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Hong Kong Festival: small town, big population, sends a diverse collection

Running 12-18 August at Rialto, the second edition of the Hong Kong Film Festival expands from five to eight features and offers a pretty diverse selection of made in Hong Kong over the last year or so.

In brief, the line-up comprises a day-and-date premiere of Benny Chan’s City Under Siege, international festival fare At the End of Daybreak, Echoes of the Rainbow, Rebellion and Vengeance; recent NZFF films Dream Home and Love in a Puff; and one of HK’s more popular films so far this year, Gallants.

In more detail and alphabetical order, for want of any better, the festival breaks down like this.

At the End of Daybreak
Yuhang Ho, 2010, 93 mins
Already a veteran of seven international festivals (Locarno, Toronto, Vancouver, Pusan, Hong Kong Asian, Tokyo and Rotterdam), At the End of Daybreak is not a solely HK affair, directed by a Malaysian and funded from Hong Kong, Malaysia and South Korea.

Winner of the Netpac Prize (Network for Asian Cinema) and a double winner at March’s Asian Film Awards (Best Newcomer: Jane Ng Meng Hui and Best Supporting Actress: Kara Hui), the film deals with aftermath of a relationship between a 23-year old layabout and an underage girl who meet in an online chatroom.

Love HK Film gave it a mixed response, saying:

Audiences looking for resolution or complete narratives may find At the End of Daybreak disappointing if not bewildering. However, discerning filmgoers should easily find value in this uncompromising and sometimes surprising little work.

Variety was more generous, offering:

Ho … proves he’s the most interesting — and possibly most talented — of the young Malaysian helmers. Winner of the Netpac prize at Locarno, the pic will likely coast along the fest circuit, becoming a sought-after DVD when Ho eventually hits the arthouse big time.

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City Under Siege
Benny Chan, 2010, TBC
day and date with Hong Kong.
There’s little to say about this one, as its premiere screening here (opening the festival on 12 August) is a day-and-date premiere with its debut in Hong Kong.

Its logline, “A troupe of circus performers embark on a crime spree after they accidentally acquire superhuman powers”, puts it in the sci-fi category. Of its leads, Aaron Kwok was last seen here in last year’s Storm Warriors; Shu Qi will better known to lovers of B movies, having appeared as luggage in The Transporter and as a herbalist in last year’s triptych New York, I Love You.

Director Chan (who has confusingly worked under 7 different names during his career) currently has another film in post-production, martial arts picture Shaolin featuring three of Hong Kong’s best-known actors, Jackie Chan, Andy Lau and Nicholas Tse.

* * *

Dream Home
Edmond Pang, 2010, 96 mins
A woman (Josie Ho) will go to whatever lengths necessary to obtain her dream home with a view of the sea. This includes driving down the property value and decreasing the occupancy rate by killing her potential neighbors …

The film premiered at the Udine Far East Film in April, and has since screened at the NZ and Sydney festivals.

Love HK Film said:

Yay, Pang Ho-Cheung does a slasher! It’s also infused with social issues, making Dream Home a mismatched genre experiment or the dryest, darkest comedy ever made.

Dream Home is the work of an undeniably strong filmmaker, and an understanding of Pang Ho-Cheung goes a long way in aiding appreciation. And if the viewer has neither the time nor inclination to care about the things that Pang cares about? They get a sledge hammer, sweaty sex, spilled entrails, and some snipped-off body parts. Pang Ho-Cheung makes sure that there’s something here for everyone. Except probably grandma.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it screened in the Incredibly Strange strand of the film festival here. And, for anyone who feels the need to get a better understanding of the director, his Love in a Puff also screens here in both the NZFF and HK festival.

In essence, the story centres on a murderous rage of a young woman gazumped in her attempt to buy an apartment and along the way takes a few gentle jabs at the Hong Kong property market (but not too many, since the film’s main financier was lead actress’ Josie Ho’s father, Stanley, a property developer).

The film is not for the faint of heart. As Variety put it:

Gore hounds will find the imaginatively staged killings certainly worth their time In one of the film’s, er, nicer touches, Cheng uses only household and construction items to butcher her victims. Creative use of a vacuum cleaner on a pregnant woman is especially disturbing.

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Echoes of the Rainbow
Alex Law, 2010, TBC
Echoes of the Rainbow is one of those films that changes lives – in this case the lives of the people in the district of Hong Kong in which it was set and filmed. It didn’t change their lives by introducing them to the magic of the movies or by giving them parts as extras (although it did both those things). It changed their lives by allowing their lives to remain the same.

The suburb in which the story, set in the 60s, was filmed was scheduled for demolition by the HK government. (They do like new in HK.) Following the film’s release and acclaim, a successful campaign was mounted to preserve Wing Lee Street.

Not content with taking on the government and winning, EOTR also went overseas and conquered Germany, coming home with the Crystal Bear (Best Film) from this year’s Berlinale. It screened in its native HK at the Film Festival in March and left April’s Hong Kong Film Awards with four gongs (Best New Performer, Aarif Lee; Best Screenplay, Alex Law; Best Actor, Simon Yam; and Best Original Film Song; Lowell Lo & Alex Law).

The film garnered positive reviews, Variety calling it:

A nostalgic family melodrama with its heart in the right place, Echoes of the Rainbow is diverting and even affecting … Alex Law’s largely autobiographical tale focuses on a struggling but loving working-class family with two sons who live in a sentimental version of 1969 Hong Kong. Mostly sweet without becoming saccharine…

while Love HK Film said it was “an engaging and well-made film with an earned sentimentality. Audiences anywhere should be able to enjoy its universal themes and emotions.”

* * *

Gallants fka Fists of Dignity
Derek Kwok & Clement Cheng, 2010, 98 min
Premiered at this year’s HK festival, Gallants brings together a bunch of aging action stars and lets them relive their glory days in a script that uses humour and few pieces of eye-candy to distract from their diminished fighting skills. It sounds like Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in Tough Guys or Michael Caine in several roles this millennium.

It proved a surprise hit at the festival. Love HK Film (which, having read its reviews of 7 films screening here, I’m not convinced lives up to its name) certainly loved this one:

This unheralded little movie is thus far 2010’s biggest surprise – an entertaining and winning kung-fu comedy with plenty of old-school Hong Kong Cinema love. Featuring excellent action plus a terrific star turn from Teddy Robin Kwan. Exec-produced by some guy named Andy Lau.

Twitch Film raved about it, especially its veteran stars, noting “the oldest ginger is still the best, and this film is a testament to that.”

A reviewer at the Udine Festival wrote:

The film works not only because Cheng and Kwok have created a story inspired by their own boyhood  Kung-Fu fanatacism, but because even those uninitiated in the Kung-Fu genre (or with an aversion to glorified violence) can appreciate the nobility of the featured veterans’ skilful combat.

Gallants chooses never to indulge itself  in the type of excessive  sentimentality that so often weakens western interpretations of the genre. There is always a well-timed joke to break up the film’s more  emotive moments, and while certain humorous moments are intended for a  native audience (often revolving around Cantonese wordplay), the comedy is often so absurd and exaggerated it provides a powerful punch

* * *

Love in a Puff
Edmond Pang, 2010, 95 min
Like many other places, Hong Kong has implemented an anti-smoking law that bans people from smoking in all indoor areas. Unlike other places, somebody felt it was a worthy premise to underpin a romantic comedy.

Several reviewers familiar with Pang Ho-Cheung’s other work (including Dream Home above) found the film light compared to his other work, although as a rom-com one shouldn’t necessarily be surprised by that. it fluffy and profanity-laden romantic comedy is tame but also one of his funniest films, thanks to co-writer Heiward Mak’s hilarious dialogue. However, the insignificant story likely qualifies it as one of Pang’s lesser efforts.

Variety’s Australian reviewer saw it at its Hong Kong International Film Festival opening and wrote:

A lighter-than-air yarn about two cheerful nicotine enthusiasts, Hong Kong romancer “Love in a Puff” is an unfiltered delight. Pang Ho-cheung gets the balance exactly right with this well-realized vehicle for Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue, which also plays like a poem to that most cinematic of vices, smoking.

[The film] deftly maintains momentum, its pendulum swinging between comedy and drama, as the wannabe lovers try to decide whether or not to begin a relationship. A semi-comic climax, pivoting on the government’s decision to raise cigarette prices, prompts a clever and funny twist on the romantic-comedy trope of the frenzied last-minute dash.

Screen Daily also liked it:

Love In A Puff is set in a Hong Kong we rarely see: a fiercely modern cosmopolis where twenty and thirtysomethings work and socialise, smoke and drink, flirt and date around the city’s streets, bars and coffee shops.

It is so charming, intelligently executed and universal in its themes that it deserves to score wide arthouse sales.

Reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset with doffs of the cap to Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer, the film nevertheless has a unique flavour from its gleefully un-PC focus on smoking to a cheerfully vulgar streak.

* * *

Herman Yau Lai-To, 2009, 87/100 mins
We haven’t yet been able to confirm which version will be seen here, the original 100 minute Category III version or the 87 minute IIB version without naughty bits. (Category III is the Asian equivalent to R18 – usually for excessive violence or sexual content but, in HK, it is also used for realistic depictions of gang activity and culture.)

It seems the latter reason is the rating-driver in this instance, since the film centres around an insular crime syndicate, which is really a big dysfunctional family, about to have all its closet skeletons exposed on one night.

Quiet Cool described it thus:

a character-driven drama, brimming with local color, an attentive eye to detail.
Herman Yau … is making some of the most exciting cinema coming out of Hong Kong (or really anywhere). His cinema is always unexpected, irreverent, playful, creative, and rewarding.

Other reviews were mixed, but most acknowledged that there had been a lot of hype in advance of the film’s release and that – even if Rebellion didn’t live up to the hype – it was a pretty decent film by a well-respected director with over 50 features on his CV.

Yau had a second film released last year, Turning Point, which was one of the most successful HK films of the year, released following the first season of a TV drama of the same name.

* * *

Johnnie To, 2009, 108 min
Another festival offering, screening in competition at Cannes, Toronto and Sitges last year, Vengeance cheered up Variety’s reviewer in Cannes:

Johnnie To and Johnny Hallyday have a bloody good time in Vengeance” a smoothly executed revenge thriller that finds one of Hong Kong’s genre masters in assured action-movie form.

Apart from the novelty of casting a Gallic rock ‘n’ roll icon as an aging ex-hitman … this tightly tuned, heavily armed vehicle is vintage To, though it may strike both partisans and detractors as more of the stylish same.

Since few filmgoers here are deeply familiar with To’s work, the similarities with some of his other work are unlikely to worry them. For those who are, Vengeance forms the third in what some reviewers (although not To) have called a trilogy of his works about hitmen, the other films being The Mission and Exiled.

Vengeance features Johnny Halliday, “France’s answer to Cliff Richards”. If Monsieur Halliday was the answer, one wonders what the question might have been; but, since Cliff Richards was hailed as Britain’s answer to Elvis, it’s not worth burning many brain cells over. Halliday certainly doesn’t sing in this outing and his aging hips – or his character’s hips – don’t have much gyrating left in them.

A French-HK co-production, the heart of the story is a universal one – the lengths to which a parent will go to protect their child – wrapped in a typically-stylish To approach to mise-en-scene and his trademark blood-sprays.

And, for those who don’t want to watch an entirely subtitled movie, much of it is in English with smatterings of French and Cantonese scattered like croutons in a blood-red soup.

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