The Hong Kong Asian Film Festival: From the Margins to the Market

HKAFF was launched in 2004 as a collaborative partnership between YEC and the Broadway Cinematheque (hereafter BC). Initially established as a response to the unprecedented recent production by YEC members of six feature-length independent Hong Kong films, the inaugural festival took place over 11 days and screened 20 programming sections, mostly focused on low-budget Hong Kong cinema.7 Visiting directors to the inaugural festival included internationally acclaimed auteurs such as Fifth

Generation Chinese filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang, as well as local filmmakers such as Vincent Chui and Tammy Cheung.8 By 2007, however, the event had grown exponentially, with more than 80 films in 63 categories being shown over 17 days.9 Shortly after, YEC and BC parted ways. Following BC’s trademarking of the festival name, the event was split into two separate entities. HKAFF continued to be presented by BC in the same venue. YEC, however, launched a new festival—the HKAIFF— which it inaugurated in 2008 at The Grande cinema, an 11-screen theatre in Kowloon Station.

Understanding HKAFF’s particular trajectory requires analysis of the event’s two main stakeholders. Established in 1996, BC is part of the Broadway Circuit of cinemas. Comprised of a cinema, bookshop, DVD shop, and cafe, it bills itself as a local hub for art house and non-mainstream cinema. However, the Broadway Circuit is itself owned by EDKO, one of the major producers, distributors, and exhibitors of domestic and foreign films in Hong Kong and mainland China. EDKO was founded in 1996 by William Kong, who is probably most famous as the producer of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and it owns a back catalogue that also boasts Hero, The Flowers of War, and Lust, Caution. The company is thus heavily involved with both the New Asian Cinema and a certain kind of pan-Chinese blockbuster. YEC, in contrast, is a non-profit organization that strives “to unite independent filmmakers” and to distribute and promote Hong Kong independent films.10 Established in 1997, it was founded by a group of independent filmmakers, including Mark Chan, Vincent Chui, Simon Chung, Chow Keung, Wai Lun-Kwok, Kal Ng, and Yu Lik-Wai.11 YEC has a catalogue of 67 titles,12 which it distributes through limited theatrical screenings; television and Internet broadcast (the former in Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America); international film festivals and themed film festivals (independent, Asian, LGBT, and so forth); and VCD and DVD sales both online and offline. These titles are often consciously “marginal”: 15 titles in the current catalogue (or 25 per cent) are by filmmakers who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or transgender, and who openly address queer themes.13 The organization also promotes local films to civic institutions, such as city hall and government agencies, social institutions, such as colleges and universities, and cultural institutions, such as arts centres and film groups. YEC’s investments are therefore very much in Hong Kong’s non-commercial, independent film culture, and its approach to cinema driven by concerns that are not exclusively about capital accumulation. Simon Chung makes this clear in a comment on Hong

Kong queer cinema that speaks to YEC’s understanding of its place in the local film scene: “It’s more than men having sex with men ... It is a way to see the world ... a particular sensibility.”14

If YEC’s decision to partner with BC, and thus by extension EDKO, initially appears counterintuitive, it must be understood in the context of changes to the Hong Kong exhibition sector in the 1990s. These changes included the expansion of multiplexes, the closure of art house cinemas, and the proliferation of non-theatrical or alternative sites of exhibition. According to Stephen Teo, the replacement in the 1990s of the old movie houses with multiplexes was the most fundamental structural change to occur in the Hong Kong film industry. This development was and is one of the hallmarks of media globalism and regionalism. The decade also saw “a rise in admission prices as cinemas upgraded facilities . higher prices and more sophisticated, albeit smaller, auditoriums raised the expectation for quality products which were met by imported Hollywood films.”15 Says Venus Wong, a former employee of YEC: “In Hong Kong, you seldom get any other choices other than Hollywood films. Or maybe some major films from Japan or Korea.”16 Laikwan Pang argues that large distributors, such as Media Asia and EDKO, have become extremely powerful, and exhibitors such as UA and AMC now dominate the Hong Kong scene.17 The Imperial Cinema in Wan Chai closed in 2004 after 35 years, and the Cine-Art House Cinema closed in 2006 after 18 years, in part because of high overheads; the latter re-opened in 2009 in Amoy Garden Shopping Arcade in Kowloon Bay.18 According to Jimmy Choi, former head of the film and video department of the Hong Kong Arts Centre (HKAC):

Back in the old days cinemas used to screen short films with the feature films. But the practice has ceased for many years. The [Hong Kong] Arts Centre, for a time, used to screen short films of less than ten minutes in length with feature films, and split the proceeds with the creator. But now time means everything to cinemas and they have no time for short films.19

YEC’s launch of HKAFF at BC can thus be understood as strategic. Faced with a structural readjustment of the local exhibition sector that favoured commercial conglomerates over independent players—itself the product of a similar industrial consolidation occurring at a regional scale—working with EDKO (if at one remove) was clearly a way to open up exhibition space for non-mainstream cinema in Hong Kong.20 In some ways, this tactic was effective. According to Esther Yeung, the former general manager of YEC, HKAFF became the non-profit distributor’s most important annual event.21 I would suggest, however, that the kind of commercial logic inherent to EDKO’s regional cinematic transnationalism very quickly started to take precedence over YEC’s minor transnational practices. The result was an increasing marketization of the festival, and the ultimate split after the 2007 edition, from which HKAIFF emerged. One way to trace this shift is through an analysis of how the “value-adding” processes through which the festival bestows cultural, and ultimately financial, capital on particular films has changed over time. I therefore adapt Marijke de Valck’s trio of practices that are central to this process in European international festivals—selection, competition, and mediation22—to consider how HKAFF’s ongoing marketization was made manifest through three elements of the festival from 2004 to 2007: selection of the Opening Night films; the competitive Film Awards; and finally, the programming booklets’ Message from the Director to festival-goers.

 
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