The House That Jack Built
Ultimately, it’s more of an inconsistent cry into the void than the conversation starter it could have been.
• Grace Wang of Toronto
Running concurrently with the Hong Kong Internatiomal Film Festival is FILMART, an industry film event that attracts buyers, sellers, producers, filmmakers, promoters, journalists, and all kinds of film people. This is a side of cinema not as visible to the public, but just as important. Here the new blockbusters and indie sweethearts of next year are seeded and funded.
Included in FILMART is the Asian Financing Forum (HAF), which is located in a large exhibition hall where hundreds of booths are set up and buyers and sellers meet and greet and do business. Think of your favorite car/food/wine show, but replace the item at hand with film, and the general set-up is much the same. The booths range from simple and modest to the extravagant and gaudy. This being my first year at FILMART, it is easy to get lost in the buzz and frantic energy of it all. Thankfully, I was in the good company of the TIFF team, including Cameron Bailey who kindly showed me around and explained how things work. Along the way we attended meetings, encountered mystical folklore from a Filipino auteur, met an Indian talent with a story that spans life and death, watched Asian movie stars fall over chairs in play-fighting at a reception, and shot the breeze in a late-night pool hall, amongst others. It doesn't get more instructive, illuminating, and fun than that.
FILMART also supports a slew of workshops, panels, and special events. A major event this year is Jia Zhangke's three-hour master class.
The acclaimed director of such films as "Platform," "The World," "Still Life," and "I Wish I Knew" appeared at first glance, gentle, almost meek. It is not until he started speaking that a biting wit and generous candor poured out, and didn't stop for the entire duration of the workshop.
Jia started with a humorous tidbit about himself: he has played various extra parts in his films. For example, in "The World," there was an Arabic character that needed to be filled but could not in time. As a last minute resort, Jia stepped in for the part because someone convinced him that he could pass as Arabic with some makeup. Later on the scene was cut because he realized that he, indeed, does not look Arabic at all.
Jia went on to discuss the importance of language and actors in his films. He is known for using a substantial amount of local dialects in his films. Explaining that his first language being the ShanShi dialect, a very expressive language, he always had a fondness for the distinctive dialects and the characteristics they portray. He feels that having authentic dialects in the film adds much to the characters and the story. Jia also mentioned that he despises actor trainings, the reason of which goes back to his earlier days at the BeiJing Film Academy, where they had mandatory running sessions in the morning through the campus. During the daily run, he would pass actors who are practicing their "actor" voices aloud. "At that time I always thought: no one talks like that in real life," said Jia.
Such early impressions of the "unnaturalness" of actor trainings led Jia to cast many non-actors in his films. When asked of his casting process, he replied that it comes down to "YuanFen", a Chinese term that roughly translates to a combination of fate, luck, and vibe. Jia says that he cannot cast an actor from watching a clip of his/her work, but must meet the actor in person. However, once in the same room he doesn't need to spend much time with him/her, maybe just the time it takes to drink a cup of tea, but he can quickly sense the physicality and sensibility of this individual, and from that he makes his casting decision.
When asked about the decision to amalgamate fiction and reality in "24 Cities," Jia said that he didn't go into the story with the intention of doing such a feat. His initial intention was to make a documentary. However, once into the research, he quickly realized that it would be much more powerful to portray the stories of these people in a bigger story arc. For example, to find the ShangHai woman character in ChengDu, Jia interviewed thirty plus women. Each of their stories, he said, though interesting, was not enough for a story arc, but together they formed a very attractive story. Overall, documentary is an art form, Jia said, and must be treated as such.
Going into more political/philosophical questions, when asked what he believes is important to achieve in a film, he answered: "to be real." Jia emphasizes that this is especially important in China, as so much of the films from the past decades till now are propaganda films where even the breakfast in the story is fake. Jia recalls seeing a Chinese film in the early 1990s where a family is eating bread and milk for breakfast. "That is completely fake," he said. In that time period a typical Chinese family would be eating porridge and buns, not the idealized "western" version of breakfast.
"You're a director, not a social worker. Your job is not to judge, but to honestly show how we live our lives, through art. That is what you should do." - Jia Zhangke
As fascinating as all the above are, Jia made one particular point that substantially deepened my appreciation of him as a filmmaker. Someone asked him how come so many of his films carry a poetic air. He thought about it briefly, and replied: " We are all poets inside, but most of us, I think, don't realize it, or can not realize it. We need to see it in others to be inspired/provoked."
Jia then went on to give a personal example. When he was young and living in ShanXi, he used to be mesmerized by the sounds of long-distance trucks that went past his home - by the sound of the roaring trucks that is broken up by the wind and carried to his ears. He always thought it was indescribably beautiful, but could not exactly understand what that feeling is. One day years later, as an adult, he came across a novel by ShenChong (spl?), where a passage described a couple being at home and hearing an army horn from afar, its sound being torn to shreds by the wind, trailing in the wind, eventually a piece of it falling in their home (obviously phrased much more poetically in the novel). At that very moment of reading this passage for the first time, Jia realized that THAT was his poetic moment, years ago, as a little kid, and that the poetry of that moment was always within him, he just didn't understood it yet.
He said that from that moment on, he always believed the importance of capturing the poetry in life, and to be able to inspire others to find those moments in theirs.
There were much more discussed that was thought-provoking, and every word sank into me somewhere, perhaps waiting to re-emerge at the right moment. It was one of the most useful filmmaker workshops I've attended. Luckily, I also got to experience it from the front row with Shelly Kraicer and David Bordwell, two of the most well-spoken experts on Asian cinema today.
My other times in Hong Kong were preoccupied with two things: Wong Kar-Wai thoughts and food.
It is probably inevitable that I am an appreciator of Wong Kar-Wai films. It is probably inevitable that I will come to think of them while in Hong Kong. It is probably, therefore, inevitable that I come across things that somehow trigger WKW thoughts throughout my time there...or is it?
From the bus ride from the airport, where the theme of "2046" drifted from a teenage girl's headphones, to my tiny hotel room that resembled uncannily the one from "Fallen Angels" with its low ceilings and long rectangular shape, to the "Days of Being Wild" soundtrack that looped endlessly while I wrote under fluorescent lights on rumpled sheets (all I needed was a cigarette), to the famous/infamous ChungKing Mansions that I passed by every time to and from the ferry dock, to the beige trench coat and sunglasses that I donned everywhere, and pulled close as I found myself in the back of a taxi at midnight, speeding through the tunnel toward Kowloon, heady on 25 years aged scotch.
And then of course, there is his hotly anticipated "The Grandmasters," which seems to be on the tip of everyone's whispers. Even in my awe-inspiring coffee break with Mr. David Bordwell (who also may be the nicest person alive), we couldn't seem to stay away from the name at hand.
I never did resolve the WKW mystery, but then, who does?
What I did manage to do, was seeking out as much of the delicious food I could get my hands on in the time I was there. Hong Kong food is amazing not only in the abundance of options available, but the abundance of access in indulging those options. There are cafes, restaurants, bakeries, and various pockets of deliciousness everywhere. Even in the 7/11, steaming buns and hot skewers await by the cashier. I ate entirely too much of everything from out-of-this-world dimsum to unbelievably fresh sushi to authentic ramen at a supermarket counter to desserts that are too pretty to be consumed.
My favorite thing in Hong Kong though, has to be the star ferry. Every morning, I would wake up to the rumbling of Nathan Road below, step out into the sticky street, and walk south towards the ferry dock to get to the Convention Centre where FILMART is held across the water. Going through the pedestrian underpass, I emerge in a small garden on the other side of Salisbury road, veering right, and stop at a little bakery tucked beside the entrance of the station. Trays and trays of freshly baked buns, rolls, and pastries lay welcome, each individually wrapped. I linger a little in front of the counter, the air sweet with promises of a new day. Telling myself that I'm on vacation, I pick up an extra or two treats, along with a coffee, and the clerk assembles them carefully in a white paper bag and hand it to me with a smile.
I skip up the stairs to the ferry, lightly swaying the paper bag in my hand, feeling its weight and hearing the soft swish of golden bliss. Putting a token in the rusty machine, I slide through the gate and sit down on the far end of the row of green plastic spoon-like chairs that line the waiting hall. It's quiet. People stand, sit, and doze around. I rummage through the bag and select the first indulgence of the day - usually the tuna bun - and devour it. By now the ferry has docked, and I make my way on it with the rest of the crowd, coffee in hand. I choose a seat by the rail with a view of the water and settle in. The boat starts to move, and so does the horizon in front of me. I lift my gaze to the skyline, so dramatic and familiar already, hovering in between a wash of sea and sky. The waves start their rhythmic massage against the ferry, and amidst the soothing rocking of back-and-forth, I take out the second treat - usually an egg tart - bites into the creamy flakes, and put my feet up.
Somewhere in between the sea and the sky, in those brief ten minutes, there was nothing asked of me but the wind in my hair, the hazy blue-green that floods my vision, the hot coffee in my hand, the delicious creaminess on my tongue, and the cool metal of grey railing that my red shoes lean quietly against, frozen in a time that is lost all too soon in the heat of day.
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