Pleasure Seeping Out of Darkness

in 27th Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Stephen Teo

The 27th edition of the Hong Kong International Film Festival will go down in history as a victim of circumstances, blighted by the global impact of a killer virus that has succeeded in stopping close to 90% of all international guests from attending the festival. The intrepid 10% who did go invoked fear but somehow evaded it and proceeded to the festival with a mixture of caution and adventure. The keynote of the festival in its opening stages was provided by the fiercely independent American filmmaker Rob Nilsson, subject of a mini-retrospective in the festival and one of the intrepid 10% who attended. Nilsson is no stranger to “fear and emotion” sensations that reverberate among his players in the acting workshops that are a part of his working style. Nilsson directs his actors to expunge fear, face up to their demons and liberate themselves. “Fear is the enemy,” says Nilsson, and in a certain sense this is the message emitting out of the 27th HKIFF. Local audiences have not shunned the festival because of the virus and in some cases have even packed-out the venues. At this point in the festival, it is perhaps still too early to lay down a final verdict, but “fear and defiance” may well turn out to be the unsung slogan of the festival.

Putting aside the health concerns, the 27th HKIFF must be seen as a milestone in its own right. For the first time in its history, the festival has instituted several competitions, chief of which is the “Firebird Award for Young Cinema” (György Pálfi’s Hungarian film Hukkle won the Golden Firebird; while the Silver Firebird was awarded to Li Yang’s Blind Shaft). Other competitive categories included awards for Asian DV works, and a “humanitarian award” for documentaries (for information on the winners, see the HKIFF website).

As the festival itself unrolled, it was difficult to ignore some highly impressive achievements, among them Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours, Mysterious Object at Noon, Indonesian director Riri Riza’s Eliana, Eliana, Macao director Doug Chan’s DV work Love is Not a Sin, and Meng Jinghui’s Chicken Poets.

In the retrospective sections, the works of Rob Nilsson were an eye-opener. Nilsson, a follower of Cassavetes, honored the festival by presenting the world premiere of Attitude, his most recent work. Another first for the HKIFF was a complete retrospective of all of Ozu’s extant works to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth. The Shaw Brothers retrospective, organized by the Hong Kong Film Archive, was however shortchanged by the tendency of its main supplier Celestial Pictures to show films on video format rather than prints thus undercutting the value of re-viewing old films in its original form although it did show a handful of films in unrestored original prints (this, it would appear, is increasingly becoming an exception in the Film Archive’s programming, rather than a rule). The retrospective followed no thematic pattern but was rather put together by Celestial to promote its DVD releases (both impending releases and those already out on the market). Still, the few film prints that were presented in their original ShawScope glory, including Lau Kar-leong’s 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Li Hanxiang’s The Golden Lotus, and Zhang Che’s Vengeance and The Golden Swallow, gave a lot of pleasure to this writer. The idea of pleasure seeping out of the darkness (in the metaphorical sense) is the one single emotion I will remember from the 27th HKIFF.