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Hong Kong Festival 2011: kung fu and ducks

This year’s HK Festival has expanded its film programme. Here’s our guide to what’s worth a trip to Rialto and – for those outside Auckland – what’s worth hunting down at your preferred DVD outlet.

The Festival, which includes a bunch of business-related events as well as the film programme, held its launch at the Auckland Art Gallery. MCed by festival sponsorship director, Bevan Chuang, the festival was officially opened by her day-job boss, Auckland Mayor Len Brown, who sang the praises of both Auckland and Hong Kong and predicted a great future for both cities. “You sound like you’re still running for election,” Chuang commented as he concluded his address.

Last year there was a decent break between the NZFF’s stop in Auckland and the HK Festival, allowing two HK films by Pang Ho-Cheung (Love in a Puff and Dream Home) to appear in both festivals. This year, there’s only a week between the end of the NZFF’s Auckland leg on Wednesday and the opening of the HK event next Thursday.

Half of the films get a couple of screenings, with opening night film Bruce Lee, My Brother receiving three. The remainder receive single screenings.

While Auckland lays claim to the “Big Little City” tag, Hong Kong is a little big city. Shorter on land than Auckland, its population is seven times as large. In such a crowded place, it’s inevitable people will bump into one another again and again, professionally as well as on the streets, and there’s plenty of examples of that in the programme.

With a dozen features (plus some longer shorts) on offer in a week, it’s unlikely many people will get to see all of them, so here’s an overview of some of what’s on offer.

Festival opener Manfred Wong’s biopic Bruce Lee, My Brother is one of those films which makes you wonder why it was selected.

Despite the pull of the Bruce Lee name, this was the fourth film celebrating what would have been his 70th birthday by telling some part of his life story and that of his trainer, Ip Man. Rather like propaganda pictures Founding of a Party and Beginning of a Great Revival, it cast many well-known Hong Kong and Chinese actors playing many well-known real Hong Kong and Chinese people, some of them actors.

Most people know Bruce Lee for three things. He was a very good martial artist, was instrumental in bringing kung fu films to the west (even if the best ones he made were Hong Kong films), and he died far too young.

Bruce Lee, My Brother covers the period of his life when none of those things happened, before he went to America.

There is a reason for this. The rights to his life story are owned by different people. His widow owns the rights to the later part of his life. His brother owns the early part. Hence the title. And the actual brother’s appearance in the film.

Aarif Lee’s title role performance is entertaining and largely credible. For those who like links, Michelle Ye has a cameo as Auntie Eight, ahead of a much more prominent role in closing night film Hi, Fidelity.

Wong’s direction is, politely, a little over the top for a work that leans more towards domestic drama than any other genre. Audiences of any Michael Bay film occasionally snigger at his signature shots, but Bay at least keeps them for moments when they make sense within the story. Manfred Wong, not so much.

If you’re interested in Bruce Lee, there are things in the film to appeal. For anyone drawn by Bruce Lee’s martial arts reputation, the film is likely to under-deliver. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin will deliver more bang for your buck in that department.

One of the most recent titles is the festival closer, Calvin Poon’s drama Hi, Fidelity, which opened at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival in March.

It’s a little like a Hong Kong Desperate Housewives, a genre repeatedly exploited (or exploitatively repeated) by Korean daytime soaps but considerably rarer in Chinese film and TV.

Poon has known as an actor in HK for getting on for 30 years, and featured in Dante Lam’s Beast Stalker. After his 1986 romance Kiss Me Goodbye, Hi, Fidelity is Poon’s second feature – although he’s now making up for lost time and commas with Repeat, I Love You also releasing this year.

In the US, they have Cougar Town, a TV comedy originally about older women getting it on with younger men. Here, we’ve had an Air NZ offering to fly cougars down to the Wellington Sevens.

In Asia, the story of older women merrily tripping across the HK-mainland border to Shenzhen to seek sex from young gigolos (“ducks” in Hong Kong slang) is more racy subject matter by local standards.

For censorship purposes it gets around that problem by exploiting mainland China’s sometimes uneasy relationship with Hong Kong. China regards HK as permissive and unruly (which it can be); HK regards China as over-regulated and slow to acknowledge reality (ditto).

The result for a western audience is that the film seems to dig less deeply into character than it might. While it was generally well-received on its HKIFF debut, the praise wasn’t unanimous. Love HK Film’s review said it was “as subtle and quietly nuanced as a stampede of rabid cats.”

There is, in some ways, too much of it. Not in length, but in the amount of material, which contributes to the lack of character depth, and possibly the reason one of the four main characters disappears without a trace halfway through. There’s a lot of fun in it – even if some of it was not intentional.

Dante Lam’s thriller The Stool Pigeon is what’s known as a “comeback” film. The director’s previous outing Fire of Conscience underwhelmed horribly, especially coming on the back of his excellent Beast Stalker, which also featured the same two lead actors.

The thematic territory of a police informer inside a criminal organisation is familiar and, while more satisfyingly realised in Andrew Lau’s Infernal Affairs and Scorsese’s Oscar-winning remake The Departed, the film delivers on expectations.

It features two well-known HK actors in the lead roles of informant Ghost Jr. and handler Inspector Don Lee, Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung, the former currently better known in HK for his very public on-off divorce from actress Cecelia Cheung. Both actors give mostly strong performances and are ably supported by a cast of regular HK players including one King Kong.

The script is occasionally heavy-handed with exposition and contains a couple of sub-plots and two characters that could have been excised before shooting, but overall it’s a satisfying experience with a strong climax.

As one might expect from a HK film, the action sequences are strong – strong enough for the censor here to require a look.

For those with an ear for the Chinese language, the dubbing of one character into Cantonese while another speaks Mandarin is a strange choice. HK films are often released in both Mandarin and Cantonese language versions with actors who can’t speak both tongues being dubbed.

The film is HK-China co-production. If one has any understanding of what the Chinese censor considers acceptable morality, the ending is guessable. But, if you only fancy one HK action flick this year, The Stool Pigeon would make a very satisfying choice.

One of the two early Shaw Brothers titles in the festival line-up this year is Liu Chia-liang’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1977). Also known as The Master Killer, the eponymous role is played by Gordon Liu Chia-Hui, who also played in the film’s two sequels.

The latter of the sequels was later reimagined as Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, again featuring Liu. He’s possibly recognisable to Western audiences as Johnny Mo, the leader of the Crazy 88s in Kill Bill 1 and Pai Mei (a role Quentin Tarantino originally planned to play himself) in Kill Bill 2.

The revenge storyline won’t tax viewers and, while the end is clear from the beginning, the journey will prove enlightening, grasshopper.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin won the award for Best Martial Arts at the Asian Film Festival the year after its release. It established Liu as an HK action star and, over 30 years on, remains one of the finest examples of the genre. It still regularly crops up on lists of the best martial arts films ever made – often along with Eight Diagram Pole Fighter.

Stylistically it’s very much of its time, and the script (even allowing for translation) now seems clunky with the turning points being hit with the subtlety of a nunchuk. It foreshadows Rocky in the training sequences as Liu transforms from novice to master, albeit with – to Western ears – a less triumphant score.

As a curiosity, it’s well worth a look. Having seen it, hardcore fight fans might want to seek out its reimagining Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, which delivers more thumping.

36th Chamber’s screening here coincides with a trip to Africa. It’s one of the first Shaw Brothers titles that will screen there under a new deal between Celestial Pictures (which licences the Shaw Brothers library) and Sony Max which operates cable and satellite services across 48 African nations.

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The Hong Kong Festival runs 11 – 17 August at Rialto, Auckland. Check out the full programme here.

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