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Hong Kong Festival 2012: celebrating youth

Slipping into Auckland behind the NZIFF, the Hong Kong Festival opens next week, offering a selection of films in its broader festival programme. This year its theme is young talent, and coincides with the youthful 15th anniversary of Hong Kong being handed back to the Chinese.

Beyond the film programme, the festival launch last week presented the Hong Kong Children’s Symphony Orchestra in concert, and later this month runs a Careers Workshop (primarily targeting students in NZ interested in working in HK) and the Connect Hong Kong Trade Seminar.

The Cinema Hong Kong programme screens at Rialto in Auckland which means that the HK Festival will be one of the last festivals screening in Auckland to present the majority of its programme on 35mm. Regardless of Event’s plans for converting Rialto for purely digital exhibition, most of the HK distributors have advised the festival organisers they’re unlikely to still be offering prints by the time the festival rolls around next year.

A couple of this year’s titles were announced in June, Fairytale Killer and Big Blue Lake, with others made public at the media launch. Live in Flames, Love Lifting and a Shaw Brothers classic, a regular feature of the festival programme, round out the feature programme. Having selected films from the 60s and 70s last year, the progression continues.

1984’s Love in a Fallen City features a youthful Chow Yun-Fat, who’ll be familiar to those who saw Let the Bullets Fly in last year’s NZIFF, to others from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (unless they saw the Chinese version from which his role was excised by censors) and, for those with longer memories, from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and John Woo’s classic The Killer.

Fallen City was directed by the now-veteran Ann Hui, whose 2011 A Simple Life has recently completed an award-winning festival run round Asia and beyond.

The festival will also screen a programme of shorts by students from four HK tertiary institutions, and Angie Chen’s This Darling Life, a documentary about dogs and their owners, nominated for Best Documentary at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards.

Chen, like Hui, is a long-established HK filmmaker who’s worked in mainland China and in the US. Her best-known feature is probably the award-winning 1985 My Name Ain’t Suzie/Fa gai si doi, a hard-hitting Shaw Brothers drama about the lives of prostitutes in Hong Kong (the title refers to popular 1960 title, The World of Suzie Wong).

Chen teaches on Film Academy’s MFA Program at Baptist University, one of the tertiary institutions supplying shorts to the festival this year.

One of the distinctly youth-oriented pics coming out of Hong Kong in recent years, Lives in Flames/Qi Shi Yao Gun doesn’t quite plumb the depths of some of the territory’s summer comedies such as last year’s Beach Spike, arriving without bikinis or volleyballs.

The story of a band that wants to make it big (is there any other kind?) ticks off most of the usual suspects of the genre, with the exception of overt drug use.

It’s art imitating life, as the band at the centre of the story is a real Hong Kong band who end the film travelling under their real-life name, Mr. and their journey in the film is not dissimilar to the one followed in real life. Which explains why during a “let’s play a gig on the street” scene, the girls in the crowd know all the words to the song.

Released in April this year in Hong Kong, it sits in a genre that’s been getting a little more notice beyond Hong Kong over the last couple of years, films looking “realistically” at the lives of a generation of young Hong Kongese as they transition, willingly or otherwise, from youth to adulthood – some of the best being Wilson Chin’s Lan Kwai Fong and Kenneth Bi’s Girl$.

Among the 22 Tips from one of Pixar’s screenwriters being bandied about online recently, one suggested getting your characters into trouble through a coincidence was fine, but solving their problems through one wasn’t.

Jacky Lee’s Live in Flames does more than its share of both. It’s also very local, particularly with several well-known figures in the HK entertainment scene playing themselves. It should, therefore, work better for the Hong Kong community here than the Kiwi one.

Live in Flames trailer

Fairy Tale Killer/Zui hung comes from one half of the Pang twins, Danny. The most recent of the films in the festival, it opened in Hong Kong in May (and simultaneously on the Chinese mainland and in Singapore).

As a team, the Pangs have had some success, notably with The Eye and its sequel; Bangkok Dangerous, first made in 1999 and remade as an English-language version starring Nicholas Cage in 2008; and 2007’s English language The Messengers, featuring a pre-TwilightKristen Stewart.

FTK is a decent thriller pitting a detective (the very competent Lau Ching Wan) against a psychotic killer (overplayed by Wang Baoqiang). That’s not a spoiler as the killer announces himself, to the detective and audience, in the opening scene.

From there it’s part Se7en and, in the final reel, part Saw, especially via a dilemma that’s introduced late on but – happily – without Saw’s bloody excesses as FTK was aiming for a Chinese mainland release.

The killer Wang (no pun intended) is not the only character who’s not playing with a full deck and therein lies a small problem. On a couple of occasions the script requires those folk to drive the action in ways that require a level of rational thought not otherwise on display.

Overall, it’s an enjoyable watch and there’s enough action not to have to follow the subtitles constantly.

Fairytale Killer trailer

Love Lifting, the festival’s opening film, offers an under-exploited role, that of a female weightlifter as romantic lead. Being a romantic drama, the tale involves her overcoming a number of challenges on the way to a reasonably predictable ending, although with a few neat twists and turns along the way.

The lead role is played by Elaine Kong, better known for her vocal chords than her biceps. While Precious McKenzie might wince at some of the technique on display, there’s plenty to like about the low-key storytelling. The romantic interest is played by the very busy Chapman To, appearing here in his fifth feature this year.

It’s written and directed by Herman Yau, whose True Women For Sale screened in the Hong Kong Festival’s first outing here in 2009. Yau’s better known internationally for some of his genre work, particularly horrors, but returns regularly to pieces such as Love Lifting.

Love HK Film said Love Lifting’s

has a local affection and sense of community that’s warm and beguiling … Kong, To and Yau convince that characters are decent people well worth knowing. That may not be worth loud celebration, but quiet applause is appropriate.

While the tale is definitely a local one (and playing to some mainland sensibilities in scenes touching on doping in sport) it’s also an easily-accessible one for audiences regardless of culture or nationality.

For those interested in seeing the film, I’d recommend not watching the trailer as it contains a horrendous spoiler.

Love Lifting trailer (with English subtitles)

Jessey Tsang’s Big Blue Lake/Da lan hu sits at the arthouse end of this year’s festival selection, a slow-moving drama about relationships and the effects of aging on family dynamics – specifically Alzheimer’s. It locates itself away from the classic urban settings of Hong Kong, and the pace is appropriately less frenetic.

It’s a small story about ordinary people, carried by a pair of well-known local actors, Leila Tong and Lawrence Chou. One HK reviewer praised its “innate appreciation for local culture.” Another called it “easily one of the best independent films of the year.” This writer enjoyed it most of the four fiction features.

Big Blue Lake trailer (with English subtitles)

The Cinema Hong Kong component of the Hong Kong Festival runs at Rialto, Auckland 16 – 22 August, with other events running throughout
the month. All films screen in Cantonese language with Chinese and English subtitles.

More info here.

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