The Assassin
Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

Some film awards ceremonies seem entirely designed to be a component of the Oscar race. Other pageants reward national champions and are largely fashioned to drive ratings on local TV. But the Asian Film Awards, a pan-regional event — which falls too late to influence Oscar voters, and does not command gargantuan TV audiences — is a trickier concept. After stumbling for a couple of years, the AFAs this month celebrate their tenth edition March 17 on better footing than ever before.

“The idea of putting attention on Asian films, not just the ones from Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, is a good justification for this kind of award show,” says Roger Garcia, executive director of the Hong Kong Intl. Film Festival Society. The Asian Film Awards were conceived and launched in 2007 by the HKIFFS, the non-profit organization that operates the Hong Kong Intl. Film Festival.

While the main ambition was recognizing cinematic excellence in Asia, putting Hong Kong at the heart of that equation was a secondary goal. Hong Kong loves to proclaim itself as “Asia’s World City,” and even now has a legacy film industry vastly out of proportion to its 7.5 million population.

The awards were initially incorporated as part of Hong Kong’s Entertainment Expo, the annual jamboree in March that is built around FilMart, one of the year’s largest film rights markets after Cannes and the American Film Market. The expo also incorporates TV and music conventions and awards.

The launch also came as Hong Kong was once again pondering the future of its film industry, which for two or three decades of the last century had been East Asia’s most prolific and export-driven. The newly opened Chinese film industry was emerging as a co-producer of Hong Kong movies, but China was not operating at the scale of today.

In the AFAs’ early years, Korea, rather than China, was the most notable creative force in Asian cinema. Korean titles grabbed the AFAs’ best picture prize in three of the first four years, with commercial smash “The Host” taking top honors in 2007, followed by dramas “Secret Sunshine” in 2008 and “Mother” in 2010.
Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” won the best film prize in 2012, taking the award further away from Hong Kong.

Later that year, the HK government’s audit department recommended withdrawing its support for the AFAs, a financial lifeline believed to have been worth around $1 million. In response, organizers toyed with making the awards a travelling show or selling the AFAs to a mainland Chinese city. That might have had the advantage of increasing TV audiences, but could have run into censorship and credibility problems.

The solution that emerged after a year of deliberation was to make the AFAs a joint venture between HKIFFS and the Busan and Tokyo festivals. The awards would also be relocated to Macau, Asia’s casino capital, which has hotels and venues in abundance and was in urgent need of diversification away from gambling and into entertainment.

The change-around also heralded a revamped awards voting procedure. The three festivals would form the backbone of an AFA Academy, which expands over time as each year’s nominees and winners are added. Academy members vote in their own discipline, and all vote for best picture.

That should be enough to burnish the AFAs’ credibility, though the rise of China as the world’s second biggest box office market now gives the AFAs their own diversity problem. In the past three years, the best film award has gone to two mainland Chinese films and to Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster,” a co-production from China and Hong Kong.

This year’s nominations list taps five films from India, including “Bajirao Mastani,” a costume drama that enjoyed critical and commercial triumphs at home, as best film contender. But it would still be hard to bet against another win for Greater China in the shape of “The Assassin,” a China-made stunner from Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien.

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