40th HONG KONG INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL A RESOUNDING SUCCESS
The only thing missing was an Australian presence
Crowds flocked to the concluding ceremony held in the open air behind the Hong Kong Cultural Centre overlooking a resplendent Victoria Harbour last Sunday. They were there to see the actors and directors who won awards, parade before the public. Thrilled with the vast array of great films that were shown throughout the duration of the festival, there was one in particular that deeply touched a chord with Hongkongers in particular, along with international guests and film lovers, and has sent a wave of intense interest around the world. In a very real sense, the winner of the Best Film Award, is one which carries a great rags to riches, a David and Goliath message, that given the will and determination to achieve a goal in life, once the first step is taken along the path, great achievements and unexpected results can and do arise.
The film that won the Best Film Award, ‘10 Years’, was made on a peppercorn budget of HK$500,000. While this amount might be considered petty cash in production terms as other contenders in the field had outlaid far greater amounts to get their films into theatres to be included in the awards. Not that this should be any yardstick to judge other films by as the field contained a huge range of high quality and leading edge films from many countries in Asia and Europe. However, in ‘Ten Years’ case, it appears political pressure was brought to bear to stop major commercial cinema complexes from giving it exposure.
The film is made up of five short pieces each focusing on changes to Hong Kong society ten years into the future. There are scenes such as uniformed army cadets raiding shops accused of selling banned materials, Mandarin (Putonghua) becoming the major language taking over and displacing the native tongue, Cantonese (Guangdonghua), and an activist self-immolating in a fight for Hong Kong’s independence. All up, the content flies in the face of the way Beijing wants to exert its control over any form of dissent.
The film was released without hullabaloo in late 2015 and surprisingly became something of a box office hit earning over HK$6 million, before exhibitors felt pressured to remove it from their screens. Only a week ago, the film was shown at some 30 public venues such as public halls and even in closed-off streets for the occasion, drawing huge crowds in a rush to see it.
One of the 30 community locations for the screening of ’10 Years’ last Friday
Many reports describe teary-eyed viewers leaving screenings in droves apprehensive over Hong Kong’s future. Following the spontaneous uprising of the Umbrella Revolution that took place in the later part of 2014 and lasted for several months causing a significant impact to daily life in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, key areas of commerce and government in Hong Kong, this film has a similar resonance with the local population because of concerns of what is happening to Hong Kong. The creeping influence of Beijing overriding the Basic Law, which was set in place to guarantee HK’s independence by the British in 1997, is becoming more evident since the new Chinese leader Xi has taken control of the CCP. The disappearance of the five Causeway Bay booksellers who published and stocked a small portion of penny-dreadfuls highlighting the sexual perversions and unreal lifestyles of the political elite, has turned into a political farce with the booksellers disappearing across borders and countries, reappearing, disappearing again, and making staged televised admissions of ‘guilt’. The clamp down and jailings of human rights lawyers on the Mainland, and the difficulty of doing business in China due to the opaque nature of its political and financial regulations, have all added to the feeling of uncertainty.
As the rapacious process of development continues to relentlessly push forward at all costs, the fear in people’s minds is creating an exodus of intellectual and arts-based culture to other countries that is taking place as a counterbalance to unbridled capitalism and development. Most of this development is fuelled by mainland cash being put into real estate as a safe haven, and a good deal of it has uncertain origins. By putting it into real estate, it is put at arm’s length from being caught up with the anti-corruption drive currently taking place in China. It follows the same pattern of the way Chinese cash is buying up property in the US, Africa, Australia and other countries. Meanwhile many locals, those that can afford it, are leaving to move abroad to find more stable lifestyles and give their children a better chance in life. While those who through limited financial resources, or are reluctant to leave because of family commitments, are left to face this ever-present fear of being subsumed into a more ordered, controlled and less equitable society.
Although it is difficult to ascertain how much pressure was applied to cinemas to stop it being shown commercially, it is certainly clear that Chinese authorities are dead against the film. Many rants have been directed towards it from on-high with a typical example being from the Chinese tabloid newspaper The Global Times who dumped on it as being a “disease of the mind.” And when it was announced as a HKFA contender, mainland Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) immediately withdrew from its normal live broadcast of the awards show. Mainland Internet giant Tencent quickly followed suit and refused to stream the ceremony on the web in China. Ten Years trailer: – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4zebygSaZE
Getting away from dystopian views of the future, a documentary by director Funahashi Atsushi added great excitement for audiences mainly due in large part to Hong Kong’s love affair with everything Japanese, from fashion, food, travel and of course the newest fads in music and culture. Director Funahashi Atsushi, whose films and documentaries include Echoes (2002), Big River (2005), Deep in the Valley (2009), Nuclear Nation (2012) and Cold Bloom (2013), has previously given visual perspective to such harrowing events as the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. In this documentary, Raise Your Arms and Twist – Documentary of NMB48, he presents a behind-the-scenes view on the life and struggles of the band members of the NMB48 Idol band and what it takes to reach the idol and goddess status of Japanese girl bands. Link to Idol group NMB48’s music: – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ig9q9UyvamQ
Reaching pop and cult status in Japan is notoriously difficult, and the way that NMB48 have managed to break through the glass ceiling largely put in place by management control and domineering recording labels calling the shots from on-high, makes this group’s ascension a noticeable exception to the general rule. Sawao Yamanaka, leader of the Pillows rock band, who many refer to as the ‘Japanese Beatles’, provides a good insight into how difficult it is to break through to the top of the musical spectrum in Japan. The Pillows started in 1989 and went on to become very successful both in Japan and with touring in Europe and the US to the point they are still releasing new material and remain at the top of the charts.
Sawao’s older brother, Hidetoshi Yamanaka, is an equally accomplished singer, songwriter and musician as Sawao, and despite being an active musician in bands before his younger brother started, Sawao had a trouble free ride to the top where he remains in the super realm today. Hidetoshi, on the other hand played in many bands, initially in the capital of Hokkaido, Sapporo, close to his home town of Otaru, then spending many years playing bars and clubs in Tokyo. He even came to spend a year in Australia on a working holiday to check out the music scene in Sydney and Melbourne. While he was in Melbourne he spent time working for me and staying with my family which gave me the chance to take him to various venues where he played his own compositions and cover songs jamming with local musicians.
His musicianship was readily acknowledged by all those he came in contact with and he went on to be influenced by such indelible Aussie bands, and their unique styles, as INXS, Hoodoo Gurus, Crowded House etc. When he returned to Japan he was able to spread these new musical sounds to Tokyo musicians and audiences. At one stage both brothers had a successful act together as the ‘Thirsty Boys’, but Sawao’s record label quickly put a stop to that so as to not have things impinge on the Pillow’s image. However, while Sawao’s trajectory was always on the rise, Hidetoshi, despite everything he did and his wealth of musical knowledge and experience, had to give it away in the end, and several years ago he returned to Otaru to live in hibernation with his elderly parents.
A similar story based around the pitfalls and hardship of making it to the top in the pop music area in Japan where bands and artists have to gain the attention of the essential record label producer without whom success becomes almost impossible, was well detailed in the 1988 movie, Tokyo Pop,
starring Carrie Hamilton (the daughter of US comedian Carol Burnett who unfortunately passed away at a young age) and Diamond Yukai (aka Yutaka Tadokoro). The movie, which covers many fantastic songs, tells the story of a girl from the US, a Japanese boy, and a briefly successful pop band. The movie contrasts American customs with Tokyo lifestyles, as it presents an evolving love story between the two main characters. Tokyo Pop was used extensively for the cultural component of my Japanese studies at RMIT between 1989-1991 as it provides a strong insight into the lifestyles of people working in the art and music fields and everyday life in general, in Tokyo and other major cities in Japan. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6OUlCuciBY
At the press conference for NMB48 on Sunday 3rd April before the showing of his documentary later in the day, the director Funahashi Atsushi, was clear to point out that with every new project he undertakes, he approaches it with a completely open mind so that he doesn’t allow any preconceived ideas to cloud his vision on how things should evolve. It is with this clear perspective in mind that he set about uncovering the labyrinthal trials and tribulations these girls go through in their quest to become idols to the millions they are today. Press conference link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_BkC25tWf8
Following the conference the film received rapturous applause from the many that queued for hours to get a seat in the theatre in Shatin. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEoFtm5cAFc
After the closing of the most successful Hong Kong International Film Festival to date that screened over 280 titles from 50 countries in 11 major cultural venues in Hong Kong reaching an audience of over 600,000, and 4,500 business executives attending the Hong Kong International Film and TV Market (FILMART), one was left with a lingering thought. With Australia being so central to the Asia Pacific countries both in South East Asia and further to the north to include China, Japan, Korea etc, and being so reliant on these countries for both exports and imports, the lack of presence from the Australian film industry came into stark contrast. There is a lot spoken about the difficulties and the poor state of support from government and corporate sources the industry faces at home, however by not competing in the HKIFF, suggests that initiative is not being used to take on new challenges to remedy this problem. As stated, the film ‘Ten Years’ which was crowned the best film of the festival was made on HK$500,000 budget. That translates to around AUD$100,000 or less. One can only hope that next year’s festival will see more Antipodean involvement.
Perhaps if Aussie filmmakers take inspiration from the national Japanese figure and quasi ‘patron saint’ of Sapporo, William S Clarke who, in the 19th century, established the first agricultural college (now Hokkaido University) in Japan, in Japan’s quest for modernisation following the Meiji period. A number of statues of him are set in prominent positons in Sapporo bearing his famous words, “Boys be ambitious!” Sawao Yamanaka heeded his advice to go on to achieve much greater things in life. Why can’t we, similarly, take that positive step to move forward and seek new markets for our films?
Check the South China Morning Post link for info on 25 exceptional films that were presented: – http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/film-tv/article/1928765/25-movies-watch-2016-hong-kong-international-film-festival