Film scholar Chris Berry (Goldsmith’s College, University of London) attended the 2009 Karlovy-Vary festival, and we asked him about the absence of Hong Kong film and the strong presence of films from South Korea and Japan. He remarked that European programmers, generally, can only afford to attend one film festival in Asia. Pusan has eclipsed Hong Kong. Berry sees this as cyclical and noted that Hong Kong may become "hot" again in the future. He elaborates:
On the one hand, Hong Kong's commercial cinema is nowhere near as surprising and exciting to people as it was in the late 80s and early 90s. On the other hand, the burgeoning independent cinema in Hong Kong is very local in its address and not always very cinematically innovative. As a result it also isn't making it into festivals that much. But is this a problem? Only if you believe film festivals are some kind of ultimate arbiter of taste or commercially crucial. These days, they do not do much to sell films (in fact, too many festival screenings kill the global audience for a small film). And the very local address of the HK indies is a great thing in my opinion -- what matters then is if a local audience is enjoying them or not. (1)
However, there is a chicken-and-egg quality to film festival programming. If a particular industry slips out of favor, the ability to fund films that may be able to compete internationally deteriorates, and the industry continues to decline. At some point, films from a particular place may slide completely off the radar—perceived lack of artistic ingenuity and questionable quality overtaking the merits of what actually exists on the screen.
As a case in point, a comparison can be made between two Asian films dealing with the same topic—Ann Hui’s Night and Fog and the Korean film Breathless, written and directed by Yang Ik-Joon (who also stars in the feature). Breathless made the cut in Karlovy-Vary, and Night and Fog did not. Both films look at the topic of domestic violence, and both fit snugly within the parameters of the types of films screened at international film festivals. The English rendering of Yang Ik-Joon’s Breathless, of course, conjures up Godard’s Breathless (1960) and the international prominence of the French New Wave. The Korean film was financed by a grant from the Pusan International Film Festival. The English title for Night and Fog brings the Alain Resnais documentary on World War II concentration camps, Night and Fog (1950), to mind and the French film’s association with socially committed filmmaking. Ann Hui’s Night and Fog was one of the opening films at the 2009 Hong Kong International Film Festival. It seems clear, then, from their titles, financing, and exhibition that these films were produced, at least in part, for international festival exhibition.
Night and Fog, photo courtesy of Golden Scene.
Ann Hui had had a particularly good year, winning the Hong Kong Film Award for the earlier film in her Tin Shui Wai diptych The Way We Are , about life in one of the poorer residential areas of Hong Kong. Produced by the very commercial Wong Jing rather than by grants from the Hong Kong Arts Council, Night and Fog still merits inclusion in festivals devoted to "art films" and clearly fits in Hui’s Hong Kong New Wave oeuvre, featuring the elaborate use of flashbacks, expressive use of the extremes of crane shots and close-ups, a keen eye for the details of the city’s bureaucracy, and a critical treatment of the current state of working class, mainland, immigrant women in Hong Kong.
Breathless provides less social context for its examination of domestic violence, but takes full advantage of its very mobile camera (Dogme-inspired) to follow its characters through a series of violent confrontations. While Yang Ik-Joon’s film serves more as a character study of an ultra-violent debt collector involved with a teenaged schoolgirl who also comes from an abusive family, Ann Hui’s feature uses a notorious "true crime" murder story to expose the underlying social causes of domestic violence. In her film, the characters slip through the cracks of the criminal justice system, the so-called "safety net" of social workers, psychologists, and feminist activists, and even the intimate network of safe house residents who attempt to forge a political lobby for victims of spousal abuse. The film is a tour-de-force for actor Simon Yam who plays the homicidal patriarch of a Hong Kong-mainland family, and his performance resonates in many compelling ways with his portrayal of the stoic, paternal shopkeeper in Echoes of the Rainbow .
Breathless, photo courtesy of Tadrart Films.
The relative merits of Hui’s more critical take on the politics of domestic violence and Breathless ‘s focus on the personal drama and psychological consequences of abuse aside, both films conform to the demands of festival programming— Night and Fog as an auteur piece, and Breathless in conversation with current trends in global art cinema. Then, why should one film be invited to Karlovy-Vary and the other not? Of course, there are many answers to this question— Night and Fog may have been invited and the distributor declined or there could be other reasons. However, even if this particular film and this particular case does not prove the point, the fact that no film produced in Hong Kong found its way into this major festival does give pause.