New Chinese Films in Hong Kong International Film Festival 2017

in 41st Hong Kong International Film Festival

by William Lau

It may be my 20th Hong Kong International Film Festival or so, but this time it is an entirely different experience as I attended this year's festival as a FIPRESCI jury member.

That all 12 screenings were arranged to take place in one screen of a multiplex, was to me another brand-new experience. The multiplex, The Sky, is situated inside the shopping mall of a complex of middle-class apartment blocks. There are several others in the same area. That area is connected by subway to the business district, and in the opposite direction, to the airport.

But that area is a place that probably won't be visited by people who don't live nearby. All in all, that multiplex is one component of a secluded lifestyle of those who live in the apartment blocks above, go to work by taking a few stops by the subway, then spend their off days inside the shopping mall. There is a food court right next to the multiplex too. While watching these nominated films, the sound of Fast and Furious 8 leaked through the walls from next door. No, Hollywood wasn't intruding on us. It is us, arthouse viewers that are invading the lives of the secluded middle-class. I wonder how Godard would make a movie out of that.

Although the winner of this year's FIPRESCI prize went to the hilarious Korean movie Happy Bus Day, I'd like to dedicate this article to three Chinese-language entries, namely White Ant (Bai yi), Stonehead (Shi tou) and Taste of the Betel Nut (Bing Lang Xue).

White Ant is a tale of obsession, guilt and redemption, directed by Taiwanese director Chu Hsien-Che. Young bookstore worker Yide, aka White Ant, is caught on tape while stealing ladies' underwear. The video is sent to him by young female student Junhong, who gets a kick for tormenting him. Emotionally disturbed, Yide gets hit by a truck and dies. The remorseful Junhong tries to atone by working as an assistant to Yide's tailor mother.

White Ant features a powerful performance by TV actor Wu Kang-Yen as the title character. The character is mentally sick but interesting enough to make me wonder if the film is still watchable when he dies just half way through the film. The film does seem empty during the second half, and arguably, the entire film may be too derivative in the sense that it is quite easy to detect traces of two European arthouse directors. The first half, with the female lead character Junhong playing cat-and-mouse with our fetishtist young man, reminds me of Michael Haneke's Hidden. While the second half, with Junhong attempting to make atonement without revealing her secrets, makes her like a character out of a Dardenne film.

Stonehead represents an entirely different world. It is set in the underdeveloped rural area of mainland China. In a sense, the village in which this film is set is doubly deprived, it is a poor and underdeveloped village within a poor province of inland China. Stonehead is the nickname of our hero, a school kid whose parents have left home to work in the cities. Stonehead is one of those "left behind" kids who are raised by grandparents. The drama of this film sets off when Stonehead, out of good luck, is given a high-quality soccer ball. This invokes the jealousy of his classmates and things gradually spiral out of control.

Stonehead surely reminds viewers of the famed children films of Iran. The proximity isn't just from the subject matter, but the fact that Iranian children's films are known to be the outlet for social commentaries otherwise not possible in mainstream fare, a way to go above the government censorship. The phenonmenon of Chinese migrant workers is a very special problem caused by the quick development of China's economy. The scale of it vastly exceeded a similar phenonmenon in 1960s to 1970s Japan, featured in My Way (1974) by Kaneto Shindo, when a huge number of Japanese peasants were drawn to work in the industries and the service sector of Japan's mega cities. China's migrant worker phenonmenon is not as sensitive or inflammatory as political issues but one should not be so naive that such matter will fare no problem with the censors.

Taste of the Betel Nut might have a special meaning to Hong Kong audience as it features, as the main protagonist, a look-alike of the prematurally deceased Hong Kong superstar Leslie Cheung. Set in an idyllic resort town in Haian island, it is the story of a menage-a-trois in which a beautiful young girl has intruded on the love life of a gay couple. The Leslie-look-alike makes his living partly by impersonating Cheung, partly by handouts of his boyfriend.

As this film is essentially built on this Leslie-look-alike. It is perhaps no accident that Taste of the Betel Nut would ring a bell with fans of Wong Kar-Wai. The gay couple resemble that of Happy Together, and the Leslie-look-alike's womanizing has the flavour of Days of Being Wild. Emotionally, I may be delighted by the stunning resemblance of this Cheung impersonator, but if one considers the fact that the actual Leslie Cheung appears in the Venice Golden Lion winner Farewell My Concubine, in which a similar love triangle occurs between a woman and a gay couple, I would say Taste of the Betel Nut may be too closely based on other masters' work.

At the time of the screening, the director revealed that the film had yet to be screened in mainland China. Even if it could get the official permission, the erotic elements have to be vastly toned down. It is very sad and alarming to see the Chinese government is tightening its grip on culture. It is not that a film festival has the guts to show a Chinese film without official approval, but the fact that filmmakers have to face blacklisting (which might affect the performers as well) if they choose to ignore the need to get approval and show their films abroad.

Edited by Amber Wilkinson
© FIPRESCI 2017

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