In a city often derided as art-phobic and money-obsessed, the Hong Kong International Film Festival provides an annual opportunity for local audiences to contextualize their own regional cinema alongside the breadth of international contemporary filmmaking. While the glitz of the HK movie industry is paraded in various galas and a high-wattage opening award ceremony, the programmers have left plenty of room throughout the festival’s seventeen days of screenings for the usual arthouse suspects, student-director and avant-garde showcases, and a strong focus on new Chinese-language cinema. With this diverse slate spread out across multiplex theaters throughout the city, it’s surprising that HKIFF also manages to maintain a certain level of coherence, partly due to the atmosphere created by what seems to be a dedicated viewership and the visibility of well-known Sinophone cinephiles like Tony Rayns and David Bordwell. Since I had just four whole days in the city, I was only able to catch a tiny fraction of what’s being offered this year, and was frustrated that, due to the program’s schedule, I had to miss new work from Johnnie To and Zhao Liang, a master class led by Jia Zhangke, and a retrospective dedicated to Wa Ka-fai. Still, having been away from constant exposure to world cinema for the past half-year, the luxury of being alone in a foreign city and tearing through a dozen films felt like a strange kind of homecoming.
For overseas Cantonese communities, Hong Kong cinema has long offered a series of contradictory myths with which to identify, images of a culture at once cosmopolitan and insular, sophisticated and vulgar. So I wasn’t surprised, on my first visit to the city, to discover the important role the movies still seem to play not only in its tourism industry but also in its proud sense of its own glamorously modern history. One of the most breathtaking views of Hong Kong Island’s skyline can be enjoyed from Avenue of the Stars, an otherwise tackily designed promenade whose entrance features a nude female statue draped in celluloid and whose pavement is marked with the names and handprints of Hong Kong (as well as a few mainland and Taiwanese) celebrities. Much more impressive is the Hong Kong Film Archive, modestly tucked in the heart of the residential area Sai Wan Ho. A highly active and accessible research center, the archive makes a passionate case for the study of popular local entertainment, and has also cultivated a neighborhood atmosphere with frequent exhibitions that attract mainly senior audiences.
It is here that the first official screenings of the festival took place, in a sidebar retrospective highlighting the work of Hong Kong production company Union Film Enterprise. Billed as a studio of great “moral conviction” that also helped advance Cantonese film style through the 50s and early 60s, Union serves as a fascinating counterpoint to the widespread image of Hong Kong cinema’s decadence and amorality.
Watching these films, it’s easy to get tripped up by the conflicted attitudes with which we cinephiles tend to approach the problem of didacticism and social propaganda in the movies: whereas it’s long been acceptable to mock a Hollywood filmmaker like Stanley Kramer for his preachy liberalism, or be disdainful of the “quality cinema” so many revered film traditions have been formed in reaction against, it becomes harder to dismiss heavy-handed moralism when it is presented as an integral facet of a foreign cinema’s development.
Whether in the “healthy realism” of Taiwan’s Central Motion Picture Corporation or the Communist nationalism of PRC propaganda, Sinophone films of the era can sometimes seem like one long, exhausting effort to sanitize society and promote proper ideology—and it’s hard to know, as a contemporary American viewer, how to regard these works not just as historical objects or reflections of sociopolitical phenomena, but also as pervasive forms of popular art to which the older Hong Kong generation still feels attached. The lasting emotional resonance of these films is apparent, though: in the screenings I attended, the audience could occasionally be heard commenting on recognizable settings, quietly advising and reprimanding the characters on their decisions, even singing along to the films’ soundtrack of Cantonese-opera chestnuts and patriotic anthems.
I was only able to catch two of the forty-four titles that will be showcased throughout the next month, and considering the diverse genres Union experimented with (from family melodramas to opera adaptations to ghost stories), two social-realist films from house director Chun Kim are far from a sufficient sampling of the studio’s achievement. A glance at the program reveals one of the primary conflicts at play in overseas Chinese film history: on the one hand, there is the suggestion of ethnic solidarity and continuity with tradition on the mainland (as evidenced by the adaptation of classic Chinese literature and May Fourth novels), while on the other, the emergence of a cinema that directly appeals to diaspora tastes through the use of dialect and locally relevant subject matter. Chun’s The More the Merrier and Parents’ Hearts (both 1955) begin within the chaos of urban life, swooping down from the sky to aerial shots of Hong Kong and views of nightlife reminiscent of the neon cityscapes in 30s Shanghai cinema. Soon enough, we’re descending into cycles of class and domestic torment that will surely be familiar to viewers of early PRC melodrama. Bearing the influence of Lu Xun’s social urgency, these films share an embrace of modernity as the antidote to feudal oppression, and locate progress in a fragile nuclear family structure that requires protection from both outmoded Chinese values and the times’ economic instability.
Films so persistent in their worldview, and so socially deterministic in their conception of human behavior, unintentionally draw our attention to the cracks in the surface, to hints of doubt and contradiction. In Parents’ Hearts, we find this in Ma Si-tsang’s extraordinary, nearly Chaplinesque performance as a struggling actor determined to keep his eldest son in school. In several scenes, Ma moves agilely from comic recitations of rhythmic, pun-rich Cantonese opera to the inevitable tragic register, as the protagonist goes to absurd lengths to deny the limitations poverty has placed on his parental abilities. The More the Merrier, whose ensemble structure takes a class-centered perspective on the woes of childrearing (one might think of it as a predecessor to Bergman’s Brink of Life), spends most of its time wriggling out of an overload of subplots. But in one particular scene, where old-world resistance to adoption collides with new-world acceptance, confusion mounts between the intergenerational characters, the music rises to a fever pitch, and all of a sudden the bottom seems to fall out from under the film’s mechanical structure. It’s in these rare moments that Union’s trademark lecturing tone is drowned out by an eerie, existential wooziness, undermining the voice-of-God narration that bookends each film and frames it as a clear-cut moral lesson. Here we discover a cinema that, often against its own most earnest intentions, boldly confronts more questions than it can answer.
Another opening-day selection, a four-film anthology called Quattro Hong Kong 2 that was commissioned by the festival, sets out to celebrate present-day Hong Kong. As proven by previous attempts like Paris, je t’aime and Tokyo!, most of the excitement to be found in this kind of cine-tourism is in anticipating how each director will deviate from the assignment. After an uncharacteristically saccharine all-the-lonely-people diptych from Filipino badass Brilliante Mendoza and a pleasant but thinly imagined crime comedy from Malaysia’s Ho Yuhang, it’s no surprise when Apichatpong Weerasethakul ends up being the one to step up and break the mold. Eschewing the easily identifiable locations and exotic scenery expected of this genre, he holes our vision up in a hotel room in which two men flirt while staring out at the neighboring building and park outside their window. Though Apichatpong makes the requisite experimental gesture by replacing their dialogue with gurgling underwater noise, the film still makes for a moment of spontaneous intimacy not found in the rest of the omnibus—a reminder that celebrating the sensations of city life does not have to equate to branding the city as a product.
Last (and unfortunately least) is a new short by Stanley Kwan, set on a bus filled with passengers chatting on their trip back from the AsiaWorld-Expo. Prefaced with a note on the digitally animated version of the famous Song Dynasty painting “Along the River During the Qingming Festival,” which was featured at the expo, the film sets us up for one of Kwan’s rigorous dissection of history’s specter in contemporary life, then ultimately ditches the art reference in favor of phoned-in TV-drama chatter. Kwan has long been one of the most international of Hong Kong filmmakers, with a body of work that stretches from his native territory to the mainland, Taiwan, and the U.S. But nearly two decades have passed since he made Actress, one of the masterpieces of the Hong Kong film canon, and his surface observations on the city’s multilingualism (which a character cornily describes as “the music of living”) bear no resemblance to the beauty and adventurousness of his early career. Instead they rehash the sloppy ensemble-drama form of his late-90s Hold Me Tight and The Island Tales, while also taking the rose-colored ideal of urban multiculturalism at face value. Too unambitious to really get under the skin of the city’s dynamism, the film ends with a thud in the form of a tourism ad, trumpeting Hong Kong as “Asia’s World City.”
The problem of “the commission” is on display elsewhere in the festival, most provocatively in the latest work from Jia Zhangke. Despite a diminution in stature in recent years, Jia’s oeuvre up until now has remained astonishingly consistent, and in fact seemed only to be building in its aesthetic resourcefulness. His past few government-approved films have inspired knee-jerk cries of “sell-out,” but I had perhaps naively chalked much of this up to the critical community’s celebrity-auteur fatigue; to me, his work from The World to 24 City points to an extravagantly gifted, appropriately restless talent not content to be restricted to one location, subject matter, mode of expression, or audience. I Wish I Knew seems to me his first major dud. Collaging interviews of multi-generational Shanghainese with a range of classic film excerpts and a half-hearted attempt at a ghost story featuring favorite leading lady Zhao Tao, this new fiction-doc hybrid takes all that was groundbreaking in 24 City and turns it into a plug-and-chug formula.
Where the earlier film found original ways to explore the postmodern friction between reality and theatricality, and the inextricability of the performed ideal self from the actual historical self in the talking-heads form, I Wish I Knew proceeds under the notion that the oral record is sufficient. As the endless parade of interview subjects drifts by, Jia—for the first time in his career—seems bored, and under such an indifferent gaze the political turmoil of twentieth-century China becomes nothing more than a narrative cliché. It doesn’t help that cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, once the most haunting visual stylist working in contemporary mainland cinema, has fallen into an annoying habit of romantically bleary, shallow-focus compositions—an effect that makes every shot feel like the world is being shoehorned into a preordained, trademarked package. The sense of discovery and insight is preempted by a predictability of style.
I have to temper my disappointment for a moment, because I’m wary of criticizing this film without simultaneously reasserting Jia’s role as one of the most deeply committed artists we have today. With the offense of Zhang Yimou’s collusion with the CPC still fresh in viewers’ minds, it’s perhaps understandable why some have taken to decrying the fact that I Wish I Knew was commissioned by the Shanghai government to mark the opening of the World Expo. But such dismissal ignores Jia’s continual critique of the dictatorial Chinese regime—both past and present, in ways both implicit and explicit—and the platform he gives several anti-Communist and overseas figures in I Wish I Knew. In one of the film’s rare strokes of brilliance, he constructs a passionate defense of the great Chinese director Fei Mu, who was blacklisted by the Communist authorities for his overly “bourgeois” and “soft” film Spring in a Small Town (1948). The recent criticism also evinces a lack of sympathy for the problem that Jia has spent the past few years actively, admirably confronting: how to fulfill his yearning to be both a populist and an art filmmaker who can address viewers in his homeland—many of whom, according to his post-screening Q&A, still nevertheless attack him for revealing the country’s “ugly” side to foreigners. For better or worse, this is an artist who has begun to see his work primarily as a form of active communication, one who feels compelled to reach the full breadth of his audience and holds no illusions about operating in a vacuum.
I Wish I Knew may be an aesthetic failure, but it’s small-minded to regard it as a moral offense. If the realities of Chinese independent filmmaking have forced Jia to seem to outsiders more and more like a pragmatic businessman, the new film finds him still very much enraptured with the romance of movies and how they can dignify both artist and audience. We also see the crystallization of a pan-Chinese sensibility that has been rare in mainland filmmaking. Jia’s identification with the overseas Chinese community, his apparent emotional investment in Taiwan and Hong Kong as the havens to which many Chinese artists and intellectuals have historically fled, is one example of a globally-minded, non-nationalistic ethnocentricity that will hopefully continue to expand his already generous worldview.
This love for the resilience of Chinese people becomes the subject of another commissioned Jia project, the short-film anthology Yulu. With funding from Johnnie Walker, whose motto (“Keep Walking”) figures ridiculously throughout the film, Jia collaborates with six young directors to chronicle the achievements of twelve outstanding mainlanders, including a dancer, an AIDS activist, and a life-risking journalist. Jia claims to have had recent teenage suicides in mind while putting Yulu together, and for the most part the film feels like an expertly shot and edited “It Gets Better” campaign—inspiring, even necessary (in light of the fact that even the best of Chinese cinema tends to depict the underclass as passive victims of social circumstance), but also rigidly optimistic. In the past, Jia has used the short-doc format to profile notable Chinese artists (fashion designer Ma Ke in Useless and Liu Xiaodong in Dong), but those films contained crucial traces of uncertainty about the efficacy of human effort and the insuperability of China’s class structure. With its nugget-sized pieces of hope and heroism that smooth over the unsavory complexities of reality, Yulu represents Jia at his least curious, his least hungry, though perhaps also his most practical.
I should probably now stress that the festival was not all disillusionment. My favorites came from four very different directors, two of them much-acclaimed veterans and two relative rookies. Malaysia’s Tan Chui Mui, who contributed the best segment in Yulu, was on hand to introduce her second feature, Year Without a Summer. With her feature-film debut in 2006, Love Conquers All, it was easy to dismiss Tan as redundant: a spare, long-take film about a young woman moving to the big city, falling in love with the wrong guy and then inevitably into prostitution, seemed like the last thing stereotypically miserabilist Sinophone cinema needed. But one would have had to ignore the preternatural severity of Tan’s gaze, and her restrained portrait of how romance descends into neediness, to be unaffected by this disturbing little film.
With her sophomore effort, she proves she has the best eyes of the Malaysian New Wave. Shooting her native Kuantan with a Canon camera, she bathes the rocky geography in darkness and moonlight before moving onto some mystical imagery, warped chronology, and other forms of Apichatpong-like illogic. The story—or what little there is of one—revolves around an adult’s homecoming and a young boy’s wish to leave the small town, both the longing and resentment of place seen as two sides of the same coin. The setting is something of a departure for Chinese filmmakers in Malaysia, who have rarely focused exclusively on Malay characters or village life. If Tan’s leaps into abstraction ultimately feel a little forced, and the film’s sense of the mythic proportions of its landscapes a bit too diffuse, the director’s newfound visual mastery still marks a step forward for Chinese cinema in Southeast Asia, which has often seemed too reliant on the influence of its mainland and Taiwanese counterparts.
Another remarkable visual stylist can be found in Li Hongqi, who has already garnered attention among followers of Chinese cinema for his black comedy Winter Vacation. Set in a Northern China full of empty roads and nondescript buildings, the film utilizes an obsessively controlled widescreen frame to amplify small-town ennui. While Li’s acid tone is prevalent throughout the discontented margins of contemporary Chinese culture, from the nation’s rock music to its modern art (including the work of recently arrested Ai Weiwei), it has rarely manifested this vividly in cinema, which might be why critics have been pulling out every imaginable comparison to Western film—everything from Jarmusch to Haneke to South Park. I, for one, thought of Todd Solondz, not even so much because of the deadpan humor, but because of how attuned both filmmakers are to the naked shamefulness of empty domestic spaces. In one recurrent set-up, Li has a perpetually pouting young grandson sitting on a black couch next to his grandfather, and the only thing that seems to be keeping these figures from being swallowed up by the barren white walls is a pitiful basket of fake grapes on the coffee table. For all its comic and pictorial precision, though, the film lapses into obvious irony in its final scene, which features a teacher losing his cool and lecturing his pre-adolescent students on the meaningless of life. Li is in certain ways already in full command of his art, but he isn't yet a great satirist: his cynicism ends up feeling more whiny and petulant than insightful.
Li’s latest film, Are We Really So Far From the Madhouse?, is ultimately more convincing, pursuing the white noise and distortion behind Winter Vacation's numb silence. Following the Beijing-based post-punk band P.K. 14 on tour, Li replaces dialogue with quacking sound effects, and sets long highway scenes to the band’s anguished, ear-splitting ruminations. Much of the film is grimy and detached, so that when the inevitable concert sequence arrives three-quarters in, with its swirling colored lights, audience members raving it up in communal seizure, and close-ups of the lead singer and his vein-popping neck, the effect is appropriately cathartic. By the end of this schizophrenic, half-B&W/half-color head-trip, you’ll likely feel as high as the bandmates look.
Finally, I’m grateful to the person who decided to screen Frederick Wiseman’s Boxing Gym and Wang Bing’s Man with No Name in close proximity to each other. Being able to juxtapose two of the world’s master documentarians at the height of their powers, I felt in awe of how deeply cinema can burrow into human behavior while seeming to stay close to the surface of the material world, and also rejecting movie psychology and facile symbolism. While it’s a truism of contemporary criticism that there is nothing inherently superior or authentic about cinema vérité (the artful impurity of Jia’s best documentary work has contributed to further cementing that notion), Wiseman and Wang demonstrate what is so powerful about the style when it inhabits the middle ground between dispassionate observation and found lyricism.
In the former film, Wiseman captures the punishing rituals at an Austin boxing gym where the clientele are a matter-of-fact melting pot of race, age, and gender. It becomes unnecessary to know who these barely individuated figures are: the language and culture created within this cluttered, tightly enclosed space, the vibration of sports mats and the swaying of limbs, are what humanizes them. Wang takes this mode to its extreme, cutting out dialogue and onscreen human interaction, and focusing our attention on one solitary man’s slow movement through a deserted landscape. The subject of the title, a cave-dweller who spends his days subsisting off the bitter earth, is viewed with what seems an endless store of patience. With his posture stooped and his gaze forever downward, it is almost halfway through the film before we get a good look into his eyes. Yet this archetypal nowhere-man is never reduced to political allegory, a source of anthropological knowledge, or a blank slate upon which the director can project humanistic or liberal ideals. For Wang, the very "thingness" of this man's life—the smell, the coarse textures, the dreary colors, the crooked frame he inhabits—is not a negation or contradiction of his humanity but rather its irreducible core.
Wang and Wiseman have given us some of the most tactile, physically concentrated cinema in recent memory, while at the same time, by virtue of their choice in subjects, remaining the inescapably political filmmakers they have always been. The overriding argument uniting these two newest films, though, is that it’s not sociological backstory or character psychology that pulls us toward the human image onscreen, but the simplest patterns made by the body moving through the everyday.