HONG KONG – The 37th Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) will kick off on March 17 with the world premiere of Ip Man: The Final Fight, local filmmaker Herman Yau’s take on the life of the martial arts expert most recently brought to screen by Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster.
With Anthony Wong Chau-sang in the leading role, The Final Fight will focus on Ip’s struggles in 1950s Hong Kong, as he attempts to establish his own school and standing in a city stricken with material shortage and institutional corruption as its denizens attempt to recover the traumatic years of the second world war.
Well-known for his gritty visual style, Yau is expected to offer a drastically different Ip Man picture than Wong’s The Grandmaster, which opened the Berlinale on Feb. 7 after its domestic commercial release in Hong Kong and mainland China in January. Cinephiles would actually have the chance to compare the two during the HKIFF, with the festival also programming Wong's film in its Hong Kong Panorama 2012-13 section.
The Final Fight was chosen to open the festival because it pays homage to Cantonese-language films which represents "the cinema of the underdog, downtrodden and the working class, and a reflection of its audience which lived in neighborhoods with a strong sense of community," said HKIFF executive director Roger Garcia.
"As we always try to open the HKIFF with a Hong Kong movie, this one seemed very appropriate as a local film that resonates with a reflection on the past as a way of seeing where we are today," he told the The Hollywood Reporter.
The Final Fight will usher in a 17-day event featuring 306 films from 68 countries, with 12 titles taking their bows in world premieres, according to figures unveiled at the festival’s launch ceremony on Thursday.
Among the filmmakers unleashing their work at the festival are veterans such as Ronny Yu, who will present his historical action drama Saving General Yang at the festival; and newcomers such as Kiwi Chow, making his feature-film debut with A Complicated Story, a tale of a mainland Chinese student’s Hong Kong experience working as a surrogate mother.
Among the 36 films making their Asian premieres at the festival is Closed Curtain, the second film Iranian director Jafar Panahi has made since his detention, charge, imprisonment and then banishment from filmmaking by the Tehran authorities in 2010 for making “anti-government propaganda." His first post-ban film, This Is Not a Film, screened at the HKIFF last year.
The winner of the best screenplay award at the Berlin festival last week, the film revolves around the tense exchanges between a screenwriter (played by Kamboziya Partovi, who also co-directed the film with Panahi) and a young woman (Maryam Moghadam) who ends up in the same villa as they try to evade from the country’s moral police – only for the film to take a turn towards the surreal as Panahi himself enters the picture, playing a version of his real-life self of a banned, ostracized director.
"Closed Curtain is a kind of follow up on his investigation into the nature of cinema, and the artist’s position in it. He offers no easy answers but presents the idea of art and artists in a constant state of flux," said Garcia. "It’s good to close a film festival with a movie that perhaps poses a question: what’s next?"
The festival will also follow up last year’s Beautiful 2012 short-film omnibus – which was shown at the Critics’ Week sidebar at Cannes and then the Toronto Film Festival, among others – with another ensemble of four shorts directed by Hong Kong’s Mabel Cheung, mainland China’s Lu Le, Taiwan’s Wu Nian-jen and Japan’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Again a collaboration with the mainland Chinese internet television operator Youku, Beautiful 2013 will premiere March 20.
"In China, the viewing figures on-line were compelling – I understand something like 12 million people watched for example, Ann Hui’s episode My Way, in something like two months after its release," said Garcia, adding how Beautiful 2012 will soon be screened at San Francisco and Scottish festivals.
"I hope that the new anthology will generate similar results to last year. Apart from the fact that we are making short films with filmmakers that we know and like, the youku connection and the circulation of these works is also helping to enhance HKIFF’s image and reputation which of course, is a good thing for us," he continued.
In line with its program restructuring last year, the festival will again host the Young Cinema Competition and the Documentary Competition which replaced, respectively, the more specific Asian Digital Competition and Humanitarian Awards for Documentaries last year. The former include entries award-winning entries such as Mouly Surya’s What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love (Netpac prize winner at Rotterdam) and Nana Ekvtimishivili and Simon Gross’ In Bloom (CICAE prize winner at Berlin), while the latter features Joshua Oppenheimer’s acclaimed The Act of Killing and Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa – Silence in the House of God.
The filmmaker-in-focus this year will be cinematographer-turned-director Andrew Lau Wai-keung, with the festival showing 11 films lensed or helmed by the filmmaker now preparing for the April shoot of his Martin Scorsese executive-produced New York gangland thriller The Revenge of the Green Dragons.
There will also be a section dedicated to new Latin American cinema (featuring Pablo Trapero’s White Elephant, Andres Wood’s Violeta Went to Heaven and William Vega’s La Sirga), Swedish films, a James Broughton mini-retrospective and four classics from Japanese auteur Keisuke Kinoshita.
Among the restored classics to be screened during the festival are Shoah from Claude Lanzmann (who was just awarded an honorary prize at Berlin), Heaven’s Gate, Lawrence of Arabia as well as important Asian cinematic landmarks such as Indonesian director Usmar Ismail’s After the Curfew and Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star.
In association with the Hong Kong Film Archive, the festival will also host a screening of the 2K-restored Richard Poh drama Nobody’s Child from 1960, as well as a series featuring films produced by the Golden Harvest studio, including well-known Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan titles and early John Woo films (comedy The Pilferers’ Progress, martial arts drama Last Hurrah to Chivalry), to long-forgotten offerings such as the 1976 action movie A Queen’s Ransom, starring George Lazenby, Jimmy Wang and Sammo Hung as a criminal clique planning to kidnap and kill British monarch Elizabeth II as she visits Hong Kong.
The festival will also host community programs such as free festival screenings for the Korean hit Werewolf Boy and Michael Hui’s 1976 comedy caper The Private Eyes, followed by more free shows for college students.