Hong Kong filmmaker Chan Tze-woon recently returned from a fruitful trip to the Busan Intl. Film Festival. The 31-year-old’s new project, “Blue Island,” was selected to take part in the Asian Cinema Fund during the festival, where he met producers from South Korea and the U.S. and film fest directors who might be interested in the project, a documentary.
“Blue Island” is a trip down memory lane of Hong Kong through the stories of three men and an account of how their experiences of historical events, including the 1967 riots, the Cultural Revolution in mainland China and the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, have shaped their destinies. Chan’s project was awarded $5,000 under the fund’s Asian Network of Documentary Fund.
It was another milestone for the young filmmaker, whose “Yellowing” (2016), a documentary about Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, won the New Asian Currents Ogawa Shinsuke Prize at the 15th Yamagata Intl. Documentary Film Festival in Japan last year. It was also nominated for best doc at the 53rd Golden Horse Film Festival in 2016.
Other filmmakers have also drawn international attention. Last year, the Asian Network of Documentary Fund selected two projects from Hong Kong: “Comrade on the Road” by Wan Fai, also centered on the Umbrella protests, and Angie Chen’s “I’ve Got the Blues.” Docs were never mainstream in Hong Kong, but the international attention bestowed on these projects has boosted filmmakers’ confidence in their future. “Positive responses from overseas show that the world still cares about Hong Kong, boosting our chances to have our films shown at international film festivals,” says Chan.
More training for young documentarians is available in Hong Kong. Visible Record, which organizes the annual Chinese Documentary Film Festival, offers courses, and The Hong Kong Documentary Initiative, led by Oscar-winning filmmaker Ruby Yang, offers screenings, classes and seed grants to projects. Last year, Chan’s “Blue Island” was awarded a production grant of nearly $20,000.
The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts is also planning to strengthen training of documentary filmmaking. Geoffrey Stitt, dean of the academy’s School of Film and Television, says students have demonstrated potential in this category, such as 2013’s “Boundless,” a documentary that APA student Ferris Lin made as his MFA thesis project. The school has started courses to encourage students to experiment with new forms.
However, says Chan, distribution could be a major obstacle to the success of Hong Kong docs, since commercial theatrical exhibition for such films isn’t easy. Filmmakers have to be more creative and look into distribution windows outside of traditional theatrical release, he adds.
In addition to film festival circuits, streaming platforms such as Netflix could be a possible option. For example, the documentary “Road Not Taken,” which also centers on the Umbrella protests, is available for rental on Vimeo.