Into a Pan-Chinese Cinema
Since the late 1990s, HKIFF has gradually distinguished the programming of mainland Chinese films, most of which are independent titles, by locating them in new independent and digital filmmaking sidebars. In 1999, HKIFF introduced a sidebar titled “The Age of Independence: New Asian Films and Video” in collaboration with the Wanchai-based Hong Kong Arts Centre, which could be considered a timely response to the emerging wave of digital filmmaking along with the introduction and popularization of digital video cameras across Asian countries. Such programming strategies have also testified to the growing international recognition of Chinese independent cinema on the global film festival circuit, foreshadowing the launch of a section called “Chinese Renaissance” (zhongguo xintiandi) in 2005 at the 29th HKIFF; and between 2005 and 2008, it constituted a major category exhibiting the latest works of Chinese independent cinema.
We could understand these programming advances from several perspectives. First, between the 1997 handover and 2003, the institutional organization of the HKIFF went through a period of change and disorientation, before the festival finally restructured itself into an “independent nonprofit entity” in 2004. However, despite this change, major funding still comes from the government through the Art Development Council. Accordingly, its team of programmers also underwent a process of readjustment during the institutional transition.26
Second, as previously mentioned, the rise of the BIFF after 1996 generated a model for regional festivals to emulate and compete with. The multilayered mechanisms contributing to Busan’s success have demonstrated how a festival efficiently leverages its linkages with the local (the port city of Busan), the national (national cinema and its cultural industry), the regional (Asian film industries), and even the global. This success has encouraged, if not forces, other Asian film festivals, including HKIFF, to re-evaluate and reposition themselves accordingly. For example, since its inaugural edition, Busan has aggressively pursued a pan-Asian focus by setting up a competition category called “New Currents” that endorses debut or sophomore works by Asian filmmakers. For the 2003 HKIFF, after setting up the FIPRESCI award in 1999, the festival installed three film awards, namely Firebird Awards for Young Cinema, Asian DV (Digital Video) Competition, and Humanitarian Awards for Documentaries. These became new slots for Chinese independent titles. In so doing, HKIFF also participated in the global trend of multiplying festival awards and programs to attract promising film works and talents, a proven mechanism to sustain the healthy cycle of creativity and to maintain the festival’s profile in the attention economy. Furthermore, HKIFF joined several other Asian festivals that highlighted the potential of DV: from its inaugural year of 2000, South Korea’s Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) has run a Jeonju Digital Project financing and producing three digital shorts; Japan’s Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival allowed video works into its competition category for the first time in 2001; and in 2003, two Chinese independent film festivals were respectively launched at Kunming (Yunnan Multi Culture Visual Festival, also known as Yunfest) and Nanjing (China Independent Film Festival), both of which presented a lineup of mainly DV documentaries and narrative films.
Following both global and regional programming trends, HKIFF has gone further since 2005 to experiment with new ways of distinguishing itself. In 2007, the already privatized HKIFFS integrated the HKIFF, the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF, established in 2000) and the Asian Oscar-like Asian Film Awards (AFA, established in 2007), followed two years later in 2009 by a campaign of rebranding and repackaging. Accordingly, the marketing “acrobatics” were devised to “better position the HKIFF and to make sure that it continued to be relevant” when faced with its Asian rivals.27 It is also tempting to consider this rebranding as part of the SAR government’s city-marketing campaign of “Brand Hong Kong” starting in 2001 to present Hong Kong as “Asia’s World City”—“a natural, vital and multicultural gateway not only to and from China, but also to the rest of Asia and beyond.”28
Worth further thought is the rebranded HKIFFS claim to promote “international appreciation of Asian, Hong Kong and Chinese film culture (huayu dianying wenhua).”29 How should we understand the festival’s foregrounding of its regional significance? In particular, how do we make sense of its proclaimed mission as an advocate for Chinese-language (huayu) film culture?
As evidence of its declared dedication to “Chinese film culture,” an umbrella section of Pan-Chinese Cinema (huayu dianying, hereafter
PCC) was set up in 2009 to merge three existing sidebars: Hong Kong Panorama, Chinese Renaissance, and Young Taiwanese Cinema. However, in order to avoid political controversies caused by the designation of “country of origin” when listing basic information for films from the three Chinas, since 2002, the HKIFF has started to only tag the “language” of the entries: Putonghua (Mainland China), Mandarin (Taiwan), and Cantonese (Hong Kong). Nevertheless, the “pan-Chinese” banner speaks to HKIFF’s ambition to secure its leading role among film festivals in Greater China. Hardly any other international festival in the PRC or Taiwan could program and present Chinese-language cinemas on a similar scale or with equal dynamism. This issue will be returned to in the section on SIFF. Between the 33rd edition in 2009 and the 38 th in 2014, HKIFF was experimenting schizophrenically in programming a plurality of Chinese cinemas in its PCC laboratory. In 2011, Chinese Renaissance was absent from PCC; in the next year, the whole PCC section disappeared. In 2013, PCC had a high-profile comeback with four sub-sections, with Chinese Renaissance renamed as Chinese New Talent (a collection of four independent films from PRC) and the addition of Wings Project. Initiated by independent filmmaker and producer Jia Zhangke, this was a collection of four features by young Asian filmmakers. In 2014, PCC only accommodated Hong Kong Panorama and Young Taiwanese Cinema, with the mainland Chinese entries dissolved into other sections, such as a retrospective dedicated to the filmmaker, Jiang Wen.
To some extent, the flexible deployment of PCC illustrates the fundamental programming logistics of balancing the cycle of film production and the effort to discover worthwhile titles on the programmers’ part. Also, the trifurcated geopolitical categorization adopted by PCC might be itself a modus vivendi for programming Chinese-language films, given the fact that transnational co-productions between these three locales have become quite common. In keeping this categorization unfinalized and unstable, the programming reflects this transnational potential. A good example might be American Dreams in China (2013) by Hong Kong auteur Peter Chan: placed in the Hong Kong Panorama at HKIFF 2014, it is actually a mainland-Hong Kong co-production, with its leading protagonists predominantly speaking Putonghua and English. Indeed, it is important in this regard to note that, since 2005, interventions from the Chinese cultural authorities have become less visible. This change is less an indicator of weakened censorship than a reflection of the complicated industrial and institutional disposition of the various strands composing PRC cinema nowadays. For instance, with the influx of private capital into the independent film sector, many Chinese independent filmmakers and producers now do seek screening permits before participating in festivals overseas, blurring the old definition of the “Chinese indie.” Nevertheless, this is not to suggest that HKIFF’s programming vision has become conservative or been “tamed.”
Though the current NPO (non-governmental organization) status of HKIFF does not guarantee total programming independence from Chinese censors, the festival can still take advantage of Hong Kong’s SAR status to retain relative autonomy in programming controversial independent titles. In 2010, not only the uncut versions of two highly controversial documentary works, Zhao Liang’s Petition (2009) and Xu Xin’s Karamay (2010) were screened, but also both filmmakers showed up for discussion. In 2009, the indie cinema-themed online forum fanhall.com (xianxiangwang) was closed down for two months because it posted interviews with Zhao Liang, who had spent 12 years making this brave work. In this 315-minute director’s cut, Zhao documents his subjects’ harrowing and nightmare-like experiences as homeless groups living in suburban Beijing in order to petition for justice from the central petition office.30
Finally, HKIFF’s China connections need to be understood in industrial terms, by studying HKIFF’s strategic incorporation of a platform for Asian projects. HAF was taken over by the festival in 2006 and has gradually established itself as a venue, facilitating capital flow and talent exchanges between the three Chinas via co-production projects and diversified financing opportunities. As a result, the presence of PRC films at HKIFF goes beyond its exhibition strands to include projects pitched at HAF. Once realized, these shortlisted projects could extend HAF and HKIFF’s transnational networking as they circulate on the worldwide festival circuit. In addition, while leveraging its enhanced global profile, HAF may in turn open up new funding opportunities and help PRC projects develop co-production partners, further locking them into the film festival circuit. For example, the 2014 HAF gave its new Fushan Documentary Award to Chinese auteur Zhao Liang’s new documentary project titled Dust. Retitled as Behemoth (2015) upon receiving this award, it appeared in the competition category at the 2015 Venice International Film Festival as a Sino-French co-production.