Friday, March 4, 2011

Hong Kong International Film Festival 2011 - March 20th - April 4th

The 35th Hong Kong International Film Festival rolls in to town for over a fortnight jam-packed with top-quality films. With screens all over the city, it’s going to be a good couple of weeks for Hong Kong cinephiles. The line-up is as exciting as it is varied, and really is the definition of international, with entrants from just about everywhere. The pick of the crop from this year’s festival circuit is on display, along with a wealth of local produce. Fittingly, it opens with the world premiere of Jonnie To's rom-com Don't Go Breaking My Heart and the HKIFF funded Quattro Hong Kong 2. In amongst the cutting edge of contemporary cinema there are some enticing retrospectives to indulge with, and a chance to catch up on some of the Asian Film Awards nominations before their announcement on the 21st of March. Whatever interests you, there is plenty to look forward to.

The festival began in 1977 and ran until 2001 as a government operation, until it was passed over to the Hong Kong Arts Development council for a brief stint in the early noughties. Now, in its fourth decade it is run independently by the charitable, non-profit organization the HKIFF Society. The mission is to draw the spotlight onto Hong Kong, and Chinese Film. In a burst of activity in March and April the group holds three major film events; HKIFF, The Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum, a chance for film-makers to drum up the required cash for their next projects, and The Asian Film Awards, the continent’s lavish Oscars-like award show, which is beamed into over three hundred million houses. With attendance fluttering around the 600,000 mark and a record number of films submitted (1248 to be precise), the event is going from strength to strength, and like any good festival HKIFF makes the city a central part of the event. With over 330 films being shown, there are 11 major venues to fit it all in, ranging from City Hall to the Space Museum.

Hong Kong film has a big presence at the festival. The afore-mentioned Quattro Hong Kong 2 is a segmented look at Hong Kong by four great Asian directors: Philippine Brilliante Mendoza, who made the gritty Lola, Malaysia’s Ho Yu-Huang, Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, last years Cannes Palme D’Or winner, and Hong Kong’s very own Stanley Kwan. As well as his new film, Jonnie To and fellow HK director Wai Ka-fai will have their work shown throughout the festival, Running on Karma, Too Many Ways to Be No. 1, Mad Detective, and Help amongst others. Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together features in a celebration of Dutch Fortissimo Films twentieth anniversary, a classic back on the big screen.

Roger Garcia, the festival executive director, joked that the HKIFF is very good at picking winners, and with a glance at the line-up it’s hard to deny. The 2011 Berlin Golden Bear winner Nader and Simin, A Separation looks fantastic. It tells the story of a couple who plane to leave Iran, until the husband has a change of mind. The latest film from Bela Tarr, The Turin Horse, took home the Silver Bear, and focuses on a rural horse-owner and his daughter. It is the story behind the story of when Nietzsche fatefully intervened, he would descend into mental illness directly after, in the whipping of a horse in the streets of Turin. Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, of Darat fame, arrives with A Screaming Man, about an ex-swimmer about to lose his job, set to the background of a civil war and intense military recruitment. It won the jury prize at Cannes last year. The Sundance winner, Australian film, Animal Kingdom, which features a terrifying performance from Jacki Weaver and Guy Pearce at his best, is a taut gripping thriller about a family of criminals and the youngest member being dragged down with them.

There are some great documentaries, too. Inside Job that rips into those that brought the world to the brink of financial meltdown. Its clinical approach is more Enron: Smartest People in the Room than Michael Moore’s populism. It took home the Oscar this year, and who wouldn’t want to see some bankers getting their comeuppance right now? Sundance documentary award winner, Wasteland, is a moving piece about the people that work and forage in the world’s biggest landfill site in Rio Di Janeiro. Lucy Walker’s camera follows photographer Vik Muniz as he dives right into to this sub-culture of people subsisting of the waste of others. He uses garbage to create art, which will eventually be sold in auctions around the world, promising to return any profits to his subjects. The Two Escobars, examining the unrelated, but not unlinked, drug-lord Pablo, and Columbian national soccer-player Andres, also looks very interesting.

The breaking of boundaries between audience and film-maker is one of the best things about film festivals and there are plenty of opportunities to do so at HKIFF events this year. A sizable portion of the films will be conducting question and answer sessions after the screenings, an invaluable to chance to pick the creators' brains. There are many free events, available on a first come first serve basis, throughout the festival: Wai Ka-fai will be having a Face to Face discussion on film, art, and creativity, Jia Zhangke is holding a Master Class on film-making, and there will be a series of small group discussions of films shown with leading film critics; to register for any of these have a look at the festival homepage. There are a handful of awards to be handed out as well, of which the centerpiece is the Signis award that looks at films with social and humanitarian themes. Twelve films are in contention for it, Winter’s Bone, Bleak Night, A Screaming Man, and Majority to name a few.

Award-winners aside there are intriguing films all over the schedule hitting Hong Kong screens. Submarine, is the directorial debut of Richard Ayoade, known for his role in Brit-comedy the IT Crowd. It is about a fifteen year-old boy who is struggling to lose his virginity by sixteen, and keep his parents together. Winning plaudits all over, it is definitely worth making time for. Kaboom is the slickly directed new comedy from Mysterious Skin director Gregg Araki on a gay man and his seemingly straight room-mate. Tom Tykwer, who has calmed down a lot since he caught the world's attention with Run Lola Run, has Three, a smooth romantic comedy about a straight couple who, separately, become involved with the same man. Also Carlos, a TV movie in classification only, is the nearly six hour long mini-series about Venezuelan terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez. It is a big commitment, but Edgar Ramirez in the lead role makes it a valid one. Kim Jee-Woon’s I Saw the Devil is everything we have come to expect from modern Korean cinema. Blisteringly violent and brilliantly directed, it unites the two powerhouses of Lee Byung-Hun and Choi Min-Sik, who give unbelievably physical performances, in this gripping revenge film.

The alluring retrospectives are one of this year’s big draws. Iranian director Abbas Kirostami's new film Certified Copy that garnered Juliette Binoche a best actress award at Cannes last year, will be the centre-point of a collection of his works, spanning over forty years that look at the boundaries of fiction, reality, and cinema itself. One of the highlights of the program is the experimental work Ten. It focuses on the ten journeys of a group of women in Tehran. Largely improvised and filmed entirely within the confines of a car the results are profoundly powerful. If this sounds right up your street, then Ten On Ten is a series of lectures on his ideas on film, given by the man himself, in the same style and taking in the scenery of another of his movies, A Taste of Cherry. Close Up, perhaps his masterpiece, with some semi-auto biographical elements, is another, though, everything in the selection is fantastic.

Elsewhere there is the recently restored collection of the late, great post-war Japanese director Shibuya Minoru that has done the rounds at Berlin and Cannes. A stalwart of the Shochiku studio, where he worked in the illustrious company of Yasujiro Ozu, he may not be a household name like other Japanese directors from the era are, but his impressive output with the studio (over 40 films in under 30 years) is well represented here. Among them are: Modern People, the story of a civil servant is a critical look at the judicial system, The Days of Evil Women, the wife and daughter of a successful businessman plot his murder in a bid to steal his wealth, and Drunkard’s Paradise the story of heavy drinking father who, after his son’s death, is left with his fiancée.

Animation makes up a big part of the roster and there is chance to see the brilliant The Illusionist, from the makers of Belle-Ville Rendezvous. Additionally, Kooky, by Czech Jan Sverak, Little Ghostly Adventures of the Tofu Boy, which looks thrillingly bizarre, A Cat in Paris, getting its Asian premiere, and Piercing I, from Chinese film-maker Liu Jian, a cutting look at China circa the 2008 economic crisis, all stand out. Stop-motion puppeteer Kawamoto Kichachiro, who died last year, has a selection of films showcasing his unique ability that took influences from Japanese Bunraku, Noh and Kabuki theatre. Additionally, there are the World Animation series I and II which offer a mish-mash from all over the globe. Not an animation, admittedly, but if you are looking for something to take the kids to then the French, Oceans, in the vein of BBC’s Earth might be a good option.

There is so much going on and, recommendations aside, uncovering hidden gems is the highlight of any festival experience. Get yourself a copy of the schedule and start finding time, because there is a lot to cram in.

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