Editor’s Note: Hosting an international film festival in the time of a pandemic has its unique set of challenges and the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society team, led by executive director Albert Lee, is ready to address them when the festival returns to the city after a year’s hiatus on April 1. In an exclusive interview to China Daily, Lee talks about the festival’s new hybrid format, films to watch out for and shares his thoughts on the future of Hong Kong film industry. Excerpts:
For the first time Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) will take place in a hybrid format, with simultaneous in-theater and online screenings and audience engagement events. How does this work? Can the audience choose the format in which they would like to experience films and public events?
Last year, for the first time in the festival’s history, we had to cancel the 44th edition of HKIFF because of the pandemic. Later, the festival board met and felt that we cannot let this happen again. We had spent more than 40 years building the festival and wanted to maintain a continuous engagement with our audience.
For several months in 2020 we were investigating ways of adding an online component to the festival. Since we didn’t have unlimited time and money at our disposal to build our own screening site, we looked at both local and international platforms and eventually settled on a New Zealand-based service provider to handle the online component of the festival.
Being a film festival, we very much believe in watching films in a cinema, for the sake of the communal experience it brings to an audience. The bulk of the films in the 45th HKIFF will be available to see in a cinema. I think we’re looking at over 280 screenings in all, and roughly 59 to 60 films you can watch online. There will be a few crossovers — films that you can choose to watch either online or in a cinema.
We are very much in an experimental phase. But then over the last few years people have been getting used to watching films online, so the experience won’t be that unfamiliar. Still, there are a few things to consider: such as pricing of tickets, geo-blocking — because all the films will be available to watch only in Hong Kong. Also rights holders will allow only a finite number of viewers to watch each film online at a time, as a lot of those films will have a commercial life after the festival, and no film producer would want to jeopardize that.
It’s going to be a learning experience for us. We’ll make note of how people react to (the new format) and plan accordingly, but given the current (pandemic) situation, we’ll probably continue the hybrid format from now on.
A number of world-renowned directors have taken part in Q&A sessions and master classes in previous editions of HKIFF. What are your plans regarding hosting these events, in the light of the changes caused by the pandemic?
Because of the travel restrictions in force in Hong Kong at this time, we won’t be able to invite any overseas guests this year. All the master classes will be held online. For example, Frederick Wiseman in New York will be conducting an online master class with a Hong Kong audience.
However, local filmmakers, like Stanley Kwan who is our filmmaker in focus, will do a live face-to-face event.
Taking my cue from your comment about the possibility of HKIFF continuing in a hybrid format in the foreseeable future, are there certain advantages of online viewing of cinema over going to a theater?
It has to be the convenience. You can sit at home and watch a film on your iPad or computer screen. The flexibility of the medium is a definite advantage.
Our online programing is very similar to the way we would program a normal festival. Only a certain number of films will be available each day. Each film will be available to view within a 24-hour period. Online movie tickets cost HK$50. It’s slightly higher if you want to watch a film in a cinema.
Will the cinemas have a split-seating arrangement?
Yes, of course. We have to comply with the government requirements. At the moment this is 50 per cent of capacity.
Now that major festivals around the world, including HKIFF, are into showing films online, do you see a trend of films being made for online viewing?
I won’t think so. All the filmmakers I have spoken to in the recent past want their works to be seen in a cinema hall.
The production costs of making a film are astronomical. Filmmakers want their works to be seen in the best possible condition, and that would have to be in a cinema. If you spend US$100 million making a film, you probably won’t want it to be seen on a mobile screen.
Yes, the online option helps a film reach a vastly bigger audience many of whom would otherwise not go to a cinema to see it. But I don’t think any filmmaker will tell you that they are making a film for iPhone viewing.
The opening film is the omnibus work Septet, with an episode each directed by leading Hong Kong filmmakers — Sammo Hung, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Yuen Wo-ping, Johnnie To, Ringo Lam Tsui Hark — which has already been shown to great acclaim at Busan. Would you like to tell us what makes this an important film reflecting present realities in Hong Kong?
Johnnie To is the producer of the film and his idea was to get together seven of the most iconic directors from the golden age of Hong Kong cinema. Each story is set in a different era. It’s a very nostalgic film, shot entirely on 35 mm. It’s an analogue production, although audiences will be watching a digital copy.
I think Johnnie’s intention was to inspire and encourage the younger generation of Hong Kong filmmakers. Of course, one might be able to see some resonances with what’s been happening in Hong Kong in the recent years.
What was the reason behind choosing Stanley Kwan as the filmmaker in focus?
Every year at the festival we present a filmmaker with a substantial body of work. Stanley is of course one of the best-known film directors in Hong Kong. I have known him from the time he was an assistant director on Ann Hui’s film Boat People, in the early 1980s. We will be showing all 13 films directed by him.
Stanley is very well known for his feminine touch. He is one of Hong Kong’s pioneers of LGBTQ kind of films. Many of his films, like Rouge (1987) and Center Stage (1992) which won the silver bear acting award for Maggie Cheung at Berlinale, are classics. He’s a very successful and well-respected filmmaker in Hong Kong.
What are the distinctive features that make Stanley Kwan stand out from his contemporaries Tsui Hark and Allen Fong who are also part of the festival’s restored Chinese classics section?
All three are from the same generation of filmmakers but with very different styles. For example, Tsui Hark’s films can be very extravagant and action-packed. Allen Fong is into docu-dramas and films of social realism. So they are all very different. One of our missions is to try to remind the younger generation of film-goers of some of the wonderful works by major filmmakers from Hong Kong and Stanley Kwan is certainly one of them.
HKIFF is also screening digitally re-mastered versions of Wong Kar-wai classics. Would you say there might be something new for audiences who have watched these films several times, as many cinema lovers in Hong Kong and beyond certainly have?
Wong Kar-wai is a very unique filmmaker in the sense that his films are never finished. He is always looking to find ways to improve his films. We are featuring four of his films in this year’s festival — Fallen Angels (1995), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000), and 2046 (2004).
To mark the 30th anniversary of Jet Tones Films, Wong Kar-wai has undertaken this massive project of digitally enhancing the entire body of his work. So watching these new restored versions of Wong’s films at the festival is going to be a very different experience for those who have seen them before.
For example, when Fallen Angels came out it was maybe in the aspect ratio of 185:1. He had hoped to make this film in cinemascope format, which in those days was not possible to do because the technology was not available. Now after its restoration the film has realized its original ambition.
There is already a lot of discussion on the internet about how Wong has re-calibrated the color in some of his films. You will notice the difference if you watch the new 4K version of In the Mood for Love. In Happy Together, he has removed some of the monologues and made it a bit sharper.
We will be showing these films at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, on a massive big screen, using a 4K projection system.
What can you tell us about the retrospective show to celebrate 100 years of Shochiku studio? What prompted the choice of films that you picked from a vast repertoire of films, covering at least 6 decades?
Sochiku is one of the oldest film studios in Japan, if not Asia. They were into kabuki and other forms of entertainment before films. They celebrated their 120th birth anniversary last year. It’s very difficult to choose from the massive library of films they have produced, but we have tried to make a meaningful selection — 10 films by Japanese master filmmakers such as Yasujiro Ozu, Shohei Imamura, Shimizu Hiroshi and Kinoshita Keisuke. They are all wonderful and very representative of the works by these filmmakers.
The festival is also showing a great selection of Iranian films…
Besides the obvious stalwarts like Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, there are newer filmmakers… We try to feature new filmmakers from Asian countries every year. And this year it is Iran.
In the restored world classics section, there is an Iranian film from 1976 — Mohammad Reza Aslani’s Chess of the Wind. It was originally selected for the Cannes classics section last year but the festival did not take place. The film was banned after one screening when it came out in Iran and was considered lost. Only a few years ago the director managed to salvage a copy of the film from a flea market and then it was put through a long restoration process. The version you will see now is immaculate.
HKIFFS runs a very successful and widely-attended Cine Fan program featuring classics from around the world outside of the annual film festival. Have you considered transferring the Cine Fan show online as well?
We are very likely to introduce some online shows of films as part of the Cine Fan program. It was very unfortunate that we had to cancel a number of Cine Fan screenings last year, so we got a lot of catching up to do, reschedule some of the shows cancelled last year. For example, we had planned on showing a number of films by Fellini but couldn’t finish the program because the cinemas had to be closed. A lot of people keep asking us: When are you going to show those films again?
This year we have planned a number of retrospectives. We would love to have a program around the 100th birth anniversary of the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray. However, putting a program together is a long process. We need to establish contact with the film owners, find the right films. We are working on it.
How would you say is the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) — which HKIFFS hosts every year — different from other film financing agencies? What is its biggest achievement?
HAF started way back in 2000. It was very much based on the Rotterdam (international co-production market, CineMart) model. At that time there were very few co-production markets for films from Asia.
We provide a platform, try to identify film projects and investors and bring them together. We try to invite as many industry professionals as possible, to come and have a look at the entries. It’s a bit like matchmaking. We hope the filmmakers and investors we help to bring together will like each other and get on well while making the film.
HAF has been quite successful. I remember there was a time when we wanted our focus to be different from other film markets such as that held by the Busan International Film Festival (Pusan Promotion Plan) and wanted to concentrate on the slightly more mainstream commercial projects, for Hong Kong at the time was a center of commercial filmmaking. But now our preference is for the slightly more art-house projects.
Did HAF start with the idea of backing Hong Kong films and gradually go on to widen its ambit to include films from the rest of Asia?
No. Even in the earliest editions of HAF, the outlook was totally international with a certain vision. We had Thai and Korean filmmakers participating in the early years. It was never entirely for Hong Kong filmmakers.
Would you like to recommend any of the 21 Work-in-Progress (WIP) projects that have been selected by HAF?
We had very good entries this year. Around four or five of these were past HAF projects. A few years ago we found them investors through the platform, and the production work was begun. Now they have returned through the WIP channel to look for post-production partners, sales agents and exposure at international film festivals.
We are very happy to see projects coming back, and this year we even have COVID-19-themed films.
Throughout 2020, theaters were open in Hong Kong for a much longer period of time than in many other cultures around the world, thus opening up a window for small-budget locally-made films to get a theater release. Some of them, like My Prince Edward, did good business. Is there a way to create a space for these films to screen in theaters in a post-pandemic scenario?
The cinema business in Hong Kong has evolved over the years. Now in Hong Kong there are practically no standalone single-screen cinemas. Since it’s all multiplexes, smaller art-house films actually now have a better chance of getting released.
The pandemic caused the entire system of films releasing in cinemas to break down. Since Hollywood films postponed their releases, there was additional space for smaller films from Hong Kong and elsewhere to release, which was a good thing.
But then cinema is a very expensive business to run. Whether or not a film gets a long run in the cinemas depends on whether or not there is a sufficient number of audience to come to a cinema to watch it.
As much as we would like to support smaller films, the cinemas need to survive too. Hong Kong’s UA Cinemas chain (which had operated in the city since 1985) closed down recently. It is very sad.
When I was working in film companies I also worked in exhibiting films and I can tell you it costs millions and millions of dollars to create a venue and get it running. It takes a minimum of 10 years for a cinema to break even and start making any money. We need to give them some leeway so that they may survive.
Because of the number of screens now available there is a wider scope for screening smaller films but how theater owners program what they show is a commercial decision.
Would you say the HK film industry is now better equipped to keep the economy going and protect the livelihoods of people who work in the industry if another disaster strikes?
I am not sure one could be prepared for a pandemic of the scale we faced in 2020. We cannot legislate for something of this kind. We just have to buckle down and try to survive if it were to happen again.
While, it’s really tough for the film companies out there, I think film industry people are optimists, otherwise they won’t be in this business at all. Also I think most of them are looking for opportunities (in challenging situations).
The film industry is not that old — probably only around 120 years if you take the Lumiere Brothers’ works as the starting point — but during this time it has been through many challenges. When television happened, people had said, no one would go to cinemas, but in the end film and television co-existed. And then it was the era of home videos, which is now gone, but film remains.
So I am hopeful that film will continue to develop. Newer things will come up, replacing some of the older ones, but film is going to stay.
You have been a part of the Hong Kong film industry as a film producer and worked closely with film directors. Do you think it is possible for filmmakers to have freedom of expression and creative control on the material they choose to work with under the current climate?
Filmmakers are very flexible and creative people. Hong Kong filmmakers in particular are very adaptable. They have been faced with many obstacles over the years, managed to circumvent them and get better at what they do. So I am not too worried in that respect.
Filmmaking is teamwork. You need a whole bunch of people to make it happen. The last few years have created a number of challenges but Hong Kong filmmakers will survive them, and be all the better for it. They need to figure how to make more people see the films they make. They need to be more innovative. Hong Kong film industry is very export-oriented, as Hong Kong itself is a very small market, so the films need to travel all around the world and I think that will continue to happen.
I think it’s a very interesting period of time to be in this business, highly challenging and in the end it could be very rewarding for that reason.
Interviewed by Chitralekha Basu