Hong Kong Film Festival Celebrates 40th Anniversary

Wong Kar-wai
Matt Baron/BEI/BEI/Shutterstock

“We are not making a fetish of the past,” says Roger Garcia, executive director of the Hong Kong Intl Film Festival Society, and one of the co-founders of the fest 40 years ago.

The festival runs March 21 – April 4.

Yet there is notable pride in Garcia’s voice when he is able to announce a retrospective of films by Jet Tone Films, the production company founded and operated by the iconic Wong Kar-wai, pictured,which is 25 this year. “It is good to celebrate such a Hong Kong filmmaker in our 40th year,” says Garcia.

The Jet Tone showcase includes Wong’s “Chungking Express,” “Ashes of Time Redux,” an hour-long version of the 35-minute short “The Hand” that original appeared in the 2004 “Eros” anthology, and the 3D version of “The Grandmaster,” unspooling in Hong Kong for the first time.

Aside from the Jet Tone tribute and a seminar on the future of Hong Kong cinema, this year’s festival “remains an auteur director-driven, highly curated festival. We don’t just make popular choices, we challenge audiences and try to broaden cinema,” says Garcia.

Directors set to visit the festival include Bela Tarr, Jia Zhangke and Hou Hsiao-hsien, Japan’s Hideo Nakata and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (whose “Creepy” gets is Asian premiere as the closing film). Local hero Johnnie To is also expected to attend in support of the opening night film, “Trivisa,” which he produced through his Milky Way Image Co.

The lineup, still essentially non-competitive, includes a Korean film sidebar, a collection of Japanese indies from the punk years and a trio of Shakespeare adaptations. These sit alongside HKIFF staples such as a selection of restored classics (including four of the six films made starring Hong Kong’s favorite son the late Bruce Lee); a best of the global festivals selection; and Hong Kong and contemporary Chinese cinema panoramas.

(The festival’s Firebird prizes go to the winners of its young cinema, documentary and short film competitions.)

The first edition in the summer of 1977 spanned world cinema. The second kicked off a retrospective of Cantonese-language films from the 1950s and the festival’s bilingual publishing activity.

The third set the template that’s been used for more than three decades: a program that showcases world cinema, Hong Kong retrospective and contemporary cinema and regional Asian cinema.

“We have not evolved in programming so much as in scale,” says Garcia. Indeed, the HKIFF with 240 titles, is now some six times bigger than its early years, when the inaugural event was backed by the Hong Kong Urban Council.

The festival today borrows venues all over the city, from commercial multiplexes to the HK Cultural Centre, a multi-purpose monument built in the 1980s on the site of a former train station, at the tip of the Kowloon peninsula. But, while democratic, that geographic spread is also problematic.

That parallels the issues faced by the territory’s cinema chains, which, due to astronomical property prices, have scaled back their venues in the downtown areas and shifted to less-centrally located shopping malls.

“We don’t have a cinema center or a single venue that we can call our own, and are struggling with changing audiences,” admits Garcia. “Our potential is for 100,000, but are hitting 70,000-80,000. Maybe that will change when the West Kowloon Cultural District opens.” That mega-project has remained largely on the drawing board for over a decade, and the HKIFFS has meantime expanded its remit in order to stay relevant.

For the past several years it has organized the smaller-scale Summer Intl. Film Festival, focused on popular contemporary movies; and the monthly CineFan audience development events.
The HKIFFSis also the backer of the Hong Kong Asian Film Financing Forum (HAF), a pioneering project and film financing market (which runs March 14-16) and is now in its 14th year.

“When we look at the number of project submissions this year and the HAF films in the festival’s Chinese section, HAF is a success story that continues to build for Hong Kong’s future,” says Garcia.

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