Life goes on.

The 1999 Hong Kong Film Festival.
Sydney November 23-29 | Melbourne Nov 25-Dec 02 | Brisbane Nov 27-Dec 01

Opening Night | The Kid | Moonlight Express | Tempting Heart | Common Themes | Criticism of HK Cinema | Comments about the Festival | Conclusions | Program

It's no secret the Hongkong film industry is going through hard times. With Hollywood blockbusters dominating the Hongkong box-office and the government reluctant to tackle the triads piracy racket, the industry is struggling due to a lack of profits resulting in a less investment and fewer films being made. Uncertainty over whether freedom of speech would be preserved after the territory's handover was also an issue drawing crowds to this festival. What would the films be like? Where to now for Hongkong citizens and culture?

Left: Festival guests, director Jacob Cheung and actor Ti Lung (Shaun Tam)
At the official opening ceremony, no mention was made of the problems facing the Hongkong film industry, the government officials electing instead to focus on the international success of Hongkong action stars, and new initiatives to establish Hongkong as "one of the world's leading film production centres." Interestingly, the new "Cinema City" initiative seems to be geared towards encouraging foreign film production in Hongkong, not necessarily the development of the local industry itself. That the piracy issue was not mentioned once during the entire ceremony was a significant omission, and buried in the official program is only one sentence "there is an earnest effort to stamp out piracy." Ex-action star Ti Lung (Shaun Tam), was the only guest to acknowledge current problems, with "These are tough times, but tough man survive tough times." Overall the mood was surprisingly optimistic, Hongkong's representatives choosing to wear a brave face and play down the uncertainty regarding the industry's future.

The Kid
The opening night film, The Kid, was a mediocre crack at social realism by director Jacob Cheung, who's previous film, Cageman, was also about the hardships faced by impoverished people. The Kid stars Leslie Cheung as a securities broker who bankrupts himself in the Hongkong stock exchange crash, only to find someone has abandoned their baby boy on his yacht in the hope that he will have a happier life with a rich family. It's a riches to rags story, as Leslie moves to a poor neighbourhood and raises the boy on his own, struggling to earn a living, whilst the boy's mother returns a much richer woman, after marrying a Shanghainese tycoon who conveniently died soon after. Stories of beautiful young women marrying billionaire geriatrics spring to mind, and the young woman in this film (played by Qi Qi, a famous Chinese supermodel) presents an unusual role-model - an irresponsible mother who ditches her child, but redeems herself once she becomes rich and returns to shower him with gifts. The film is morally simplistic, and ties itself in knots trying to be sympathetic to the poor whilst reconciling the rich social-climbing mother with her son. In a despicable chain of events the film reunites mother and son and they drive away in her Rolls-Royce to a better home, a new life.

The Kid was one of the worst films at the festival, and one can only presume it was chosen because the director and stars were willing to fly economy to Sydney in order to support it. There was a rumour that Leslie was interested in coming, but was too busy at the time, perhaps because he didn't get the first-class tickets he asked for. Leslie starred in two of the festival films, the aforementioned The Kid, and Moonlight Express, which was one of the best films of the festival, and a showcase of Hongkong's fresh filmmaking talent.

Moonlight Express
Moonlight Express is directed by new talent Lee Yan-Kong (Daniel Lee). Whilst the program favourable compares his style to
Wong Kar-Wai's films, and the title of his film draws obvious allusions to Wong's Chungking Express, Lee's style is more deliberate and studied than the gleeful spontaneity of Wong and his team. The literal translation of Lee's title is 'moonlight fairytale' and the film was appropriately colour-infused, with romance and charm lightening the gritty narrative of an undercover cop, Gar-bo, (Leslie Cheung) who is betrayed by corrupt officers working with the triads and is forced to prove his own innocence. In the process of doing so he seduces Hitomi, a young Japanese widow (Takako Toshiwa) who has come to Hongkong in search of memories she did not get to experience due to her fiance's death in a car crash. In a typical HK twist, Gar-bo looks exactly like her dead fiance, (Leslie plays both characters) and Hitomi becomes infatuated with him. (This twist appeared in Hold You Tight directed by Stanley Kwan, one of the highlights of last year's festival) Moonlight Express achieves a technical superiority beyond most Hongkong films, with sophisticated editing, lighting, cinematography and sound production, and strong performances by Leslie and Takako, who's beauty and fame are icing on this film, and not stuffing as is the case with a lot of celebrity-studded Cantonese films.

Current Themes in HK Cinema
Right: Leslie Cheung and Takako Toshiwa in Daniel Lee's "Moonlight Express"
A lot of the humour in this year's festival revolved around language and cultural differences, not between east and west as we might have expected in the past, but between the Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese; Cantonese and Cantonese diaspora; and interestingly, Chinese and Japanese. Japan's influence on Hongkong was apparent in the strong presence of Japanese stories, characters and stars. Moonlight Express and Tempting Heart had scenes set in Japan and featured romances between Chinese and Japanese characters. Even Leslie, one of Hongkong's most potent symbols of masculinity, acts a Japanese character in Moonlight Express. Japan has always been the biggest investor in China and it is worth noting that much of Asia's youth culture is derived from Japan, not America.

Right: Gang-members on the run in Patrick Yau's "Expect the Unexpected"
The struggle to communicate across language barriers was an appropriate theme for an intercultural film festival, and resonated Hongkong's unique history. Its reunification with the PRC is changing the face of the society and glimpses of Shanghai and Shenzhen were present in this year's batch of films, mainlanders appearing in several films as hard-working but poor immigrants, or as the object of pity and ridicule. Expect the Unexpected featured a trio of inept mainlanders driven to crime in order to feed their families. A running joke developed when they steal a taxi and can't understand why all the other taxis are red. The audience loved it, but only an ex-resident of Hongkong would have gotten the joke - knowing that New Territories taxis are green, Hongkong Island taxis are red.

Our Festival Report
The festival's main patronage seemed to be Cantonese diaspora, with only 5% of the audience being caucausian Australian. This was a pity, as the festival is partly funded by the Australian Film Institute to promote cultural exchange between Australia and Hongkong. The festival's reach could have been extended with more sessions, but apparently the organisers had secured the film's for free and there was a quota on how many times they were allowed to screen each film. This meant each session sold out well in advance, and many potential viewers had to be turned away. Yet in Sydney alone some films were screened up to three times to full houses, proof that there is great demand in Australia for Hongkong cinema. Last years festival was very successful and this year's undoubtedly even more so. With such a great demand for tickets, hopefully next year the organisers can purchase the rights for multiple screenings and more Q&A sessions with filmmakers to add educational value to the festival. The subtitling could also be improved, as Cantonese is a much more expressive language than English, and bad subtitling meant much of the wit of Patrick Yau's Expect the Unexpected, and the emotional subtlety of Sylvia Chang's Tempting Heart was lost in the translation of subtitles.

What's wrong with HK Cinema
Right: Asian supermodel Qi Qi as the unlikely mother in Jacob Cheung's "The Kid"
My main criticism of HK cinema is its over-sentimentality, with cheesy synthesized piano music underscoring scenes where a simple close-up would suffice. The Kid was desecrated by its naive and exaggerated soundtrack. Other critics of Hongkong cinema complain about its simplistic stories, relying too much on concept, caricatures and celebrities to get by. Certainly a lot of films this year carried on this tradition. There were famous singers and models in almost every film, and whilst celebrity-spotting is all part of the fun of HK cinema, in some cases it wears a little thin, especially when the film is loosely scripted and developed during the shoot. Professional actors may be able to improvise successfully but celebrities rarely deliver and the filmmakers turn time and time again to fast cutting and action to cover up a lack of acting talent.

Left: Ekin Cheng and Aaron Kwok in Andrew Lau's "The Stormriders"
Then there are some painful moments when a film self-implodes in a single scene, a concept taken too far. Expect the Unexpected was a clever and entertaining piece that self-destructs in a crude and gratuitiously violent ending a la Reservoir Dogs. The otherwise beautiful Moonlight Express is needlessly ruined by a cliched resolution complete with improbable reunion on Victoria Peak and slo-mo flashbacks to previous hugs and kisses (And after two perfect opportunities to end the film on a poignant open-ended note! Why oh why?!). The Stormriders, an adaptation of the popular Chinese manga by Ma Wing Shing, barely survives a lack of interesting dialogue thanks to its flashy production design and manga-inspired cinematography. (The repeated close-ups of eyes is particularly comic-book derived, and ex-pornstar turned famous Red Earth model, Hsu Chi, is great fun as the archetypal cute manga girl)

And why are there so many police characters in Hongkong movies? Is it the obsession of a society where almost 10% of the population are civil-servants? Hongkong's rivalry with Singapore to be Asia's model society is well-known. The abundance of police characters in Hongkong cinema suggests a culture anxious about its integrity and identity, as well as an industry that is still quite conservative in its choice of genres and character-types, continually relying on action-fantasy elements, what HK filmcritic and festival guest Stephen Teo typifies as "escapist vanity and venality."

Tempting Heart
Left: Karen Mok and Gigi Leung in Sylvia Chang's "Tempting Heart"
Sylvia Chang's Tempting Heart was outstanding in its portrayal of complex human relationships, creating an emotional sophistication that exposed the other films as lacking depth. Tempting Heart was a personal film that was almost political for its understated realism and humanity. In one scene, Chang's protagonist, Shao-Rou, watches the students protesting in Tiannamen square on TV and wonders aloud "how the Chinese authorities will handle this." Her mother replies "Kids! What hope do they have against adults?" This film filled three cinemas in Sydney alone, impressing all with its emotional honesty and multi-layered narrative structure. It provided valuable contrast to the furious gunfights, magic swordplay and cute pop-dramas Hongkong cinema is known for. Poignant and sincere, Tempting Heart charts the regrets of a mature filmmaker, who realises her memories of coming-of-age are idealised and that what she longs for has already been lost to time - opportunities for a relationship with her high-school sweetheart, a reconciliation with her best friend.

Right: Takeshi Kaneshiro and Sylvia Chang in Sylvia Chang's "Tempted Heart"
The Cantonese are stereotyped as being materialistic and existential, and it was somewhat amusing to hear mobile phones ringing in almost every screening. More surprising however was seeing companies who had purchased product placement being recognised before the cast and crew in the end credits of the films. Marlboro, Heineken and Fosters financed many of this year's films and their logos featured more prominently than the names of the stars. It says a lot about the culture and explains Hongkong's status as Asia's Hollywood. Yet the festival films also displayed a new depth of optimism and hope, a yearning for romance mixed with nostalgia and regret. They expressed a new sensitivity and sincerity missing from previous soapies and chop-socky dramas. Hongkong is evolving, and who knows where it's going, but life goes on and we're lucky to have so many talented filmmakers capturing these times of change. Overall, this year's festival featured an excellent selection of films and reaffirmed Hongkong's vitality and visibility. The screenings were overwhelmingly well-attended and a huge success for the Hongkong Economic and Trade Office, the Australian Film Commission and the Pacific Film and Television Commission. And luckily for lovers of Hongkong cinema, the city is home to some bright new talent - rising stars with some great work ahead of them. Next year's festival promises to be even bigger and better.

Eugene Chew
comments? email the author

The Official Festival Program

Beast Cops
1998, 110mins
dir. gordon chan
st. michael wong, anthony wong, kathy chow
The Kid
1999, 110mins
dir. jacob cheung
st. leslie cheung, shaun tam, carrie ng, qi qi, erickson yip
Ordinary Heroes
1998, 128mins
dir. ann hui
st. rachel lee, lee kang-sheng, anthony wong, tse kwan-ho
Expect the Unexpected
1998, 90mins
dir. patrick yau
st. lau ching-wan, simon yam, ruby wong
The Longest Summer
1998, 128mins
dir. fruit chan
st. tony ho, sam lee, jo kuk
The Stormriders
1998, 128mins
dir. andrew lau
st. ekin cheng, aaron kwok, hsu qi, kristy yeung, sonny chiba
1998, 104mins
dir. stephen tung wai
st. jet li, eric tsang, simon yam, gigi leung
Moonlight Express
1999, 101mins
dir. daniel lee yan-kong
st. leslie cheung, takako tokiwa
Tempting Heart
1999, 111mins
dir. sylvia chang
st. gigi leung, takeshi kaneshiro, karen mok, sylvia chang, elaine jin

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