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The 21st Hong Kong Film Festival

Gigi Hu screens animation in Hong Kong on the dawn of a new era.

Poster of 21st. Hong Hong International film festival.

Hong Kong is living to the fullest and probably will continue to, right to the very moment of the midnight chimes of June 30, 1997, celebrating the imminent handover in July, by which Hong Kong will become a Special Administrative Region of China. The 21st Hong Kong Film Festival which took place March 25 - April 9 is one gallant testimony, and the festival organizers have obviously decided on a "big bang" approach. The science-fiction like city-state of Hong Kong continues to thrive, and it is no wonder that it forms the background landscape of Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell.

Spread over seven venues, The Hong Kong Film Festival is a marathon cultural event that has grown steadily through the years, attracting international and local cinephiles. Said one local spectator, "it can be annoying as it tends to fall over the Easter holidays, but I can never get away as the programme is getting more interesting and varied every year."

This year's festival screened 288 films from 42 countries. In addition, an interesting conference paying tribute to 50 Years of Hong Kong Cinema was held April 10-12, featuring contributions from local and overseas film directors, critics and scholars. Other fringe activities included outdoor screenings and an exhibition on Hong Kong Production and Distribution Industries 1947-97.

Andrew Higgins' The Gourmand.

Hong Kong's Animation Appetite

Hong Kongers are no strangers to animation. The organizers would not dare to leave out this category altogether. Indeed, animation spectatorship is strong among the local people. A Japanese animation film is known to run continuously for six months, appearing daily in ten shows, screened in both Japanese and Cantonese. In other words, the film festival has to compete with commercial cinemas and local distributors for screening rights. Cynics may frown at the idea of watching "small things move on the screen" but the visual appetite of Hong Kongers is amazing. They arrived in troupes and individually: tertiary students, couples and working professionals all queueing up in an orderly fashion to lap up their favourite film genre.

The festival began to feature animation films in 1979. On the 11th HKIFF, it screened a record of four animation features: Vampires in Havana, When the Wind Blows, Nausicca in the Valley of the Wind and Laputa. Last year, it was a "whooping harvest" according to some animation fans, as three Japanese feature-length animation films were shown together with another 12 world animation delights.

This year, the organizers could not find any strong animation films not already in the hands of the local distributors. One probable example is Hayao Miyazaki's new theatrical release, Whisper of the Heart, which is currently being shown in a local cinema. But Hong Kongers are not discouraged. They turned up in full force for the festival's animation screenings. The two animation sessions followed by another two repeated sessions were all held at the posh Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, which, at over 900 seats, is the largest venue of the festival. Over the weekend, free outdoor screenings of animation were held at the piazza of Hong Kong Cultural Centre facing the glimmering Victoria Harbour. Sensitive to the public, certain Category III animation was not screened in this program.

The Brief Life of Fire

Many, as you can tell, are not first-timers to animation and would not hesitate to comment or express their viewing experiences. For example, the Cantonese expression, "qi xin," (meaning madness/ridiculous), can be heard if viewers dislike or do not understand the animation shorts. "How could the programmer has selected this?" the audience could be heard whispering. On the other hand, they did not hesitate to clap or show a rupture of joy to express appreciation of some films. Among the 17 animation films shown, Hubert Sielecki's Air Fright, Janet Perlman's Dinner For Two, Andrew Higgins' The Gourmand, Lasse Persson's Hand in Hand, Chris Backhouse's Lovely Day and Michaela Pavlatova's Repete had the audience chuckling loudly and hungry for more. This year's Oscar winning film,Quest, was also shown to an eager audience which grinned, grasped and sighed at the sandman's fateful end, while Bill Plympton's How To Make Love To A Woman was very popular too.

The Brief Life of Fire, Act 2 Scene 2: Suring and the Kuk-ok was the only Asian/Southeast Asian entry. Directed by Auraeus Solito from Philippines, the story is based on a Palawan myth. For once, city-slick Hong Kongers are transported into a tropical jungle of spells and plant-like creatures.

Local animation appeared in the Independent Film and Video Category. They were award winners from the recent 1996 Hong Kong Independent Short Film and Video Awards: Chang Tze-hin's (#01), Ellen Yuen's iD and Yuen Kin-to's Foul Ball. Perhaps I am too new to Hong Kong's cultural psyche, but I found it hard to find the actual themes or content expressed in these films. But in terms of technicality, there were some lasting impressions. "They are not perfect," one local film critic puts it aptly, "but are a delight to the heart, each possessing a different quality."

Chang Tze-hin's (#01).

It is a covert knowledge that the Hong Kong Film Festival has been instrumental in introducing non-Disney animation films to Hong Kongers. A nimation director Hayao Miyazaki now has a huge following in Hong Kong, since his films were first shown at the festival in 1987. Ironically, his films have recently been acquired by Disney for video distribution. Supported by the Urban Council, the film festival is efficiently run and lives up to its international reputation as a premier Asian film event. Pioneer managers and programmers are still holding on to their torches with unflagging enthusiasm. One can only congratulate their efforts in bringing in a wide repertoire of international and local films, old and new, archival or censored, 35mm or Betamax, and of course not forgetting the animation category. Gigi Hu is now a Ph.D. student based at the University of Hong Kong, Department of Comparative Literature. Prior to this, she was a media and cultural studies lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic, School of Design, Singapore. Last year, with Lilian Soon, she organized Singapore's Animation Fiesta.