I wake from deep sleep, to find a TV screen inches from my face. The screen is filled with nothing but clouds. A voice over the intercom informs me that these are Chinese clouds. As we bank to the left, I look out the window and see an island of skyscrapers bursting from the rocks below. This is Xianḡ Ganǧ (香港) which translates to “Fragrant Harbour” – otherwise known as the megacity of Hong Kong – and I’ve come here to hustle some films for the Darwin International Film Festival.
The Hong Kong International Film Festival is a true smorgasbord of world cinema, with almost 200 international films screening over two weeks across the city. There are entire sections devoted to ‘The Passion of Latin American Cinema’, and ‘The Rise and Rise of Romanian Cinema’, but I’m only here for five days and have decided to focus my selections on breakout new films from across Asia. The cultural melting pot of Darwin is made up of people from across dozens of countries to our immediate north, and the Chinese community has been here for as long as there was a port, but it is rare that we see the cinema from these countries on our screens. Hong Kong boasts one of the biggest film industry in South East Asia, and the Hong Kong Film Festival has become the central venue for premiering new films to the Chinese film industry, so I thought it might be a good place to start on my search.
On my first night, I wanted to explore the city and read its pulse, so I wandered through the streets by foot, soaking up the heat and the neon glow. I exited the massive apartment building/shopping bazaar where I was staying and continued through the billboard-heavy shopping district of Kowloon.
Eventually, I made my way to the Hong Kong Science Museum where they were screening the classic absurdist sports farce comedy Shaolin Soccer. This ridiculously entertaining film pits a group of down and out urban Shaolin kung fu masters against gangsters armed only with a soccer ball. The film is screening as part of a retrospective being held by the festival called Paradigm Shift exploring Hong Kong Cinema since the British handover to the Chinese Government in 1997 – evidently, a major historical shift that the city is still documenting.
One of my favourite films in the festival was a beautifully crafted documentary titled Burma Storybook. It followed the story of a poet who was imprisoned for years in Burma/Myanmar and has only just been released since the military junta has stepped down. In between candid portraits of a country picking itself up from the bootstraps, it juxtaposed a series of poems written by the political prisoner and his fellow poets. It was fascinating to see how something as seemingly peaceful as poetry could be considered a threat by totalitarians, but perhaps that is the point. Poetry is free speech, crafted with art. If you want to control people’s minds, it is a weapon that will expose power with nothing but a few finely chosen words. Pure cinematic poetry.
Among a wide range of films I watched, some of the other standout films I discovered included:
Newton – a fantastic Indian comedy of errors about the difficulties of running the world’s biggest democracy, full of illiterate farmers and rebels hiding in the forests trying to stop voting.
Honeygiver Among The Gods – a detective mystery story from Butan, which merged mythology and hard-boiled crime into a magical genre piece.
White Sun – an award-winning drama that explores the politics in Nepal in the wake of the Maoist revolution that took place a few years ago and its ongoing repercussions across the society.
Every day, I would walk past an enormous dome-shaped building that google maps told me was the Hong Kong Space Centre. Poking my head through the doors, I discovered it was an enormous Planetarium with a large-scale full dome cinema inside. I bought a ticket to a film called DARK UNIVERSE and was taken on a cosmic journey to the beginning of time in a mind-blowing 360º film about the origins of the universe and the mystery of dark matter – all narrated by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I’ve spent a long time researching into full dome cinemas and am hoping that we will be able to bring one to Darwin this year for the film festival, which we are calling CINEMA 360º. I’ll write more about this initiative in a future blog.
One morning, I wandered down to the harbour and came upon the city’s Star Walk, dedicated to the long history of Hong Kong’s filmmaking culture. Although the actual site was being renovated, the temporary signage informed me that the city’s filmmaking history dated back one hundred years, and had gone through many phases. From myths and legends to kung fu films of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, crime and action John Woo thrillers to Wong Kar-Wai’s stylish theatrics and much more – this city has a long tradition of creating great cinema.
On my last day, I needed a break from the screen, so I decided to visit an exhibition devoted to the life and work of Bruce Lee at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. The permanent exhibition was filled with tourists and locals, drawn by the legend of a man who continues to fascinate decades after his death.
The story goes, that after reaching a career ceiling in Hong Kong, Bruce left to Hollywood to make his international career in his early 20s. There was an irrepressible and vibrant energy he carried even as a child actor who had starred in many films before any of his martial arts fame. The exhibition included costumes, poems, press shots and memorabilia from the three short decades of Bruce Lee’s shooting star lifespan.
One thing that became clear was the contribution Bruce Lee made to modern movies, which can be seen in every action movie from The Matrix to Marvel Studios. Today, Hollywood incorporates martial arts techniques seamlessly into highly choreographed fight scenes in a dance of theatrical violence that owes its roots to Kung Fu via Hong Kong and Bruce Lee’s long lasting influence.
However, it was Lee’s philosophy that stayed with me after the exhibition. Bruce Lee used his films to introduce Kung Fu to the world, and through it, the deep insights that this tradition contained. I believe this has come to influence films like Stars Wars and the Jedi philosophy and is now deeply rooted in our global consciousness.
“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
– Bruce Lee
Following Bruce Lee’s train, I think stories are like water, and cinema is one of the most influential mediums humanity has invented from which to hold them in. Cinema can take as many shapes as artists sculpt it into, and it continues to surprise us with new experiments and technological breakthroughs every year. From the verité of a documentary to the fantasy of Hollywood, comedy or drama, gentle poetry, deep truth or magnificent illusion. The best cinema shows us the human experience in extremely intimate close-ups, writ large upon our cultural landscape. A film festival gives you the chance to experience the art of cinema beyond the commercial blockbuster and genres we have come to know. It’s a chance to discover new shapes that we may never have realised even existed, deepen our understanding of the world-at-large, and share our collective dreaming.
This was the first stop on a month-long journey sailing across this ocean of cinematic water to choose films for our festival in September. Tomorrow I fly out to New York to attend the Tribeca Film Festival and the Toronto for the Hot Docs Festival.
I’ll let you know what I find along the way.
To be continued.