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Fest can’t shake controversial image

Trouble over pic selection process

HONG KONG — Given the worldwide success of H.K.’s own “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in this, a milestone year for Hong Kong Intl. Film Festival, the announcement of the fest’s silver anniversary lineup should have been cause for celebration.

Instead, the festival, once regarded as Asia’s premier film gathering but recently challenged by the success of regional competitors, again fell under a cloud of controversy over its pic selection process.

At the center of the storm is local production house China Star, which has withdrawn from the festival the politically charged drama “From the Queen to the Chief Executive,” which centers on the detention of a high-profile murderer. China Star says the film was initially promised the fest’s opening slot but that the offer was later rescinded.

The festival organizing committee says no such offer was ever made and that it still wants the film to be part of the fest.

Paranoia about not-so-subtle potential interference from Beijing has reigned supreme ever since Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, and the film festival apparently is its latest victim.

The fest, organized by a branch of the local government, has long been regarded as more of a bureaucratic exercise than an artistic one. This year, it has endeavored to boost its credibility by teaming with the city’s Arts Development Council, to which it will hand full control of the event next year.

The festival, which opens April 6, is presenting 220 films this year. Local director Yonfan’s “Peony Pavilion” and French talent Jean-Jacques Beineix’s “Mortal Transfer” will open the fest, with Taiwanese auteur Edward Yang’s award-winning “Yiyi” closing it.

Special features include a retrospective of the films starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai (“In the Mood for Love,” “Happy Together”); a collection of classic pics from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan; and “Heroes in Love,” a film co-penned and directed by twentysomething pinups Nicholas Tse and Stephen Fung (who both starred in Media Asia’s “Gen-X Cops”).

For its part, “Peony Pavilion” — a spicy meditation on two women friends and the aesthetics of Chinese Kunqu opera — promises plenty of lush period intrigue, but Yonfan, while undoubtedly talented, is hardly one of the city’s highest-profile directors.

And so lies one of the festival’s biggest problems and ironies: Hong Kong’s greatest talents, such as director Wong Kar-wai (“In the Mood for Love”), get greater exposure and potential international B.O. than ever before by premiering their works at European festivals, while the local fest is failing to capitalize on that buzz.

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