On paper, Gallants hardly looks like a film that would appeal to the hip and haughty who make up the cinema-going demographic today. Derek Kwok Chi-kin's film doesn't boast A-list actors; instead, the action comedy about the rebirth of a festering martial arts academy pivots on the antics of four largely forgotten, middle-aged kungfu fighters played by, well, four largely forgotten middle-aged actors. But then came its world premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival late last month and everything has changed. The audience were in rapture, at once engrossed by Kwok's deft mix of irreverent humour and gripping fights while heartened by engaging performances from Leung Siu-lung, Chen Kuan-tai, Chan Wai-man and Teddy Robin. 'I don't cast old-timers to pay tribute to them or the past,' Kwok said in a post-screening discussion. 'It's because I believe they could still fight a good fight!' The same could be said, then, of Gallants, which has become one of the highlights of this year's festival. And in more ways than one: Kwok's latest piece has become a clarion call for a resurgence of Hong Kong cinema, as proven by the ecstatic response shown towards the many local productions at the festival, ranging from commercial romantic comedies such as Ivy Ho's Crossing Hennessy and Pang Ho-cheung's Love in a Puff to independent productions such as Little Did She Know, a 43-minute compensated dating drama from Risky Liu Kim-ching, and Kwok Zune's Homecoming, a heartrending half-hour short about the life of a Filipina domestic helper in Hong Kong. Even though the festival has finished, many films that generated a buzz will get a broader release in the coming months. Film-goers who missed Gallants the first time around will get another chance in June, along with other festival favourites such as Roman Polanski's political intrigue thriller, The Ghost Writer (out April 22). The festival served as a shop window for many international films, including Oscar-nominated fare such as The Messengers and The Secret in their Eyes, both of which were warmly received by festival audiences; the Taiwanese mob flick Monga, with heartthrob Ethan Ruan cast against type as a potty-mouthed, violent thug; and The Ghost Writer, which admittedly is high on thrills but disappointing in its portrayal of the complexities of international geopolitics today. 'I was quite pleased to see how quick the tickets went for the screenings,' says Gilky Wan, senior distribution and marketing manager for Deltamac, who handles the Hong Kong release of The Ghost Writer. 'It was good to see audiences responding to the film - some of their reactions surprised me, too,' she adds, referring to the way viewers laughed at very different moments compared to the audiences at the Berlin Film Festival, where the film premiered and won a best director award in February. And then there are new films by other masters. Making its Asian premiere here, 74-year-old Japanese filmmaker Koji Wakamatsu's Caterpillar is a powerful anti-war treatise - an achievement in itself given its austerity. The film mostly revolves around the interaction between a woman and her limbless husband, a soldier recently discharged from the army after his ill-fated spell as part of the Japanese army ravaging China during the second world war. Shinobu Terajima thoroughly deserves the best actress award she received at this year's Berlin Film Festival for her turn as Shigeko, who bears the brunt of Japanese patriarchy and militarism when she is forced by her family and neighbours to 'do her patriotic duty' by attending to the physical and sexual needs of her maimed spouse, who in turn is haunted by the terrible misdeeds he committed while serving in the Imperial Army. Interweaving the fiction with real footage of the war - including images of bloody battles, Japanese atrocities in China and the aftermath of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 - Wakamatsu delivers another intense and passionate critique of the hawkish nationalism lingering in certain strata of Japanese society. It's no surprise that Wakamatsu received a hero's welcome when he appeared at a meet-the-audience session on April 2. Another lauded Japanese filmmaker at this year's festival is Tamaki Matsuoka, the 63-year-old schoolteacher who has spent the past two decades gathering first-hand witness accounts of the Nanking Massacre. Her first feature-length documentary, Torn Memories of Nanjing, follows in the footsteps of a book she published in 2002 and a 2005 DVD series titled Confessions of Japanese Veterans - Nanjing Massacre. While the film has its flaws - Matsuoka could have given more context to the stream of talking-head interviews of both the massacre's perpetrators and surviving victims - it is a riveting reminder of one of the most disturbing episodes in modern Chinese (and Japanese) history. Torn Memories is one of a few documentaries that offer a commentary on events unfolding in the world today. Xu Xin's Karamay and Zhao Liang's Petition - the former about a 1994 fire at a Xinjiang theatre in which 288 schoolchildren died because party cadres and businessmen were allowed to escape first, and the latter showing the struggles of ordinary citizens trying to have their grievances heard in Beijing - comprises depressing parallels with the way Zhao Lianhai, the parent of a boy who consumed melamine-tainted milk powder, was arrested for 'provoking social disorder' with his campaigns to seek compensation for the 300,000 children who fell ill or died from imbibing the toxic substance. Then there's Andrei Nekrasov's Russian Lessons: a reflection on the way Russian authorities flex their political and military muscles through confrontation with enemies both inside the country (their heavy-handed clampdown on Chechen separatists) and outside (the short but bloody war between Russian and Georgia in 2008), it provides a useful context in the light of the recent terrorist attacks in Moscow. Equally gripping is Enemies of the People, a documentary in which Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath and British documentary producer Rob Lemkin visit former Khmer Rouge members and hear their confessions of participation in the so-called killing fields. Before meeting Lemkin, Thet Sambath - whose parents perished during those years of terror - had already spent a long time conversing with his subjects; among those he befriended is Nuon Chea, Pol Pot's trusted lieutenant and the so-called 'Brother Number Two' in the Khmer Rouge. While the low-ranked fighters are apologetic about their past, Nuon Chea appears unrepentant, as he insists those killed were all dissidents trying to undermine Khmer Rouge's 'clean' and 'clear-sighted' regime. Beyond these reels of reality, the festival also delivers many gems which, sadly, will never find their way to general release here. For every Fish Tank - Andrea Arnold's award-winning drama about a troubled working-class teenager in Essex, England, released later in the year - there's one Dogtooth, Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos' tale about tyrannical parents whose three grown-up children have never stepped foot outside their fortress-like house. Jean-Pierre Jeunet (of Delicatessen and Amelie fame) came to Hong Kong to present his latest film Micmacs, which opens this Thursday, while Wang Quanan's appearance here for his excellent reuniting-pensioners tale Apart Together hasn't helped it secure a distribution deal in Hong Kong. The same can be said of the latest films by legendary figures Krzysztof Zanussi (Revisited) and Theo Angelopoulos (The Dust of Time), who were both subjected to a retrospective at this year's festival. Deltamac's Wan says local buyers are now 'extremely cautious' in securing titles which veer away from the mainstream. 'People used to buy rights to films on the strength of screenings at the Hong Kong film festival,' she says. 'But there were quite a few instances in which packed festival screenings failed to translate into good performances at box offices when the films did go on general release here.'