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Ten films, four days, relentless Hong Kong

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• Grace Wang of Toronto

It's my last day in Hong Kong and I'm spending it indoors - specifically - at a Starbucks in Kowloon Station across from the cross-border bus terminal, of which I'm booked to get on a bus in 3 hours back to Mainland China.

Across from me in the cushy tan sofa, a woman is dozing over an English newspaper. The headlines reads "EU summit puts off the tough decisions"... Hmm, not exactly light Sunday afternoon readings (or is it Saturday? I lose count). She has long curly dark brown hair that is half-dry and is dressed fashionably in jeans and a black leather jacket. She looked a little anxious when asking whether the seat was taken, and a little taken aback when I blurted out "no" in English (caffeine hasn't quite sank in then yet). Is the newspaper part of an effort to brush up on her English? I wonder. Did she have a rough night? Is she waiting for someone?

Pushing my curiosity aside, I return to my own waiting. The bus I intended to take was canceled and the next one was full, so here I am, waiting, happily. Today, I am happy to be still. For the past five days I've indulged in all my favorites: films, food, shopping, food, and awesome people. Hong Kong is a relentless provider of sorts, and I'm all out of power of consumption. Settling back in my corner, tucked into the wall and overlooking the line-ups at the counter, I think back to the cinematic highlights of this past week.

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The Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) is one of the largest film festivals in Asia. It screens over 300 titles from over 50 countries across Hong Kong, and draws an annual audience of over 580,000 people. The 35th HKIFF runs from March 20th to April 5th. If you are a fan of Asian films, this is your annual buffet of heaven.

Due to scheduling, I was only able to see ten films in my four days there. Some of the foreign selections I was familiar with from TIFF 2009. There are a couple stand-outs, some walk-outs, and one film that stays with me still.

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After walking out of two films in a row on the first day - one looking like a 20 year old version of "Under the Hawthorn Tree" but without all the charm, and another a seemingly Asian version of "Valentine's Day" - it was with a heavy heart that I walked into Sonthar Gyal's "The Sun Beaten Path" (2011, Tibetan, 89min). Meditative and absorbing, the first thing that strikes you about the film is the sheer power of cinematography: Set in the bare landscapes of Tibet, against roads that stretches into the horizon and yellow earth that covers infinity, even on the relatively small screen, the images project a bare epic-ness, a mystical beauty that is almost distracting. It is no wonder to learn that this is the directorial debut of Gyal who is Pema Tsedan's cinematographer on "The Search." The bare beauty doesn't only linger on the landscapes but spill into the narrative structure as well, which lulls in between memories of guilt and physical reminders of the present. The story centers on Nima, a young man who sets out on a pilgrimage to Lhasa, after a freak accident in which his mother was killed. But despite reaching Lhasa, he continues to be haunted by sorrow and guilt, and on his way back, weighted down in every step by his inner demons, the young man encounters an old man, who takes an interest in his well-being. Together and separate, they wander through the epic, haunting earth of Tibet, through aged wisdoms, youthful regrets, and humanistic sufferings. The film is quiet in a way that may be unnerving to some - as the camera focuses on the face of Nima as he walks, and walks, and walks (in gorgeous Tibetan light). The dialogue is minimum, and the shots are long. The narrative is more to be felt than understood, and the film could do with a tighter edit. However, even if you don't understand the story, it is hard to miss the strange, haunting beauty of its ebbing vibe: the inevitability of life, the guilt of our youthful mistakes, and the things we do to come to terms with those that we can not change.

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Also spare but set in today's urban cities is Zhao Liang's "Together" (2010, Mandarin, 83 min). Director of the much-acclaimed and must-see "Petition"- a 12 year effort that culminated in a breathtaking portrait of the injustice of modern China social/legal system which won the Humanitarian Award for Best Documentary at HKIFF last year - Zhao Liang presents a compassionate and contemporary look at the plight of real-life AIDS-afflicted individuals living in China today. Intended as a companion piece to Gu Changwei's "Til Death Do Us Part," some of the main characters are cast/crew members who are afflicted with the disease. The film explores interviews with movie stars like Zhang Ziyi in an effort to dispel stigmatisms against AIDS. More than a making-of documentary though, Zhao goes beyond interviews and finds little moments of heartbreak and inevitability: a sad face in a chatroom; a child acting out a scene; a family meal of restrained caution and love; The call is unabashed and the message is clear: Together, we are all searching for love and happiness. Together, we have a responsibility to love each other. And then just maybe, we all have a chance to be happy, together.

"In life I am always acting. In the movie though, I don't need to act." Speaking is one of the cast members of Gu Changwei's "Til Death To Us Part," a young girl with AIDS. The film scouted for AIDS patients, and Zhao Liang took the lead with his camera, through the country-wide chatrooms, hospitals and elementary schools. How deep is the AIDS stigmatism in China? Some people said if their mother saw them on the screen she will collapse. Some said no one will speak to them ever again after the film. AIDS is a secret of life, and a life-afflicted secret. In front of the cameras, these people honestly speak of their everyday struggles. The six individuals who end up being part of the cast of Gu's film live and work with the crew and stars like Zhang Ziyi, whose star power here casts a most positive light on this important issue. (Translation of Chinese film synopsis in HKIFF program book)

Aside from the arthouse fare, there were also some big-screen choices, two of which I saw.

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Chen Kaige's "Sacrifice" (2010, Mandarin, 127 min) is a historical drama set in ancient China. Cheng Ying, a court doctor who tends to the pregnant wife of his master, accidentally gets tangled in a war of life and death when his master's entire clan is massacred by a political opponent, General Gu. Cheng Ying manages to save the new-born baby, only to be forced to sacrifice his own child in a series of ironic mistaken identities. Unable to cut his loss, the doctor plots a scheme of revenge spanning 15 years that eventually carries unexpected consequences of its own. Brimming with opulent costumes and sets that are typical of Chinese historical epics, "Sacrifice" works as an entertaining blockbuster overall, and will likely do well with mainstream audiences. The first half of the film sets up the dilemma convincingly, with the irony of mistaken identities involving themes of morality, self-interest, and sacrifice handled succinctly and with polish. However, the film starts to lose its narrative focus in the second half, and all but falls apart in the end to an expected, exasperating finish. The potential energy for intrigue, so lushly built up in the first half, through under-developed characters and generic dialogue, all but dissipates as the film rolls to its 127 minutes conclusion. As I left the theater, a guy behind me said to his friend: "Man, what was that? "Yellow Earth" was soooo good." The let-down is gentle, but sticks.

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Another costume-heavy and lushly illustrated commercial fare is Chen Hung-I's "Honey Pu Pu (2011, TaiWan, 100min), which is set in the cool urban landscapes of TaiWan amongst its young and hip inhabitants. The film blasts its audience with pretty androgynous faces, stylish outfits, experimental vignettes, and nonsensical musings, all sprinkled freely in an equally androgynous, stylish, experimental, and nonsensical narrative circle. The film has an uniformly young cast, including Vicky (Tseng Pei-Yu), Dog (Lee Ta-chi), Cola (Chiu Shen0Yi), Money (Lin Chen-Shi), Assassin (Lin Po-shen), and Playing (Hsieh Hsin-Ying). Vicky is looking for her boyfriend Dog, who disappeared without a trace. She gets in touch with Cola, Money and Assassin in a chatroom, who decide to help Vicky track down Dog. Along comes Playing, a black-widow seductress of men who entice them into erotic/childish games with dangerous consequences. This is a movie for the Millennium population, and there are many things that will attract their attention and keep them there: The clever-display of texting; the universal teenage love triangle; the cool girl that you always wanted to be; the bad boy that you always wanted to have, the cute onlooker that you always felt like; and the sexy girl that you always wanted to be/ be with. With its intended audience, the plot doesn't really matter, especially when everyone and their clothes look so damn cool. There are some musings of the mystery of bees and the extinction of mankind and maybe even a parallel universe, but the intricacies of such philosophies were lost on me (and probably the rest of the audience). It was a packed house though, and as I looked back in the dark, each face was utterly engrossed in the flashing cool hues of lights of TaiPei from the starry, silver screen.

Being in Hong Kong, it is hard to forget the great role of the city itself in its cinema. Two films that finely illustrate this nostalgia are "Quattro Hong Kong" and "Last Romance," both screening at this year's HKIFF.

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"Last Romance" (1988, Cantonese, 100min), directed by YonFan and starring Maggie Cheung, Cherie Chung and Tsurumi Shingo, is a Hong Kong classic and a memorable melodrama. It spans decades, and follows Nancy (Cheung), So So (Chung) and their friendship as they meet in high school, step into society, and grow into adult women. Along the way, a rich tycoon with a heart of gold and a handsome boy comes along, but those only stir the plot to create the dilemmas that drives the narrative along. Make no mistake, this is a film about two women and their coming of age in the golden years of Hong Kong. Maggie Cheung and Cherie Chung have never been younger, and it is interesting to see certain trademarks of their charisma evident and budding even then. The wildness of So So, the predictability of Nancy, their loyalty to each other, and their contrasting but inseparable lives, are themes that resonate universally. The casting is right. The directing fine. The inevitable nostalgia of seeing such a film more than two decades later, in its native land, is to be treasured. In an interview with YonFan by the Hollywood Reporter, when asked why he picked "Last Romance" as a restored work to be shown at HKIFF, Yonfan answered:

"I picked Last Romance to present at the HKIFF because the film was closely related to Hong Kong's past. Most people perceive my work as imaginative, playful and they're known for my aesthetics, but Last Romance was set against the backdrop of Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s, where the rise and fall of the stock market, speculation on the property market, of a society in turmoil, are still themes that have relevance to Hong Kong today."

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If "Last Romance" looks fondly back on Hong Kong's past, "Quattro Hong Kong" (2011, Hong Kong, 59 min) looks optimistically upon its future. Not really a feature but a series of four HKIFF commissioned shorts created for the festival, "Quattro" is a delightful, charming reminder of the voices working in Asia today. Only one of the four filmmakers is a native of Hong Kong, but all the stories take place in the city and evoke, through charm, whimsy, quirk, and thoughtfulness bits of the place that ties into the whole.

First is Brillante Mendoza's "Purple," which unfortunately I missed (especially given the title). According to the synopsis, it is inspired by the color of bauhinia, a purple that is mysterious and regal, and takes place in Hong Kong's flower market and Tai O, the fishing village in Lantau Island. Travelogue, anthropology and an ode to beauty of life in Hong Kong and life itself, this is a meandering start. Next is "Open Verdict" by Ho Yuhang, where a mysterious tourist checks into a seedy hotel with a suitcase of unknown contents, until... The nod to the gangster and police dramas with the Hong Kong narcotic agents and their Malaysian counterparts adds a smirking touch. The news reports at the end are at once comical and newsworthy. This short bounces along with a cool energy that contrasts neatly with the next in series: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "M Hotel." An AW film in every sense, the story vibrates with a lazy, surreal energy as two filmmakers take portraits of each other by the window on a 17th floor hotel room on a HK afternoon. The camera is handheld on both counts, and sways in and out of perspectives. The afternoon seems to be suspended in a fog, and time seems to freeze and flow with each click of the shutter. Fans of "Uncle Boonmee" will not be disappointed. Finally comes Stanley Kwan's real-time "13 Minutes in the Live Of..." bus ride from the airport to Kowloon. Abroad are a slew of colorful characters: two middle-age women returning from an art exhibition of the most famous Chinese painting in history (also about a slice of life on a day); a mainland couple here on holiday and their friendly host; a touring Japanese musician; and a thoughtful local who's seen it all. A mini-collision of lives and perspectives, along with bursts of revealing dialogue clearly showcase the many different and similar people who populate this slice of land, and make this a surprisingly delightful, if neat conclusion to the ode to Hong Kong.

Moving onto Mainland China cinema, which from the little I saw this week, sprawls a range of tones and genres. Aside from the opulence of SACRIFICE, there is the lukewarm and semi-odd "Wild Strawberries" by Chen Bing (2010, Mandarin, 100min), a film about the ill-fated romance between a war hero's widow and a factory worker, set against the backdrop of the Communist party. The budding romance is adequately portrayed given the setting. However, the film wanders into strange land near the end when its time shifts decades forward into current day, and the actors seem to reincarnate into other people who carry an opposite tone to their original characters. The title fruit, a symbol of the unabashed romance, is irrevocably tarnished in this later segment, and it is still unclear to me whether this was an intentional choice.

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Then there is "The Ditch" (2010, Mandarin, 109min), screened at TIFF 2010 and directed by the renowned documentarian Wang Bing. Being his fictional film debut, this is a bleak look into the harrowing accounts of those who experienced the 1950s forced labor camps in China's Gobi desert. The harsh landscape produces matching actions in the men who struggle to survive on dirt and not much else. Of the more than 3000 "rebels" sent there, only 400 returned. A lack of supplies triggered a great famine, and those who survived went to extraordinary, sometimes sub-human lengths to do so. Human and moral limits are tested, and it is unbearable to watch. However, Wang's firm grip on reality through his documentary background makes this a fictional drama that is thoroughly affecting, and that much harder to shake. There is no sense of the tragedy unfolding far away in a safe land. With his camera held steady, it is right there, beside you, and don't you dare look away.

Finally, there is my personal favorite of the Festival: Li Yu's "Buddha Mountain" (2010, Mandarin, 105 min).

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In a way, this is a typical coming-of-age story, where three aimless teenage friends rebel against parental and societal expectations by skipping college and trying to make it in the city on their own. They rent rooms from Yue Qin (Sylvia Chang), a retired Peking Opera singer living alone. The initial conflicts come as expected, where the kids think she is crazy, and she scoffs disapprovingly at their recklessness. However, the naiveté sheds and emotions flood in when the layers behind Yue Qin's loneliness are revealed in a brutal fashion. One personal tragedy reveals another, and pretty soon all the wounds are opened and bleeding raw. Such catharsis, however, lovingly brings the four together into an unusual bond, and triggers a series of reveals in each of the other three characters. Nothing is simple. Everyone has a story. Here, each is given its moment. Never rushed and always sensitive, Li Yu paints a breathtaking, melancholy, trembling picture of the joys and sorrows that thrives in modern China today across generations. The acting is uniformly superb: from Fan Bingbing and Chen Po Lin's youthful and wounded charms to FeiLong's sincere comic relief to Sylvia Chang's fierce portrayal of a woman trapped in the past and in pain of life itself, it is a case of pitch-perfect. There is a scene involving Chang and a birthday cake that will break you, and another with Chang and Fan in bed of unspeakable understanding. A seven minute train sequence through tunnels and countryside makes you wish that it will never end, and a moment of young lovers holding hands under water I have never quite so believed, until now.

You know how every time you sit down in a theater, and the lights darken, and you try to not have any expectations and just welcome what is about to come next...but in a small corner of your mind, a little voice whispers: I hope this is what I dream of it being. Well, here it is: free and unexpected, real and raw, "Buddha Mountain" is the kind of movie I dream of seeing every time I sit down in a theater... the kind that stays with me long after the lights have dimmed and brightened.

Those are just the films that I managed to see in my short time here. HKIFF is still ongoing until April 5th and many great films remain to be watched. If you are around, I encourage you to check out some. The bulk of my remaining time is spent at FILMART, the industry film market that runs concurrent to HKIFF. That, along with my undying love for Hong Kong food, and a friendly surprise, will be to come in the next column.

Now, sitting in three layers, huddled under a blanket in JiangMen, a coastal city about an hour outside of GuangZhou in southern China in a cold spell, Hong Kong seems more than a day away, even though in reality it is only about a 3 hours bus ride apart. Writing about all the films I've seen this week though brought them all back to me in such fresh, vivid hues. I feel so lucky to be, however miniscule, a part of this creative medium called film, and I hope it never stops.

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