The 37th Hong Kong International Film Festival: 10 Films You Should See

Realistically, there are at least thirty more films in this year’s HKIFF lineup (3/17 – 4/2) that you should not miss. But like a kid in a toy store (or app store for the children of the 21st century), it is easy to get lost in this sea of cinematic wonder that ranges from recent Berlinale entries (Hong Sang-soo’s Nobody’s Daughter Haewon) to repertory cinema (Golden Harvest classics, including Bruce Lee’s four complete films). Okay, enough with the parentheses. There are not many chances to see a James Broughton retrospective with the experimental filmmaking pioneer in attendance. Aside from that, here are my ten picks of the festival:

Leviathan (dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel / USA, UK, France)

Following the hypnotic documentary Sweetgrass, Lucien Castaing-Taylor came down from the mountains of Montana and ventured into the world of commercial fishing off the New England coast with his co-director Véréna Paravel (Foreign Parts). Marred by technical difficulties as soon as they set sail in the ferocious sea, the filmmakers opted to strap tiny GoPro cameras on the fishermen and their bodies, in addition to throwing (and retrieving) a few into the water. The resulting images and sounds are spellbinding. While their previous projects have quietly built up a reputation, perhaps Leviathan is the definitive film that lives up to the name of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, where the duo and their colleagues have combined the fields of visual arts and anthropology.

Closed Curtain (dir. Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi / Iran)

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Jafar Panahi, one of revered Iranian filmmakers in world cinema, has been confined to house arrest and barred from filmmaking since Iran’s ill-fated Green Revolution in 2010. But the confines of four walls did not stop the defiantly resourceful Panahi from shooting a day-in-the-life documentary This Is Not a Film inside his apartment with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. As brilliant as the Cannes-premiering film is, Panahi’s future remained grim—how many movies can one expect to shoot in a living room? Panahi surprised the world with Closed Curtain, which won Best Screenplay at Berlinale less than two months ago. The HKIFF closing film started off as a fictional story about a filmmaker and his dog in a beach house but Panahi pushes the narrative form once again because when an artist is being restricted, he/she is bound to break free by means of creativity.

Night Across the Street (dir. Raúl Ruiz / Chile)

After spending most of his career abroad in Europe, the great Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz returned to his homeland for one last film before he succumbed to illness at the age of 70. Cancer did not stop the determined auteur, whose previous film Mysteries of Lisbon had garnered him unprecedented attention, from finishing his final film. The press notes written by him and his producer (which can be read here) are essential reading material before viewing. Also in HKIFF’s lineup: Lines of Wellington, Ruiz’s would-be next project directed by his widow Valeria Sarmiento.

Three Sisters (dir. Wang Bing / Hong Kong, France)

Documentarian Wang Bing observes the lives of three peasant children in rural China with an unsentimental eye. During the festival, the Chinese filmmaker is also in town at the Hong Kong – Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF), seeking funding for his next project, Love and Hate—a dramatic feature inspired by the events and people he met during the production of Three Sisters.

Something in the Air (dir. Olivier Assayas / France)

French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, better known as ex-husband of Maggie Cheung in Hong Kong, explores the generation-defining May 1968 riots in France through the eyes of a reluctant art student, who is under the influence of his radical girlfriend (played by French It girl Lola Créton).

The Last Time I Saw Macao (dir. João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata / Portugal, France, Macau)

Part essay film and part noir, this strangely alluring feature by the Portuguese duo presents a film that is unlike any other in the festival’s lineup. Given that I hail from Macau, perhaps I am biased. Moviegoers who consider human faces an important component of a film may want to avoid this one though adventurous viewers are in for a treat.

Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach / USA)

Margot at The Wedding was truly terrible, but my fondness for The Squid and the Whale gives me a good reason to look forward to another Noah Baumbach film. Set in New York City, the film’s black-and-white cinematography is an obvious homage to Woody Allen’s Manhattan while the trailer’s use of David Bowie’s “Modern Love” borrows some magic from Leos Carax’s “Mauvais Sang”. Former mumblecore muse Greta Gerwig looks set for stardom in a script which she co-wrote with Baumbach. Am I done repeating every observation shared by every critic who watched this at NYIFF? I’ll try to give you something new after I see it for myself.

The Paradise Trilogy (dir. Ulrich Seidl / Austria, France)

Originally planned as one film with three separate but parallel stories, Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl ended up releasing three films in three major film festivals (Cannes, Venice, Berlinale) in less than a year’s time. First up, Paradise: Love follows a middle-aged Austrian woman who hopes to find love as a sex tourist in Kenya. The second installment, Paradise: Faith tells the tale of the first woman’s sister who seeks salvation through Jesus. Last and fresh out of Berlinale, Paradise: Hope finds the thirteen-year-old daughter of the first woman in a fat camp, as she experiences first love in the form of a forbidden crush. Three different pathways to personal heaven, but are they all illusions?

Shoah (dir. Claude Lanzmann / France)

I sat through this epic Holocaust documentary—9 hours and 45 minutes in length, almost 12 hours if you include the breaks in between sections—in one day at the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston a couple years ago. Given the long running time and the subject matter, it was my most grueling movie-watching experience. Lanzmann offers no easy way out for his audience. But sitting in an air-conditioned room for a day is hardly suffering in comparison to the horrors and atrocities recalled by the film’s interviewees. Shoah is meant to be a humbling experience and I can only lament the thousands of heart-wrenching stories that our history books will never record. Without the use of any archival footage, the French filmmaker relies solely on the strength of his interviews with the survivors, witnesses and perpetrators of the Holocaust. Despite my usual aversion towards most talking-heads documentaries, the mesmerizing Shoah is one of the most rewarding and unique experiences in my life as a cinephile.

Limite (dir. Mário Peixoto / Brazil)

Frankly, I know very little about Limite and its creator, Mário Peixoto. The rare 1931 Brazilian gem was recently restored and that is enough for me. Besides watching upcoming releases, rediscovering films that have faded into obscurity is a pleasure which I relish at film festivals. If this silent feature about three people lost at sea is nothing like the patronizing ending of Life of Pi, I’m all in.

Did I forget to mention Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster? It’s so two months ago in Hong Kong.

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