The Adventurers Online: A Global Mix at Hong Kong

in 44th Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Robert Horton

The 44th Hong Kong International Film Festival, scheduled for March 2020 but postponed in the midst of the COVID pandemic, was finally cancelled altogether in July. Nevertheless, the festival slate was announced, and Executive Director Albert Lee declared that the awards would be given out anyway. “By highlighting these films,” said Lee, “we hope to promote and champion the art of cinema, even beyond the festival.”

Thus the FIPRESCI jury for Hong Kong watched our competition films online, and enjoyed our jury meeting via Skype. Such is the reality of so many 2020 film festivals.

In our section we were treated to an adventurous collection of films, all of which eschewed the conventional approach to mainstream filmmaking in favor of complex cinematic designs. Our winner was Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (2019), from Lesotho. Like many of the competition films, this one skillfully blended an urgent commitment to social issues with an intimate story. It begins with a sinuous shot that introduces us to a traditional storyteller, a marvelous opening that guides us into an immersive world. The deployment of color, sound, music, and supple camera movements announce that we are in the hands of a confident, original storyteller.

Among the other strong titles in the competition was Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf’s Piedra Sola (2020), from Argentina. Like This Is Not a Burial, it derives some of its storytelling ideas from folklore, in this case serving a scenario set among indigenous llama herders, whose livelihood is threatened by a marauding puma. But along with its hints of magical realism, the film is also grounded in hard realities—for instance, the opening reels are devoted to a fascinating depiction of how llama hides are carried into a town for trading. All of it is stunningly photographed, the mountains and fog coming alive in breathtaking clarity.

Perhaps the most experimental of the features we saw was Zheng Lu Zinyuan’s The Cloud in Her Room (Ta fang jian li de yun, 2020), from Hong Kong/China. A debut feature by an experienced maker of short films, Cloud uses expressive black-and-white to sketch the life of a young woman returning to her home city of Hangzhou, sorting through issues of love and family. At times it plays like a series of journal entries come to life, but at its best the film is a convincing “symphony of a city”; we never doubt that we’re looking at a very specific place from an informed perspective. The film won the prize in the Young Cinema Competition at Hong Kong.

Other films that flirted with experimental techniques included Greek director Janis Rafa’s Kala Azar, an intriguing but sometimes baffling look at a couple with a traveling service that cremates beloved pets, and Park Hee-kwon’s Dust and Ashes (Tuhk Ja Tolm, 2019), from South Korea, which plays like a deconstructed film noir. That film demands the viewer piece together the various elements—including a rigorous step-by-step treatment of cremation (human, in this case). The parts eventually make sense, in a provocative way.

A Hong Kong production, Kit Hung’s Stoma (2020) paid tribute to its screenwriter, Julian Lee, who died in 2014. This autobiographical story of Lee’s battle with a rare form of cancer also foregrounds his struggle as a gay artist with a traditional family. In Lai Meng-Jie’s Be Alive Just Like You (2020), from Taiwan, a young disabled man sells lottery tickets in the streets and dreams about the sullen young woman who works in a shop; but when he finally meets her, the reality opens up his life in unexpected ways.

Also intriguing, and in some ways the film with the largest scope of the competition, was Liang Ming’s Wisdom Tooth (2019), from China. Set in a distinctive northern clime, where half-siblings live in a wonderfully edge-of-nowhere house, the film delves into the complicated personal relationship between a brother and dependent younger sister, especially when a new woman enters the picture. But the film widens out to include the corrupt system that runs the economy in this seaside city. It’s a big canvas, and the film doesn’t always succeed, but individual scenes are quirky and distinctive, and its ambition is admirable. It was good to see that “ambition” was one of the hallmarks of this year’s competition films.

Robert Horton