HKIFF: Cinephilia and Local Identity

Approaching HKIFF with these insights in mind, it is important to note that the festival was indeed a local initiative. The first edition took place in 1977, and the adoption of the international film festival model into the Hong Kong context was not an imposition by the British colonial government.15 As Cindy Wong details in her case study of HKIFF in her monograph, the project was proposed by Paul Yeung, manager of the municipal City Hall venue, after a trip to the UK in 1975 that included visiting the London Film Festival (LFF).16 This process can be understood as a more recent version of appropriation by colonized and semi-colonized subjects that Liu discusses in Translingual Practice. On the one hand, the colonial logic is clear: a civil servant in the British administration, Yeung headed to London, the imperial metropolis. Its film festival is not particularly well regarded amongst cinephiles, especially in comparison to Berlin or Cannes, but the film festival of the imperial metropolis became his model. However, it was Yeung who took it as the model and saw potential for its translation into the Hong Kong context.

What kind of a festival was and is LFF, and why did it fit Hong Kong in the 1970s? In Film Festivals, de Valck proposes three phases in the development of the film festival, each accompanied by a particular model of operation; the national showcase driven by geopolitics up until the late 1960s; a programmer or curator-driven model produced by 1960s cinephilia and the counterculture and lasting into the 1980s; and more recently an institutionalization phase where festivals are director or manager-driven.17 To some extent the second and third models overlap with Mark Peranson’s “audience festival” and “business festival” taxonomy, although he does not indicate historical succession between the models.18

Initiated by local critics in 1953, when European art cinema was flourishing, and housed at the National Film Theatre, the LFF has always been run by the British Film Institute. It was conceived of as a “festival of festivals” event, which is a grand way of saying LFF prioritizes providing a round-up from other festivals over pursuing new film discoveries.19 In de Valck’s and Peranson’s terms, it was always a cinephile and audience event. It has no market and only a small range of awards.

The HKIFF imported this model. It started out as a programmer- driven and audience festival, and, like London, concentrated on rounding up the best of world cinema to present it to local audiences, with programmers writing catalog notes and introducing films in person to explain their choices and enable understanding of the films. There was no market and there were no prizes or other elements designed to appeal to the industry and its pursuit of deals and publicity. As in Hollywood, the local Hong Kong industry was highly commercial, with studios, distributors and exhibitors closely linked. Most commercial films had their distribution and exhibition sorted out before they were even made, and the industry felt no need for a market or awards to help secure distribution and exhibition deals.

Noting that the import of the cinephile model as exemplified by London was a Hong Kong initiative is only the first step in understanding the establishment and development of HKIFF as a process of translation. In addition, we must ask who the “translators” were and why these models were attractive to them. Dina Iordanova argues in her chapter for this volume that the dynamics shaping film festivals need to be understood as “stakeholder configurations.” In the context of importing film festival models, perhaps we can understand these stakeholders as translators. Furthermore, these stakeholders/translators operate within a context. In his famous essay, “Global Cities and the Film Festival Economy,” Julian Stringer has emphasized the municipal context rather than a national or civilizational context as the most significant one for the majority of festivals; most are not only based in but often named after particular cities, as is the case with HKIFF and SIFF.20 (Ironically, the Tudou Video Festival he and Nikki J.Y. Lee discuss in their chapter here is an example of a new type of festival not grounded in a particular city.) It is only by examining who the stakeholders/translators are, how they interact and the context shaping their interactions that we can begin to discern the locally specific meanings that get attached to the international model as it is adopted.

With this understanding in mind, we can see two major stakeholder groups at work in the translation of the programmer-driven model into 1970s Hong Kong: the local cinephile culture that had grown up around film club culture21 and the colonial government. After the 1967 anti-British riots, they had compatible aims. The riots marked a crucial shift in the relationship between the colonial government and the local population. They took place in the first year of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution decade in the PRC. The riots alerted the British authorities both to local dissatisfaction and to their own vulnerability—could they really defend the city if there was an intervention from the PRC? Cindy Wong concludes that, “While the colonial government put down all the protests, it was forced to become more responsive and inclusive to Chinese colonial subjects seeking their own voices and hybrid identities.”22 In other words, it produced a new social compact between colonizer and colonized.

The effort to produce a new social compact helps to explain why, on the one hand, HKIFF has been programmed by local cinephiles from the beginning, but on the other hand, was established as an activity of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department of the Urban Council. This was the branch of municipal government in the late colonial era responsible for things like swimming pools and community centers, or the equivalent of “parks and recreation.” The government saw HKIFF as part of their cultural provision for local inhabitants in the hope of improving their feelings about the administration. Much as had been the case when the LFF was established, by programming a panorama of world art cinema, HKIFF met the needs of both ex-patriate and local elements of the population that were interested in art and experimental cinema but felt that local commercial film culture did not serve them. In an era when more of the population was locally born and had little if any experience of the PRC, the sense of Hong Kong identity was growing. By also programming retrospectives of local cinema, the festival not only promoted cinephilia but also contributed to this cultural identity movement. Later on, these uniquely local elements began to attract international attendees in the form of programmers from other festivals and made the festival one of the leaders in the Asian region. The cinephile focus was further entrenched because, being in competition with parks and libraries for taxpayer funding, the Urban Council was uninclined to spend on red carpet events, star guests, prizes, and other elements that might make it more of an industry festival.

This stakeholder configuration and the context shaping it continued through the 1990s. Then, along with the general shift in the international film festival world noted by de Valck, HKIFF underwent a second translation, taking on more of the attributes of de Valck’s director-driven and Peranson’s business festival models. First, close links were developed with the hitherto separate Hong Kong International Film and Television Market (FILMART). This annual event had been launched in 1997 by the Hong Kong Trade Development Corporation and rapidly became the leading film market in the Asian region.23 The FILMART and HKIFF schedules were brought closer together.24

One of FILMART’s activities is the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF). In an interview in 2008, then Deputy Director of HAF Ivy Ho explained that, starting in 2007, HAF became one of the activities under the HKIFF umbrella, although funding continued to be from a variety of sources, and there continued to be co-organizers. HAF puts producers together with potential projects, using the appeal of Hong Kong’s legal system to promote it as a place to make Asian film deals and sign contracts. Ho’s description of HAF’s origins indicates that it too can be seen as another product of translation: “Project markets in Pusan, Tokyo and other parts of the world, most of them are modeled after Cinemart, a project market in Rotterdam,” Ho explained. “Pusan actually started doing a project market called PPP about ten years ago. I think around the year 1999 and 2000, quite a number of Hong Kong filmmakers, they actually attended the Pusan International Film Festival. When they came back, they all talked about the PPP.” She went on to note the downturn in the local industry at the time motivated interest from Hong Kong commercial film producers, unlike the situation in the 1970s when HKIFF was launched.25 Also in 2007, HKIFF was also given responsibility for the new Asian Film Awards (AFA), the sort of glitzy, red carpet event HKIFF had eschewed to date, but which also helped to promote the industry’s interests.26 In the new century, HKIFF had acquired industry stakeholders that it never had before as it took on many of the attributes of the business festival model.

As well as expanding the range of its activities, the governance of the festival was transformed by a process of corporatization, which changed it from a government cultural event into the primary activity of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society (HKIFFS), an independent nonprofit organization. As detailed in an extensive analysis by Ruby Cheung, this process was completed in 2005. Cheung demonstrates that as its activities have grown, not only has HKIFFS been able to win more funds from various public bodies, but also that it has become more dependent on commercial sponsorship. The result is a new stakeholder configuration with stronger links to commercial sponsors in general, as well as the industry. Cheung is critical of this transformation, describing it as a lose-lose situation: The awards are not high-profile enough to satisfy the expectations of sponsors, and at the same time, the cinephile community finds the new HKIFF “gives the impression of changing from a high-art event to a populist occasion led primarily by the local filmmaking industry and the appeal of individual stars in all sorts of promotional events.”27 Unsurprisingly, long-term programmer and Artistic Director Li Cheuk-to does not see it that way. Responding to a question from Cheung about whether “artistic merit or commercial value” drives film selection, he insists, “We choose films based mainly on their artistic value - we believe in ‘film as art.’”28

The merits of corporatization are beyond the parameters of this chapter. But what does interest me is the local significance of the translation of elements of the business festival model into the HKIFF. Although not directly discussed in Cheung’s critique, the other significant event that precedes corporatization is the 1997 transfer of power from London to Beijing, in accordance with the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong. According to the declaration, Hong Kong’s legal, social and economic system was to remain unchanged until 2046.29

In these circumstances, HKIFF joined the many local institutions whose continued unchanged practices might reassure Hong Kong citizens of the preservation of the local identity and culture that HKIFF had itself participated in building in the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, it can be argued that this local culture was increasingly measured by its difference from that of mainland China. For example, in reference to HKIFF, as Ran Ma details in her chapter later in this volume, starting in the 1990s, the festival put an ever-growing emphasis on Chinese independent films. Because these films are defined as those which have not gone through Beijing censorship, they cannot be officially screened anywhere in the PRC except Hong Kong Special Administration Region, as it has been known since 1997.

Therefore, the move toward diversification of funding and independent status as a non-government, not-for-profit organization also stands as a move designed to put the festival at arm’s length from the new government and preserve these programming patterns for which HKIFF had become known. Stephen Teo reports that the “crunch point” came in 1994, when the PRC withdrew nine films in protest at the programming of other banned PRC films: “The Hong Kong Government found itself embarrassingly caught in the middle ... [and] in the post-1997 years ... more than willing to let go of the film festival.”30

In conclusion then, not only was there local significance to the translation of first the cinephile and then the business model of the international film festival into the Hong Kong context. Also, underpinning the more recent adoption of the business festival model into Hong Kong was a perhaps surprising strategy to retain cinephile priorities in the new post- 1997 environment. The continued presence of long-term programmers, Li Cheuk-to and Jacob Wong, while managers have come and gone, confirms that the festival’s local credibility—perhaps already damaged by corporatization, as indicated by Ruby Cheung’s critique—would otherwise be lost. In terms of the questions driving this chapter, the adoption of both cinephile and business models has been driven by local Hong Kong issues and acquired specific Hong Kong significance.

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