Indestructible Hong Kong: Festival 04

HKIFF 2004 Report

I’ll try something a bit different this year, in the interest of getting my report finished before December. So you’ll be getting a brief review-ette of all the films, followed by production details, and full reviews of a selection of the more interesting ones. Let me know what you think…

Three-Corner Bout: Thailand, Taiwan, and the Philippines

I caught three of the Thai films on offer this year, representing three very different styles. Beautiful Boxer, a film based on the life of the trans-gender champion kickboxer Nong Toom, was emotional and moving, in that way that only Thai films can manage. The Adventures Of Iron Pussy, a tongue-in-cheek caper whose heroine is a cross-dresser, was moderately entertaining but insubstantial. The third Thai film in my roster was Last Life In The Universe, another winner. This was possibly due to its fine director, producer, and cinematographer, or possibly due to the fact that I’m unable to stop myself drooling whenever I see Asano on screen.

The Taiwanese contingent provided The Missing, by a student of Tsai Ming Liang, and Tsai’s own Goodbye, Dragon Inn. I must say that I saw these under protest: I have in the past held a rather poor opinion of most Taiwanese films. Alas, these changed my opinion not one jot. Goodbye, Dragon Inn in particular was interminable for me, although if you have a burning desire to watch people walking up and down a lot of stairs, then this film will be heaven for you. Not my idea of a good closing film: it’s more likely to leave festival-goers wanting to dive into the rank harbour waters than anything else.

The only offering from the Philippines this year was the low budget but high result Gagamboy. The story of a local-boy-becomes-superhero was so engrossing, so right to the cutting edge of camp, and so piss-funny that an entire packed cinema was screaming with laughter, and at the right moments no less. This would have to be my Best Of The Fest.

The Real World

In blatant defiance of my mandate as Asian film viewer, I caught three non-Asian films this year, and by coincidence all were documentaries. Purity, an Israeli documentary about the ritual of miqveh (purification), was informative and uncomfortable. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was an attempt by an Irish film crew to capture the essence of Venezualan president Chanvez that turned into a startling coverage of an attempted coup by the rich previous rulers of the country. Worked well, and had a few scenes of defining moments in Venezualan history. Also turned out to be not at all what the film-makers had intended. The third doco, The Corporation, was absolutely rivetting for most of its 165 minutes, and demonstrates why the Canadian film is getting accolades from all over the world.

Kim Ki Duk Takes Korea

Out of five Korean films I caught this year, three were Kim Ki Duk works: Samaria, a story of schoolgirl prostitutes, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring, a “monk comes full circle” story, and The Coast Guard, an illustration of how the army makes people crazy. All three were good but not great, with a moral lesson in each, as well as some pretty scenery (provided in the latter by Jang Dong-Kun and his luvverly eyelashes). The two remaining Korean offerings were Save The Green Planet, a gruelling-but-great oddball of a film I’d seen previously at MIFF 03, and Capitalist Manifesto: Working Men Of All Countries, Accumulate!, an indie film with a great premise which turned out to be the worst film I’ve ever seen in quite a long life. Urggg. I could rant about this for hours: it was incredibly, unbelievably, breathtakingly boring. I would have been willing to chew off my own leg to escape this one, if necessary. It wasn’t helped by the pre-screening speech given by one of the directors, which consisted of “Please don’t walk out of my film. I know it’s boring, and lots of people have walked out at other screenings, but please give it a chance.” Dreck. A disastrous marketing ploy that was amply justified by the appalling film it prefaced.

Those Wacky Japanese

The only predictable feature of Japanese films is how utterly unpredictable they are, and this year’s lot spanned the range from arthouse to slaughterhouse. Well, very nearly. In short, they are:

Ramblers, a cute indie road movie that rambles engagingly across the Japanese coutryside;

Bright Future, a bit of arthouse starring Asano Tadanobu and some very lovely (and poisonous) jellyfish;

Peep TV Show, a rather tedious indie film shot using a bizarre variety of cameras, and containing far less sex than promised;

Shara, rather like Blue Gate Crossing from last year’s AIFF, but much less engaging;

Hard Luck Hero, a Sabu film starring J-pop sensations V6;

Vibrator, a road movie starring Omori Nao and a 4-ton truck; and

Gozu, by Miike Takashi. No more need be said.

The last three deserve special mention. The screening of the Sabu film that we attended was the first showing, and it felt like we were at a concert: the instant they dropped the rope, the huge queue of movie-goers pelted screaming for the doors and scrambled for the best seats. Sabu, bless his little cotton socks, asked if he could be photographed with the audience, who cheerfully acceded, and a reverent hush descended as the lights dimmed. Said hush was then broken by adolescent squeals of delight each time another V6-er made his appearance on-screen. Bless those boys and their lovely Japanese hair, it was a fun ride full of Sabu style and J-pop good looks, and is possibly the only feature film to have evolved from a commercial.

Vibrator proved to be a surprise: we were expecting another Tokyo X Erotica or Snake Of June, a shallow and silly movie full of gratuitous sex, but this was not to be. Not that we don’t like gratuitous sex, but this one proved to be a good film, which came as something of a shock. It’s based on a novel, and quite a good novel at that, apparently, and I’m hoping to be able to read it soon and give you my opinion on that as well. For now, all I can say is that, while we were disappointed that the 8-ton truck we were promised turned out to be merely a 4-tonner, and while we got characters and interactions instead of meaningless sleaze, we were pretty happy with the sex scenes, and Omori Nao has been added to my list of Favoured Babes.

Gozu. Miike. Hell, how can I write about that? More weird than a dozen stoats doing a Morris dance, more incomprehensible than Hunter S Thompson at his highest, and more Miike than even Miike could possibly be, that’s Gozu. I promise to review it in full later, once my neurons have stopped sizzling.

Hong Kong: Always The Same, Always Different

It might surprise some of you, but I chose to miss all of the memorial Leslie and Anita films on show. I’ve seen almost all of them, and there were so many films that clashes would have prevented me seeing most anyway. But I’m told that there were some pretty emotional scenes at some of the films, with fans breaking down en masse in the more heart-wrenching ones.

But on to the films I did see. The opening film was Jade Goddess Of Mercy, an Ann Hui offering that would have been much better with someone other than Vicki Zhao Wei in the lead role. She was not at all convincing as a tough cop, and the lovely Nic Tse Ting Fung had to do the acting for both of them. Running On Karma I’d already seen and loved, while Infernal Affairs II and III, although of course not as good as the original, still managed to be watchable and fairly slick. Darkness Bride, a late starter, failed to deliver on its promise but had some good moments in amongst the bits that needed tighter editing.

Men Suddenly In Black, Edmond Pang’s eagerly-awaited second film, wasn’t as great as his first (You Shoot, I Shoot), but did show the Pang style, and was still a solid work of entertainment. Fear Of Intimacy, by indie director Vincent Chui, was stylish but uneven, and would have been a stronger film if another actress had been chosen to support Tony Leung Ka Fai: the girl they cast was just too fluffy and vapid to go up against the mighty Big Tony.

We even managed to catch one general release film, Enter The Phoenix, which is lovely for those who like looking at attractive men. Stephen Fung, auteur, has realised that he makes a very tasty bad(ish) guy, and so thoughtfully gives us his best hair-work while he’s engaged in fighting with Daniel Wu. Oh, be still my beating heart.


This year’s visit managed to wipe out the heart-wrenching ‘ghost town’ of last year. True, there are still some people wearing masks, and there are still TV ads recommending simple prophylaxis to be on the safe side, but all in all Hong Kong has recovered from the mighty blow of SARS. The streets are thronged with people at all hours, the city is being rebuilt constantly, and of course retail continues. The Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station is being extended to provide more opportunities for retail, the KCR East line is being extended to Tsim Sha Tsui, also providing opportunities for retail, and it’s now possible to cover a large distance in TST underground, with handy retail along the way. The turnstiles at the TST ferry have been relocated upstairs, but the experience is the same, and you still get a strong waft of ‘Eau De Harbour’ before you get that far.

One evening, after leaving the screening of Bright Future in the Cultural Centre, we found a display of public entertainment that’s only possible in Hong Kong. To the accompaniment of loud (and uncommonly good) electronic music, viewers on the Kowloon side could watch a light show of rare proportions: along a stretch of harbour from Admiralty to Causeway Bay, at least 20 large buildings participated in a co-ordinated performance. There were spotlights, searchlights, building interior and exterior lights, and sweeping green lasers, all turning the harbour into possibly the world’s largest spectacle. The thought of the computer work required to synchronise all those buildings makes my head hurt.

Of course, one of the things that makes Hong Kong so special is the food: whatever you like, it’s possible to find it in HK, and usually cheaply. We stuffed ourselves constantly with fine food of all kinds, from dim sum in Happy Valley, to Taiwanese food in Central, to Japanese fried eel in Mongkok, to Chiu Chow steamed fish in Kwai Tsing. The ubiquitous noodle joints provide noodles in soup with something (either dumplings, or meat, or some such) at a laughably low price, and give you food so good you can almost inhale it all. For anyone who likes food, Hong Kong is the place to be.

Alison’s Best Of The Fest

Number One: Gagamboy. More fun than you’ll ever have again.

Runners-up: Gozu, Vibrator, The Corporation, Beautiful Boxer.

Other runners-up: Hard Luck Hero, Save The Green Planet, Last Life In The Universe.

Don’t See Even If You’re Under Threat Of Death: Capitalist Manifesto: Working Men Of All Countries, Accumulate!

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