - but then, these films are shown on only one or two screens during their theatrical run.

In some cases they hit the foreign-language (non-English, non-Cantonese) jackpot by bringing in a sleeper hit (in art-house terms). Recent examples include 3 Idiots from India and Japan's The Great Passage.

Lee bought Rajkumar Hirani's comedy in 2011 and saw it strike a chord with viewers in Hong Kong, taking more than HK$20 million at the box office.

Yeung chose The Great Passage, Yuya Ishii's romance about a dictionary editor. Popular enough to get runs at AMC Cinemas after initial successes at Broadway Cinematheque and Palace IFC, it is Japan's entry in this year's Oscars.

The good news is that art-house audiences are growing: in 2006, Lee estimated Hong Kong had an art-house audience of about 3,000 viewers. Now, almost eight years later, that viewership is considerably larger, she says.

MOViE MOViE's director of programming, Joycelyn Choi Oi-yee, won't disclose subscriber numbers for the art-house channel, but "we now have more art-house films in theatres than before - and the reception to MOViE MOViE is quite good … People never expected such films to be entertaining. They expected art house to be boring," says Choi, who has been with Edko for about two years.

Eager art-house fans won't have to wait too long to see the Oscar nominees: The Hunt was released in Hong Kong in April last year, but it could get another screening. The Great Beauty is down for a March 20 theatrical release. The Broken Circle Breakdown is tentatively set for May, and The Missing Picture for July.

Only Omar has yet to get a date.

Lee credits Edko head Bill Kong Chi-keung for standing by his conviction that there was an audience who shared his love for movies such as this year's foreign-language Oscar nominees. And putting his money where his heart is, he established the Columbia Classics Cinema in Wan Chai in 1985, Broadway Cinematheque in Yau Ma Tei in 1996, and MOViE MOViE.

Although her cinematic diet had consisted almost solely of Chinese opera before she joined Edko more than 30 years ago, Lee has become a strong proponent of art-house fare. In watching films, "you will know the lives of many different people even though they may be fictional, then you will know how to handle your personal problems," she says.

"I always think that the best way to learn about life is through watching a movie."