Old and New; Passion and Alienation

in 39th Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Peter Rist

The 38th Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF, 24 March to 7 April, 2014) was excellent. Although the HKIFF has fallen a little in its international standing in relation to Busan/Pusan (BIFF/PIFF), it still does a great job of representing recent Asian cinema — West Asian as well as East and South-east — for the international audience as well as world cinema for the local audience. In addition the HKIFF continues to collaborate with the Hong Kong Film Archive in mounting retrospective screenings — with the first eight films of “Ways of the Underworld: Hong Kong Gangster Film as a Genre” showing during the festival — and, I counted well over 50 retrospective screenings this year, including 10 “Restored Classics”, four recent restorations of late Ozu Yasujiro color films, programs devoted to Isabelle Huppert, Jiang Wen, the Japanese experimental filmmaker/theorist, Matsumoto Toshio and a complete Asgar Farhadi: “6 Moral Tales”. In maintaining its status as one of the world’s best film festivals, Executive Director Roger Garcia, and Artistic Director Li Cheuk-to continue to try and show “films” and note exactly what format will be shown in the catalogue. Although most new work was shown digitally, we noticed that one of the films in the “Young Cinema Competition”, Tsuta Tetsuichiro’s The Tale of Iya had been shot on 35mm, and was to be screened in that format. Three of the Hupperts, two of the Jiangs, and the four oldest Farhadi films were all shown on 35mm, while almost all of Matsumoto’s work was shown on 16mm at the HK Arts Centre, Agnes B. Cinema!. All of the screenings at the City Hall were of 35mm prints (the cinema has yet to digitally convert), and three of the commercial venues are still able to project films, as well as the Space Museum. This might be the last year celluloid/polyester film strips are shown at the HKIFF, but for now they have done a great job of mixing the old formats with the new.

Not all of the 12 films that were included in our competition were “Asian”, and one of real interest for me was a Brazilian first feature, Castanha, directed by Davi Pretto. Shot in the southernmost provincial capital of Porto Alegre, Castanha is unusually wintry for a Brazilian film, filled with nighttime rainy scenes of the titular character, a real-life gay bar M.C. and drag queen, going to and from his workplace. Shot on a miniscule budget, Pretto cleverly mixes documentary and fiction. Another notable first work is The Night (Ye) directed by a 21-year old Chinese university student, Zhou Hao. Similarly dark, and as monochromatically intense as Castanya, Ye was mostly shot at night, but, repeatedly in very confined spaces: an alleyway, toilet stalls, and an alcove located deep into a road tunnel. Three lost teenagers, male and female prostitutes and a love-struck client, co-exist in these claustral physical spaces, while their emotions intensify. The third feature film directed by Yang Heng, in a kind of youthful alienation trilogy is Lake August (Na Pian Hu Shui). Whereas Yang constructed strong visual contrasts between the landscape and the bland lifeless behavior of the protagonists in both Betelnut (2006) and Sun Spots (2009), Lake August and its beautiful surroundings draw our eyes into the depth of the carefully-composed long shot frames away from the pitiable characters, reminding us that in classical Chinese paintings, human beings are only ever small parts of the world at large. These three new films were among the best I saw at the festival.

For me, the most striking of the films shown as retrospectives were Nakamura Noboru’s The Shape of Night (Yoru no Henrin, Japan, 1964) and Farhadi’s Fireworks Wednesday (Chahararshanbe-soori, Iran, 2006). I confess that I was not familiar at all with Nakamura’s work, and on the evidence of The Shape of Night we have yet another indication that Japanese cinema of the 1960s was, arguably, the greatest of national cinemas at that time with its extraordinary range of work. We have seen powerful representations of prostitution in Japanese films before — notably in Mizoguchi Kenji’s work of the 1930s and 1950s — but I can’t remember seeing such an honest depiction of how women are sexually brutalized by men, and with such restraint: the gang rape is offscreen. Nakamura’s direction, combined with Narushima Toichiro’s color cinematography and Sato Kiminobu’s art direction, provide a remarkably sophisticated and controlled, yet intense image of a depraved yakuza world. As for Fireworks Wednesday, it provides another indication that Farhadi has always cleverly circumnavigated his country’s censorship restrictions. Here, a young maid, Rouhi (Taraneh Alidousti) is caught up in an intrigue between a husband in an apartment where she is temporarily working and the woman next door, a hairdresser. All the action takes place over the course of a single day — nowruz, the Iranian New Year — and the sound of firework celebrations builds to match the tension and mystery of the human relationships.

Edited by José Teodoro