The Way of the Phoenix

in 47th Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Maja Korbecka

After three years of Covid-related hiatus, the festival comes back on track to its regular dates and scale.

The 47th Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) took place between March 30th and April 10th, 2023. In one of the promotional materials screened before the films, we saw the legendary Hong Kong actor Aaron Kwok – Hong Kong IFF ambassador for the last five years – photoshoot to promote the 2020-2022 editions only to find out about their postponement or cancellation. Featuring 200 films from 64 countries and regions (nine world premieres, six international premieres and 67 Asian premieres), this year’s Hong Kong IFF was a true cinephile feast and proof of Hong Kong film culture’s continuous vitality.

Established in 1976, Hong Kong IFF has earned a reputation as the most important meeting point between filmmakers from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. It also became known for introducing the latest and most exciting Chinese-language films to foreign curators and festival organisers. Hong Kong IFF went through a lot of changes, from its beginning as the audience festival modelled after BFI London Film Festival to its current form as hosting the key industry event in East and Southeast Asia – Hong Kong – Asia Film Financing Forum – that happens slightly before the festival itself.

This year’s high local box office revue shows that the audience in Hong Kong craves for cinema-going experiences after long months of the pandemic. Times of multifaceted crisis always encourage escapism. Most screenings at the Hong Kong IFF were sold out and the audience avidly attended Q&As and special events. Local cinema was celebrated with the full retrospective of Soi Cheang’s works and Face to Face masterclass. His latest film – Mad Fate (Ming’on, 2023) – which premiered at the 2023 Berlinale opened the festival alongside Ann Hui’s new work – Elegies (Si, 2023) – a documentary about local Hong Kong poets. Cheuk Wan Chi’s Vital Sign (Sungyun tou jung, 2023) was the festival’s closing film. Although due to the pandemic-induced bottleneck effect in film production, this year’s festival did not feature a section dedicated to the overview of the latest Hong Kong films, the presence of the local cinema within the program was still strong.

Throughout the years Hong Kong IFF programme stood out with its unique complete retrospectives. This year’s focus on Jean-Luc Godard and Japanese filmmaker Itami Juzo strangely complemented each other. Godard’s formalist and rebellious spirit contrasted contentment and joy that transpires through Itami’s films in which he celebrates the details of everyday life. Itami Juzo’s films were a personal discovery for me – the pastel colours, soundscape, slightly surreal stories, happy-go-lucky attitude present in the 1980s mainstream cinema is a comfort food in the current reality of war, economic recession, climate crisis and general uncertainty.

In 2023, after pandemic and major changes happening all over the world as well as in Hong Kong, HKIFF has risen from ashes and the most fitting Firebird Awards celebrated Chinese independent cinema that was also reborn in the darkest times of lockdown. The main awards of the 47th Hong Kong IFF went to Stonewalling (Shimen, 2022) directed by Huang Ji and Ryuji Otsuka, which certainly gives hope for the future. In 2012 the pair’s first full-length film Egg and Stone (Jidan he shitou, 2012) was supposed to open Beijing Independent Film Festival but the ceremony was interrupted by the government cutting off electricity from the venue. Almost 10 years later, Stonewalling had a chance to be shown in Hong Kong and meet the local audiences, many of which are post-2000s born Chinese students who might be peers of Stonewalling’s main character. The film was awarded not because of its status as one of the few remaining truly independent Chinese films, but because it connects audiences regardless of class, gender and nationality. Stonewalling tackles universal matters such as childbirth, family, responsibility and growing up to adulthood while being deeply embedded in the reality of contemporary China.

The low-key awards ceremony and festival screenings were well attended by young cinephiles who flocked to cinemas in search of comfort, a sense of community, and hope for the future. Hong Kong IFF remains a meeting point, a place where cinema ignites public debate and dialogue regardless of current divides.

Maja Korbecka
Edited by Savina Petkova