The 37th Hong Kong International Film Festival opened on Sunday evening with yet another biopic of martial arts master Ip Man—played by the talismanic Anthony Wong this time in Ip Man: The Final Fight. The HKIFF society does a great job at drumming up public interest every year and having a popular commercial release kick-start the festival serves that purpose handsomely. Since Film Monitor is no red carpet reporting material, I skipped the event altogether for the sake of preserving my energy for a long festival ahead.
Before my first film:
My first HKIFF was at screening at UA iSquare, a multi-screen cinema on the top floor of a relatively new shopping mall in Tsim Sha Tsui. The location is noteworthy for the fact that it is right across the street from Chungking Mansions, aka the namesake of Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 hit Chungking Express. Just like in Wong’s film, there was an eclectic mix of international dwellers exchanging foreign currencies and trading at Indian-operated electronic shops. The place is every bit as shady as it is in the film but there is cheap and delicious Indian food at every corner.
Limite (dir. Mário Peixoto)
To my surprise, about 100 people showed up for the 3:00 pm screening of Limite. In Houston, I would be hard pressed to see 50 showing up for a little unknown silent film on the weekend, not to mention on a Monday afternoon. Director Mário Peixoto was only 21 when Limite—his first and only film—was released in 1931. Thanks to the efforts of Martin Sorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, Cinemateca Brasileira, filmmaker Walter Salles and others, the film, that has been hailed as the greatest its country has ever produced, is finally restored. Besides the few minutes that was severely damaged with an explanatory intertitle standing in for a few lost frames, the image of the digital print shown here in HKIFF is as pristine as one could hope for.
The story of Limite is mostly irrelevant to experiencing this work of visual mastery. A man and two women are adrift on a boat and each of their backstories is shown in flashbacks during the course of the film. Save for a scene in the second half, this silent film is devoid of intertitles and solely relies on its images to communicate with its audience. Peixoto has little interest in conveying plot details but instead provides a framework which each viewer can build his/her sensory experience upon. His innovative and poetic film grammar affects and disorients all at once. The way his camera lingers on the hands of his actors predates the work of the great Robert Bresson. It is a shame that Peixoto never finished another film. But judging by his daring camerawork and bold editing choices, he has done more in one film than most in a career.
Three Sisters (dir. Wang Bing)
The Monday evening screening of Three Sisters was followed by a Q&A session with director Wang Bing, who happens to be seeking financiers for his next project at HAF (Hong Kong – Asia Film Financing Forum). The Chinese filmmaker met the three children in a mountain village during his trip to the gravesite of a friend. He was floored by their hospitality despite living in abject poverty. Wang, who is best know for his documentary work, returned to the mountains to capture the daily lives of the three sisters and their family.
Famous for the length of his work, including the 9-hour-long Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks and the 14-hour long Crude Oil, Three Sisters is only a cool 153 minutes long. The TIFF and NYIFF favorite is an intimate portrait of ten-year-old Yingying, six-year-old Zhenzhen and four-year-old Fenfen. The film shows the girls making a fire, herding pigs, picking lice from each other’s head, preparing pig slop among other things that are common for children in rural China. Yingying is the caring and responsible big sister, Zhenzhen is the attention-seeking middle child and Fenfen is cute as a button. Since Wang is not one for explaining things, we do not learn about the sisters’ parents until the film shows the girls’ migrant worker father returning home from the city. Having filmed some of his previous projects on DV, Wang is not terribly concerned with making a picturesque film (though the outdoor mountain scenery in the film’s second half is as gorgeous as the Yorkshire countryside in Andrea Arnold’s disappointing Wuthering Heights). His priority is to translate the lives of these children with as much authenticity as his camera can from his point of view. There are no establishing shots and every frame delivers intimacy and purpose. Without romanticizing poverty, Wang focuses on the naiveté of childhood and the affection between father and daughters. In the post-screening Q&A, the director stressed the importance of respecting his subjects’ way of living while acknowledging the hardships of poverty. Three Sisters is a film with true grit. I’m tempted to say that Wang could be China’s answer to Frederick Wiseman but the Chinese filmmaker is more than capable to hold his own.
China’s fast-shifting economic landscape has been the source of inspiration for many of the country’s finest—and often banned—cinema of the past decade. An oppressive government and rabidly capitalist economy is slated to provide more material for filmmakers and grief for the working class in the decade to come.