Hong Kong Asian Independent Film Festival: Is there a future for indie?

Hong Kong Asian Independent Film Festival: Is there a future for indie?

Asian independent films are being showcased in the ongoing Hong Kong Asian International Film Festival, but where is the local indie film scene anyway?
Hong Kong Asian Independent Film Festival
Still smiling: Venus Wong of the Hong Kong Asian Independent Film Festival.

Things have been looking up recently. Last spring saw the re-launch of I Shot Hong Kong, a festival dedicated to promoting independent film. Writer and director Heiward Mak made big waves with the release of her ambitious first feature, "High Noon," made when she was 23 years old. And while some cinemas are cutting the number of indie films they screen, the two-year-old Grand Cinema has stepped in to fill the gap. Last summer, Ying E Chi hosted a salon of independent films at the Grand, and it's now the venue for the Hong Kong Asian Independent Film Festival.

The second annual edition of the Hong Kong Asian Independent Film Festival runs until November 29th, showcasing more than 30 films from across Asia. Since it launched two years ago, the festival has been one of the best opportunities for Hong Kong filmgoers to take a step out of the mainstream and watch movies that are daring and provocative as well as entertaining.

This year, though, the festival comes as a reminder of the precarious state of indie film in Hong Kong: fewer than ten independent films are made here each year and the number of cinemas that screen indie films outside of festivals and special events is diminishing.

"The problem is that there's not enough new blood coming into the industry," says Venus Wong, the festival's curator and the general manager of Ying E Chi, an organization that promotes and distributes independent films in Hong Kong.

"The young generation wants an immediate return for their work. But working in independent film is about experience and dedication."

Bringing indie style to the screen

That kind of dedication is something Wong wanted to emphasize in the program of this year's Hong Kong Asian Independent Film Festival, which features more than 30 films from across Asia.

One section of the festival, "Quirky Rookies," brings together films by five new Hong Kong filmmakers, including "Free for 90" about two movie addicts who cope with unemployment and empty wallets by sneaking into cinemas. Another, "Good Luck, Comrades!" documents the detention of seven Hong Kong activists by Japanese police during last year's G8 summit in Hokkaido.

More experienced filmmakers will also be on hand to share their passion. Mary Stevens, a Hong Kong-born film editor who now lives in Paris, where she works closely with Eric Rohmer, one of the masters of the French New Wave, has been invited to curate a series of films that embody the "indie spirit," including new work by Hüseyin Karabey, a Kurdish filmmaker based in Istanbul, and Du Haibin, a Chinese documentarian whose latest effort, "1428," looks at the aftermath of last year's Sichuan earthquake.

"Nearly all of the films shown here won't be theatrically released, so our festival is the only chance you'll have to see them in a cinema," says Wong. "The problem is that, outside of the festival, we have very little budget for promotion, so cinemas are hesitant to show independent films. They think that nobody will come."

Are the good years gone?

In the past year, some cinema chains that were once receptive to screening independents have retreated to the more lucrative mainstream. It wasn't always like this. The golden era of Hong Kong film lasted from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, when nearly 300 movies were made each year and a generation of directors like Patrick Tam and John Woo pushed the creative limits of filmmaking.

Films like Tsui Hark's 1979 "The Butterfly Murders" and Ann Hui's 1982 film "Boat People" were both crowd-pleasing and thought-provoking, earning Hong Kong a global reputation for innovative populist cinema.

"In the 80s, you could hardly draw a clean line between independent films and mainstream films, because we had a lot of production companies that allowed people like Ann Hui, Tsui Hark or Wong Kar-wai to make films very independently within the industry," says Vincent Chui, a veteran independent filmmaker. "Because we made so many more films a year than we do now, the bosses and producers gave us more freedom."

Then came the rise of cheap DVDs, which destroyed the profitability of local films, and the allure of the giant mainland film market, which provided commercial opportunities for Hong Kong filmmakers -- but at the cost of creative freedom.

Today, most Hong Kong movies are schlock designed to make a quick buck, and even more interesting fare is dulled by a fear of being excluded from the mainland market by censors, who prefer films to be apolitical and morally upright.

"Now it's not a healthy situation," laments Chui, who made his feature-length debut with 2001's "Leaving in Sorrow," a film about the anxieties of everyday Hong Kongers before and after the handover. "We don't have much power to bargain, so we have to make a very mainstream film to get by. The mainstream industry is just looking for cheap labour from independent filmmakers. So even though I made two mainstream films [after "Leaving in Sorrow"], my next project will be independent, because it's a lot more satisfying to me."

Fighting for good films Chui is one of several independent filmmakers who founded Ying E Chui in 1997.

But when you think about the independent attitude and point of view, it really goes beyond promotion, it goes to education and a certain way of thinking about things. If we educate people and get them interested in film, we can start to change things.— Vincent Chui, indie filmmaker

Fuelled by an annual grant from the Arts Development Council, the group sponsors short films, mounts screenings, provides support to filmmakers and distributes independent films to cinemas and DVD shops around Hong Kong. Two years ago, they put Wong in charge of its everyday operations. She had been working in public relations and was looking for something more creatively stimulating.

"I really loved film so I thought it would be a good job," she says. "It's a lot of work. It can go around the clock. Because we have no staff, you really have to understand the industry and rely on yourself to get things done. People are in fact very helpful. You can get a lot done even without any money."

"The Grand Cinema is owned partly by the Shaw Brothers, and Run Run Shaw is basically the godfather of the film industry in Hong Kong," says Helena Young, the cinema's general manager. "It's through his dedication to the movie business that he's built our cinema, which is very committed to showing not just commercial films, but showcasing independent filmmakers that have a real passion for movies."

Indie future

When asked about the future of independent film in Hong Kong, Chui is cautious in his assessment. "I don't know why, but people just aren't really looking for this kind of thing anymore," he says. "I guess that sounds a bit negative, so I'll say this. When we talk about film in Hong Kong we're always talking about marketing and development. But when you think about the independent attitude and point of view, it really goes beyond promotion, it goes to education and a certain way of thinking about things. If we educate people and get them interested in film, we can start to change things."

At the very least, there's one thing to be happy about: the Hong Kong Asian Independent Film Festival is keeping the indie spirit alive.

Editor's note
Films mentioned in this article are "Free for 90," "Good Luck, Comrades!," "Dead Slowly," "1428," and "The Clone Returns Home." See Hong Kong Asian Independent Film Festival website for trailer and synopsis.