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Building new buzz

A more liberal Hong Kong fest eyes bigger goals

HONG KONG — It’s the year that was supposed to be totally different. But in a strange way, the Hong Kong Intl. Film Festival’s first year of liberation looks like it’s turning out to be strangely the same as in year’s past.

It’s only a year ago that the festival threw off the shackles of local government organization in favor of a home at what’s hoped is the more liberal city Arts Development Council (ADC).

But for much of that time, the festival’s new organizers found themselves caught up in the exact type of bureaucratic irritations they thought they’d just escaped. Most of the tangles were one-time-only issues to do with minor details of the handover of funding and other information. But these hurdles have already got the present organizers saying they need another year to really get their act together.

“I only started here in December,” says Peter Tsi, the festival’s new director, who announced the lineup of the 26th fest at a press conference Feb 28. “There have been some hiccups in transferring the management of the festival, and it took more than a few months to clear them.”

You can’t blame the festival’s organizers for trying to dampen expectations.

The fest was once the premier event of its type in Asia. That was before buzz-filled upstarts such as South Korea’s Pusan Intl. Film Festival stole its thunder. The conservative attitudes of the Hong Kong festival’s government managers were also blamed for the slump.

Now everyone is wondering if the independent — but still government funded — ADC has what it takes to rejuvenate the once-prestigious event.

At a glance, Tsi’s credentials look like they could be the right ones. He’s best known as the producer of 1999’s “Gen-X Cops,” a popular action pic some credit as a watershed in Hong Kong moviemaking for its use of Hollywood special effects talent and slick marketing.

He’s only had two months on the job, but Tsi has made some promising first steps.

One of his main ambitions is to create some red-carpet dazzle for the fest — something that was an anathema to the for-the-people ethos of its previous organizers.

This year’s festival will open with the world premiere of local director Fruit Chan’s latest work, “Hong Kong Hollywood,” and Tom Tykwer’s “Heaven,” and close with Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang’s “What Time Is It There?”

Tsi also is trying to lure film-world insiders to Hong Kong with promises of private screenings of yet-to-be-completed works by hot local directors.

Despite the stress of putting this festival together so quickly, Tsi’s colleagues seem to be happy enjoying their newfound liberation.

Since Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997, the media has been ready to pounce on anything that smacks of Chinese political interference. Last year, they got what they wanted when “From the Queen to the Chief Executive” — a low-key documentary plea for clemency for Hong Kong criminals in jurisdictional limbo — was pulled from the 2001 lineup after its producers claimed an offer of the festival’s opening slot was suddenly withdrawn.

Time for a change

While there was no evidence of direct government intervention, the resulting brouhaha seemed to be a clear signal that it was time for the festival to change hands.

Says Li Cheuk-to, a longtime festival programmer who quit in frustration almost two years ago: “The previous festival organizers were very careful not to try anything new.”

The ADC hired Li in December as the festival’s general manager. Now, his rekindled enthusiasm shows through as he talks about this year’s festival highlights.

He’s arranged a kooky segment of midnight screenings –including “Inner Senses,” a new ghost thriller starring heartthrob Leslie Cheung — to try to attract audiences that wouldn’t normally attend the fest.

But he seems most excited about a section named “The Zone,” which features, among other edgy oddities, the French sex-and-cannibalism pic “Trouble Every Day,” starring Vincent Gallo and Beatrice Dalle.

It’s the type of unconventional fare that would have made Li’s previous bosses quiver. But as the ADC settles into its new role, he’s hoping his spirit of adventure will mean the festival becomes less about red tape, and more about plain old buzz.