A Sisyphus State of Mind

in 37th Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Lukas Foerster

In his astounding opening address to this year’s edition, Li Cheuk-to, artistic director of the Hong Kong International Film festival, writes, referring to ongoing commercialization and technical changes that don’t seem to bode well for the future of the big screen: ”After paradise lost, one can always emulate Sisyphus”. The sentence rings true; generally, but also when thinking about the HKIFF and its courageous programming, despite funding problems in a city that seems only begrudgingly willing to acknowledge its very existence: many screening spaces are hidden in the smaller screens of local multiplexes, which are themselves only accessible through gigantic shopping malls.

And maybe it also rings true when thinking about the current state of Hong Kong cinema, which is under constant threat of being marginalized by both Hollywood blockbusters and the booming film industry of mainland China. And still, films are being made, by fellow-Sisyphusians like the underrated genre maverick and workaholic Herman Yau, whose latest Ip Man: The Final Fight was this year’s opener — and a worthy one at that. The fifth film of recent years about the legendary martial artist and teacher of Bruce Lee is actually the first that moves beyond the obvious attractions (although the two main action set pieces are expertly done) and tries to make some sense of Ip Man as an historically grounded individual. Ip Man: The Final Fight is set in the Hong Kong of the 1950s and 1960s, in the master’s later years. Despite its nostalgic longing for old tobacco brands and kitschy pop tunes, the film has a sober, even disillusioned feel to it. Ip Man is an old man standing on the sidelines of history, a man who, even in his ”final fight”, doesn’t accomplish much more than upholding some tired moral standards, which don’t have any meaning — or effect — in the real world any more. But still, he hustles on. Just another Sisyphus…

The programming is, to be sure, nothing short of amazing. The HKIFF has an inclusive and unwound approach to curating, with sections focusing on, for example, recent Swedish cinema, Latin American films, or the American avant-garde filmmaker James Broughton. Its main attraction, however, is the many, extremely varied sections centered on Asian, and particularly East Asian cinema: in this area, almost everything is represented, from small, recalcitrant independent productions to the latest blockbusters from Japan and South Korea, from the most recent developments in digital filmmaking to historical rediscoveries. A routine, stylish genre exercise like Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage Beyond might be programmed immediately next to something like Jungle Love, a gloriously vulgar, completely disjointed art porn fantasy by Philippine smut peddler Sherad Anthony Sanchez.

Another odd duck, and quite possibly the most interesting film in the Young Cinema Competition: Yang Lina’s Longing for the Rain, some kind of supernatural soap opera shot in documentary style about an upper class housewife’s sexual adventures with a ghost. Not ashamed of its somewhat trashy premise, the film instead gives in — like its protagonist — to desire. But desire is never constant, always fleeting. The images — never in danger of crystallizing into static beauty — move along at a frantic pace. A busy film in a busy world, odd twists and turns lurk behind every corner. When the husband leaves his ghost-ridden wife and takes the daughter with him, all seems to be set for a turn into proper festival cinema territory. However, the film doesn’t behave after all; the ghost lover insists on staying and the protagonist’s always inquisitive, whimsical gaze gets ever more capricious, seeking, in one of many closely observed religious ceremonies, the body of a monk instead of transcendence.

In presenting, among other gems, four rather unknown films by Keisuke Kinoshita and an extensive retrospective of the legendary Golden Harvest Studio, which went far beyond the famous Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan vehicles, the historical programs were also more interested in opening up the field of inquiry than in hunting down canonical masterpieces — although the festival also joins the dubious trend of presenting high profile restorations in event-style settings. The most interesting of the Restored Classics section, however — and quite tellingly the only one presented not digitally but on 35mm — was a fascinating low profile Hong Kong production from 1960: Bu Wancang’s Nobody’s Child is a naive and touching melodrama about a young orphan (later superstar Josephine Siao in a very early role), who is being sold to a travelling street artist. The storyline is strangely mirrored, if not displaced entirely, by the animal world — starting with the very first shot of a lamb. Later, the orphan doesn’t die in the cold, but a show monkey does instead, and when the travelling artist finally also has to give in, not the girl, but only his dog stands guard at his grave. In the end, the girl moves on, away from the camera, towards an uncertain future — wherever the animals might lead her.

Edited by Steven Yates