40th Hong Kong International Film Festival
Hong Kong, April 6 - April 17 2016
The Fipresci Prize was one of the competition categories in the 40th anniversary edition of HKIFF, which presented some major retrospectives—on Wong Kar-wai (his production company Jet Tone was commemorating 25 years), and Bruce Lee (his Hong Kong films being freshly restored in 4K). But serving as a juror of the Fipresci Prize, nostalgia was far from being a major factor in judging the dozen films that were nominated for the award (one film eventually was a no-show in the festival). The vast majority of the films in competition looked at our contemporary world, presenting diverse visions of life in a range of countries that are strikingly different one from the other (India, China, Japan, Mongolia, Ghana, Austria, Thailand, Saudi Arabia). Together, the films comprised a strong cluster of cinematic creations but if a single theme could be distilled, I would say it is forbearance. The protagonists of the Japanese film The Name of the Whale (Isanatori), the Costa Rican Viaje, the Mongolian Zud, the Austrian Tomcat (Kater), the Ghanaian Nakom, the Thai film The Island Funeral (Maha Samut Lae Susaan), the Chinese film Life After Life (Zhifan maoye) and the Saudi film Barakah Meets Barakah (Barakah yoqabil Barakah), confront both social and private pressures with endurance and determination, never really submitting to their private demons in themselves. Some films did, however, demonstrate the psychological overreach of the protagonists into their respective hearts of darkness, such as India’s Autohead, the Czech Republic’s I, Olga Hepnarova (Já, Olga Hepnarová), Japan’s Hee, but even here, there is an indisputable sense that the characters are crying for acceptance of what they are and for society to change outlooks and perceptions. The films might feature despairing and longsuffering characters but their narratives are never really despondent.
Though individual films contained striking and memorable qualities, such as the central performance in I, Olga Hepnarova, the eccentricity of a tale of spirit possession in the Chinese film Life After Life, the visual and exotic splendour of the African locations in Nakom and the Mongolian locations in Zud, or even the sheer novelty of just watching a film from Saudi Arabia preaching liberal values, it was the Thai film, The Island Funeral, that impressed most for its overall design. To the Fipresci jury, the sense of hope, desire, and dream, underwritten by an atmosphere of mystery and enigma, came together in The Island Funeral, directed by Pimpaka Towira. Set in the troubled southern region of Thailand, shaken as it is by a violent insurrection of Muslim separatists, its three main characters (city-dwellers from Bangkok) undertake a journey through the rural landscape with an innocence and purity that is completely affecting. This was director Pimpaka Towira’s second feature film (her short film Prelude to the General [Nimit Luang] also won a prize in the short film competition in HKIFF). The Island Funeral represents Pimpaka’s independent style of filmmaking where vision and style are melded with great assurance, and it is a mode of filmmaking that certainly deserves to be supported inasmuch as it is a rare quality of cinema in Southeast Asia, if not in the whole Asian continent. The HKIFF’s continuing capacity to give a voice to this independent sector in Asian Cinema is its most vital achievement over the past forty years. The films that fell into the Fipresci Prize category also attested to the breadth and range of the whole festival, covering world cinema by giving central exposure to its diversity and multiplicity. So long as this can be upheld over the long term, HKIFF’s longevity seems assured. (Stephen Teo)
Hong Kong International Film Festival: www.film.iksv.org