Hong Kong: A Tale of Two Globalizations

In her essay “Postcolonial Hong Kong Cinema: Utilitarianism and the Trans(local),” Laikwan Pang identifies two main trends in post-handover Hong Kong film.2 One is towards partnership with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the form of studio-produced blockbusters that can facilitate Hong Kong access to the Chinese market. An example of a blockbuster would be Peter Chan’s Warlords. This type of filmmaking is dominated by big players, such as China Film Group Corporation, Huayi Brothers & Taihe Film Investment Co. Ltd., and Beijing Polybona Film Distribution Co. Ltd., which provide both production financing and distribution. The dialogue in these blockbuster films is in Mandarin.

Another trend is towards partnership with other East Asian and Southeast Asian countries in the form of multi-partner financed art house films promoted under the rubric of “New Asian Cinema.” An example of New Asian Cinema would be Invisible Waves, a collaboration between the Netherlands, Thailand, South Korea, and Hong Kong that was shot by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. This type of filmmaking is driven by specialized distributors (and sometimes financiers) such as Fortissimo Films and Magnolia Pictures, both of which have offices based in Hong Kong. As a set of industrial and aesthetic strategies, this New Asian Cinema resembles the Pan-Asian Cinema identified by Darrell William Davis and Emily Yueh-Yu Yeh in their analysis of East Asian screen industries and their responses to globalization.3 The dialogue in these art house films varies from production to production—for example, Invisible Waves features Thai, Japanese, Korean, and English—but is usually in a language other than Cantonese.

This bifurcation of Hong Kong cinema into blockbusters or commercial art house films is unhelpful on two counts. First, it minimizes the fact that both these genre forms are fundamentally commercial in orientation. The regional relationships they represent are therefore different in degree but not in kind. Second, it ignores the contribution of Hong Kong’s independent film sector. In his essay, “Urban Cinema and the Cultural Identity of Hong Kong,” Leung Ping-Kwan draws attention to an identifiable impulse in Hong Kong cinema post-1997 to explore the marginal and alternative spaces of the territory with films that “challenge the past representation of various minority communities: the gay community, the youth in the poor housing estates, the prostitutes from the north.”4 Unlike blockbusters or the New Asian Cinema, these films are mostly small scale, very low budget, and made with the support of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC). Independent filmmaker Simon Chung recalls: “I was actually the first applicant [to the

HKADC] with my first film, Life is Elsewhere____Later on the council also

funded features.”5 Thematically, many of these films draw attention to underrepresented communities and to non-normative perspectives in ways that extend beyond sexuality. For example, Chung’s Stanley Beloved features a protagonist, Kevin, who is mixed-race; Evans Chan’s The Map of Sex and Love sets its story on Hong Kong’s Lamma Island, a part of the territory known for its alternative lifestyle; and The Delta, by Ira Sachs, features dialogue in English and Vietnamese. Thematically, aesthetically, and institutionally, these films thus exist on the margins of Hong Kong cinema—not to mention cinema in the rest of Asia and in the West—while also presenting a more complex and less celebratory picture of both Hong Kong and the PRC than do the Hong Kong-Chinese blockbusters engineered for commercial success.

It is tempting to frame this independent film culture as a “local” response to the regional dynamic embodied by blockbusters and Pan-Asian art house film. I would rather argue that it represents a different, quite distinct mode of transnationalism—what, following Fran^oise Lionnet and Shu-Mei Shih, I term “minor transnationalism.”6 Minor transnationalism differs from transnationalism “proper” in a number of key ways. First, where we associate the latter with global flows from the “margins” to the “centre,” from a subordinate culture to a dominant one—in filmic terms, the historical circulation of primarily art house films from Asia to the West through international film festivals—minor transnationalism instead connotes connections between margins. Implicit in the phenomenon is therefore an understanding that it involves a process of cultural translation between peripheral screen cultures rather than from a screen culture that is subordinate to one that is dominant. What is being translated in this process is not a monolithic or essentialist notion of “Asia” for Western consumption, but rather a diversity of lived and mediated experiences within Asia for its many inhabitants. Second, unlike most global flows, minor transnationalism is neither profit-driven, nor built upon Westphalian nation-state imaginaries. In consequence, it seeks to make connections that are neither commercial nor hierarchical, that stem from a sense of identification and belonging that is not primarily national, and which may serve as a potential counter to the pernicious effects of the expansion of neoliberalism, inequality, and atomization.

In this chapter, I wish to explore how the conflict between the two transnational dynamics prevalent in Hong Kong’s contemporary film culture more broadly plays out in film festivals specifically. My focus here is HKAFF. I argue that HKAFF is a material and discursive site that reveals the tensions and contradictions between these two modalities and strategic responses to globalization: on the one hand, this minor mode that is peripheral-to-peripheral, and on the other hand, what we could describe as the major mode that promotes deregulation, privatization, and free trade—though on a local and regional scale. An analysis of HKAFF shows how the festival has served a dual purpose. First, as an exhibition site for New Asian Cinema, in order to establish and sustain a commercial market for films produced and distributed by EDKO Films Ltd. (a stakeholder in the festival, hereafter EDKO) within the territory. Second, as a platform for independent cinema from Hong Kong, the PRC, and Taiwan, across the region and beyond, in order to open up a transnational space for cultural connection and exchange. This has been particularly important for the festival’s other major stakeholder, Ying E Chi (hereafter YEC), a not-for-profit organization that represents independent filmmakers in the SAR. However, analysis of the festival’s programming, its patterns of prize awarding, and the annual Message from the Director all suggest how over the life cycle of the festival EDKO’s interests gradually won out over YEC’s. In consequence, in 2008, HKAFF split into two distinct events. I conclude my chapter with an analysis of the new festival YEC established in 2008—the Hong Kong Asian Independent Film Festival (HKAIFF), since 2010 known as the Hong Kong Independent Film Festival (HKindieFF)—outlining how the event more explicitly exemplifies Hong Kong minor transnationalism than HKAFF.

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