JIMMY CHOI is having difficulty hanging on to his cool in the face of the territory's growing censorship fears. But the director of the Hong Kong Arts Centre's Film and Video Unit is insistent: the centre is not afraid of 1997. The individual, however, who has always been grateful for the freedom he's had to run his department, concedes that pressure from China is now making him worry for the centre's future after 1997. Choi reveals that stashed in his desk drawer is a pile of yellowing emigration forms - unused because of his devotion to Hong Kong despite 15 years of pleas from his Australian-based family - and that he's at last starting to think about signing on the dotted line. In February, Choi, 47, was scheduled to screen Chinese Revolutionary Films but was forced to change the series' title to Ideology Films. All Chinese films must be approved by the Beijing-based Chinese Film Bureau censorship authorities before getting the go-ahead to be shown in Hong Kong, and the local distributor feared the Chinese Government might object to the title. At the eleventh hour, Choi was forced to cancel the entire programme and refund tickets after the distributor announced his request had been turned down. 'They didn't give any reason why the films couldn't be shown,' says Choi. 'I can only guess the Cultural Revolution is still too sensitive after 25 years, even though it has been discussed and many books have been written about it.' Choi tried to argue the programme's cancellation would create more bad press than showing it but his pleas were in vain. 'I told them to look at my box office which wasn't doing well. No one would notice if we showed the films but everyone would if we cancelled it. People are really sensitive at the moment. They're talking about censorship, about freedom of speech, about autonomy. 'It's all very well stopping us showing a mainstream Chinese film - that's their choice - but during the International Film Festival, the organisers wanted to show films made by independent Chinese film makers and the Chinese Government threatened to withdraw the mainstream films if the organisers went ahead and showed the independents. So they left them no option. They can control films that don't even belong to them.' Still, Choi doesn't accept China can control his programming. 'There are all kinds of control. Compared with other restrictions we have, China is not our main problem. We're in a very weak position because we don't have any money. We depend on sponsors, we depend on the goodwill of local distributors. At the end of the day, if I cannot show a Chinese film, I have plenty of other films I can show.' If Choi seems bizarrely laid back about such an unsettling incident, perhaps it's because this is a man who's devoted a considerable amount more time and effort than you or I to learning what it takes to stay objective. In New York in 1979, studying film and TV production, he haunted the streets, looking for 'external stimulation', visiting places of worship of many religions, attending garage theatre productions, anything that might make him see the world in a different light. 'Before I went to New York, I believed there was right and wrong. Now I wouldn't go as far as to say that there's no right and wrong, but there is grey area. A lot of room to manoeuvre.' Maybe in New York, he also learned another valuable lesson for post-1997 about the possible value of letting go of security. Back in Hong Kong, working as assistant director and assistant production manager with the luminary likes of Jackie Chan on The Protector, Tsui Hark on Shanghai Blues and Ringo Lam on Aces Go To Places, he gave up everything, took a dramatic drop in salary from $12,000 to $4,000 and went to work as a researcher at AsiaWeek in order to 'catch up' on the world about him. Two years later, he was at it again, leaving to work at ATV as a senior producer, where he quickly became disillusioned by what he saw as the station's lack of objectivity. 'Journalists are told they have to be objective, impartial. Maybe they know or maybe they forget that even when you pick a topic, you have already made a choice. You make a choice because the whole philosophy of the company made you make your choice sub-consciously. Lots of people think reporters are presenting the facts alone, but this is not true. That's dangerous because people trust the media, they trust it to be impartial.' If every step on the man's curious career path illustrates the intelligence and open-mindedness he's brought to his hunt for truth, they also direct attention to the love affair he's having with cinema. Get him on to the subject of his film favourites - anything from musicals to Westerns - and he'll chatter away happily: 'I like all kinds of films. I like Singing In The Rain, films by Satyajit Ray like The World of Apu, comedies like Angels of The East and films by Fei Moo, particularly Springtime In A Small Town. It was made in 1948 and I consider it the best Chinese movie so far.' Hollywood films sit low on his list of personal choices. 'They're enjoyable while you're watching but forgetable afterwards. Well, if you consider Stanley Kubrick as a Hollywood director, I like him. I also like westerns by John Ford and samurai films by Kurusawa; Seven Samurai, or Ozu; Tokyo Story. Oh, and Red Rose Black Rose, a very funny Chinese film which showed at Cannes in the 60s starring Chan Boh Joo and Josephine Siao Fong Fong. If you haven't seen it, go to KPS immediately and get it,' he urges, genuinely pleased at sharing his finds. If Choi could be compared to a celluloid character, it would inevitably be Cinema Paradiso's Toto. Growing up, every cent of his pocket money went on $4 cinema entrance fees. Barely out of school, he spent the next 10 years going back to a Kowloon kindergarten, venue of screenings for the private Phoenix Cine Club he set up with ten of his friends. At the time, it was the only place to see foreign films and, at its peak, it had over 400 members. Many of the famed New Wave directors, such as Ann Hui, Tsui Hark and Alex Cheung, hung out at the club, crouching on children's stools, watching films and exchanging ideas. Cut to 16 years later and the boyish idealism is unfaded. Choi, frustrated by his time at ATV, launched Video Power in 1989, an amateur group which allowed him to create his own documentaries. 'Our philosophy focuses on the process of making a documentary rather than the product itself. That's what a film-maker learns from, the process when you're doing an interview, interacting with people.' The group felt it pointless to simply make documentaries then show them and so they instigated discussions after each showing, taping the conversations and adding them to the documentary. 'We didn't want to fool people that we were doing something very objective; we would take sides and put forward our point of view.' He's still dedicated to listening. Last year, he launched Audience Cinema, asking the public to send in their own programme proposals. Clearly, results delighted him. 'We ran a programme called Architectural Space in Transformation which was proposed by an architect. I would never have dreamed of looking at films from this angle.' Being the sole person who dictates the films we get to see at the only Hong Kong venue which regularly screens alternative films, Choi is acutely aware of the danger of monopolising choice. He is a strong believer in audience participation and offers seminars and appreciation classes. But these days he's realistic about what the majority of Hong Kong filmgoers want to see. 'They don't really want to see art films. Just looking at the titles on the commercial circuit tells you that so-called art or quality films aren't popular. They like entertaining films, such as comedies or kung fu films. Films that release them from the pressures of Hong Kong life, not deep thinking films.' Which doesn't staunch his enthusiasm for his hobby-cum-job, not even in the face of a perpetual struggle for financial survival. Choi's budget at the unit doesn't allow him to buy films outright; they are rented from mainly British and American distributors at $3,500 to $4,000 per screening. He also works closely with the consulates, organising co-presentations, getting donations of the use of films. Most funding comes from renting out other floors of the Arts Centre and from box office takings. Very little comes from outright sponsorship. 'We are not a charity organisation and people are inclined to think that we can live without the arts. We don't have an infrastructure like the States, where you get tax deductions for donations.' By now, it would be disappointing if Choi told me he'd found his niche in life. This is Choi's second stint as head of the Arts Centre film unit - his first was from 1991 to 1993 - but he doesn't plan to stay too long. Anybody in charge of the centre's films, he believes, shouldn't do so for more than two or three years. So just how is Mr Film going to deal with his fears about the Chinese takeover in 1997. Typically. He's preparing a film programme for New York's Museum of Modern Art on how 1997 has been reflected in Hong Kong films and has plans to set up an infrastructure to promote independent film and video-making including independent film archives, a production centre and funding for grants. He has also been lobbying the Government to establish a cultural policy and wants to set up a foundation in the commercial circuit or persuade the Urban Council to do so. Choi being Choi, that's naturally not enough. He plans to start teaching media studies or journalism and is also studying for a Media Studies MA. 'There are so many things that are needed. I don't know if I'll be able to accomplish them all but I'm going to try.'