Curators, Features, Festivals, Hong Kong, Interviews

Roger Garcia Interview: “We were pioneers in bringing Asian and Hong Kong cinema to the international scene”

We talk about the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the robust good health of Asian film…

The 42nd Hong Kong International Film Festival runs from 19 March to 5 April. This year’s festival will show 233 films from more than 3000 submissions. Highlights include Werner Herzog’s first visit to the festival for a programme of his films; a 14-film tribute to Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia and an interview with the great Chinese actress, and; the first Chinese language virtual reality featurette – The Descent by Tsai Ming-liang, which played in Venice and Taiwan’s Golden Horse. The festival will also show three restored pictures by Ishmael Bernal, one of the three fathers of modern Filipino cinema, together with Lino Brocka and Mike de Leon.

Roger Garcia is executive director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society. Here he talks to easternKicks about the festival and the robust good health of Asian film.

Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you became involved in the festival:
I studied Fine Arts at Leeds University in the UK where I studied art history and also painting and filmmaking. Actually all of this led to developing my discipline as a writer and critic: I trained myself by watching three to five films a day for about four years and writing about them every night. None of this led to a job so, at the urging of my late father, I returned to Hong Kong and worked in the government. Because of my background, I was first assigned to the then-nascent Cultural Services Department where I worked on a number of projects including the then-new HKIFF which I ran about a year later. I was like, 25 years old and meeting filmmakers I had studied in university just a couple of years before: Satyajit Ray, Nagisa Oshima etc. I then went away and did a lot of other things both for the government and in Hollywood before being tweaked out of retirement in California (essentially I retired in my 40s) by my old boss, who is the chairman of the film festival. I came back to the festival in 2010 as executive director. I’m also in charge of the Asian Film Awards Academy which runs the annual awards show, and other year round programmes. I partly joke that I was the youngest director of the HKIFF, and now truly, I am the oldest!

The HKIFF has been around for more than 40 years now, how has it changed during that time?
The original motivation for the HKIFF was to bring films to local audiences that they might not otherwise have a chance to see. We still follow this general principle of bringing a curated programme of international art-house cinema that local audiences either don’t have a chance to see or do not know about. Today when you can generally watch anything any time, it’s more about the latter. There is so much material now that HKIFF can act as a kind of guide to the international art film scene. So, we continue to bring acclaimed films and discoveries to our local audience.

In terms of programming, the basis of our festival was set early on and it has not deviated that much. We were pioneers in bringing Asian and Hong Kong cinema to the international scene, and in creating the Hong Kong cinema retrospectives which brought the traditions and riches of Hong Kong film history to local and global audiences. Through such programmes and publications, we basically created the platform for the study and appreciation of Hong Kong film and its talents. This led – after some 20 years – to the creation of the Hong Kong Film Archive. The latter now presents good programmes of Hong Kong cinema, so we no longer do a Hong Kong film retrospective. However, we do focus on talent tributes through our Filmmaker in Focus series, which this year features Brigitte Lin. And we continue to present a Hong Kong panorama section, with selections from the past year.

The main change is that digital technology has brought a vast range of movies into the home in an unprecedented way and it is affecting movie going. We need to encourage and promote the communal movie going experience for quality cinema – film is meant to be watched together. So we have paid more attention to audience development and outreach programmes for the public and schools.

More recently we have introduced some new activities. We produced the successful “Quattro” and “Beautiful” series of short film anthologies including works by Asian directors including Ann Hui, Apitchatpong Weerathasakul, Brillante Mendoza, Fruit Chan, Hideo Nakata, Jia Zhangke, Kang Je-gyu, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Tsai Ming-liang, Yim Ho etc. We are also involved in producing some feature films with China companies, for example with Alibaba Pictures we did Sunshine That Can Move Mountains (best screenplay, Shanghai International Film Festival), and forthcoming comedy Looking for Lucky.

For the past four years we have successfully run a year-round repertory programme, Cinefan, and we just started a distribution arm, The Collection, to handle international festival screenings and sales for a number of titles in which we have been involved as a producer or through our project market (HAF). For example, we are now handling I’ve Got The Blues by extraordinary Hong Kong filmmaker Angie Chen; it recently won a doc prize in Indonesia.”

There are a lot of film festivals now, all over the world. How do you stay fresh and relevant?
We continue to address our audience – the core of which is a younger Hong Kong demographic. It has not changed that much over the past four decades, but it is an audience that we try to know. This is crucial in any film exhibition situation. So we try to address our audience’s interests, and also to push the envelope a bit. That means bringing contemporary cinema and its issues to our audience, as well as showing them some of the best of film history. European art films, and restored classics shown on the big screen are important and appealing components of our festival. I believe that a festival is really only as good as the films that are available in any one year so “fresh” and “relevant” can be seen as relative terms!

What’s the biggest challenge organising an event of this scale?
For us in HK, the biggest challenge is working out the schedules and the venues. Unlike some other major festivals like Berlin, we do not have a centralized festival venue or multiplex. Even though Hong Kong is a small place, it is not that easy to traverse the city or go venue-hopping. For someone to watch five films a day in a festival, it helps to have a multiplex venue where you can just pop in and out of adjacent cinemas. We do not really have that facility so slotting the festival becomes something of an exercise in working out what different strands of the festival the various audiences would follow and scheduling accordingly. Our programme team does a great job but it’s a challenge. As you may know, the West Kowloon Cultural District is being planned and built at the moment – it is some years away but in the end will be a cluster of modern, well-appointed venues. We hope to use some of those venues for HKIFF and when that happens I expect that hopping from venue to venue to watch movies will be easier.

Who are some of the HK film talent you championed who have gone on to global success?
We were early supporters of the Hong Kong new wave – Tsui Hark, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Allen Fong, Kirk Wong, Yim Ho etc. We showed their first films, early films, helped to promote them to overseas film festivals too especially through Ulrich Gregor and the Berlinale. The Germans were the main pioneers in helping us bring international visibility to Hong Kong cinema.

Our main responsibility was to open the door in the late 1970s and to give the world a peek into what Hong Kong was doing. Even though we later featured John Woo, Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai, Wong Kar-wai in our programmes, I would say that all of these folks would have made it anyway. They are all major talents and by that time (the late 1980s) the world was already paying close attention to Hong Kong filmmakers. Later we showcased the work of Pang Ho-cheung, Heiward Mak, who have gone on to successful careers. Personally, I helped to champion the work of Liu Jialiang in the late 1970s and helped organize a programme of his films in the mid-1980s in Paris which he attended with Gordon Liu. It was a tough road because a lot of people did not recognize that kung fu was a cinematic language in its own right. It’s only later that Liu Jialiang became better known overseas because of people like Quentin Tarantino.

In the internet age, how can old-fashioned cinema viewing survive? Do you think film festivals will still have a place in another 40 years?
I believe that there will always be a place for big screen cinema and for films that are made on that premise. Cinema is supposed to be larger than life, it magnifies experiences in order to let us discover them in our own lives, so watching films on the big screen is an important part of this experience. Although film going is declining, I do believe that the communal viewing experience will survive because there will always be an audience that wants to interact emotionally and intellectually not only with the screen but others around it.

The role of a film festival is to help preserve and promote that practice of communal viewing and if film festivals do their job at this, then they will be around for the next 40 years and more.

I also think that film festivals act as meeting places, interaction points. Although we can do a lot of film buying and selling nowadays over the internet, thousands of folks still flock to major film festivals and markets. Why? Because they need the human interaction, the buzz, the gossip, the whole relationship culture of the film industry. They need to watch films with others if, for nothing else, to see if someone else shares their feelings and views of a movie. This is something that cannot be replaced by artificial intelligence, cyberspace communication etc.

In your time with the HIKFF what are you most proud of?
I am most proud of having introduced the Asian Cinema section into the HKIFF programme in 1979. We were the first festival in the world to recognize Asian cinema as a discrete entity – before that, Asian cinema was only recognized through the occasional auteur such as Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, King Hu. But with the Asian cinema section in HKIFF, we proclaimed Asian cinema as something more than just a few filmmakers and helped discover for an international audience, vast territories of cinema – Korea, Philippines, Thailand. This sense of discovery also underpinned our advocacy of Chinese language cinema with the promotion of the Hong Kong new wave, then the Taiwan new cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, and eventually the Fifth Generation with Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. All of these were unveiled at HKIFF.

What’s your view of the health/creativity of Hong Kong and Asian cinema in general right now?
I think Hong Kong cinema has its ups and downs. Most film industries do. We are beginning to see some uptick in HK. I believe that last year, there were around 26 first time features from Hong Kong. Hopefully some of them will go on to successful careers.

I think it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific Asian country for top spot in interesting films. Let me instead put it like this: I think places like Thailand and the Philippines can output both very commercial and total art films. Think of Thai cinema as something that exists along a spectrum with Tony Jaa and Apitchatpong. That’s quite a rainbow! And in the Philippines you have great fantastic commercial films by Joyce Bernal (clearly the best female comedy director working in Asia today) and then marathon-length movies by Lav Diaz. That’s also quite a stretch. What is a culture, a social environment that can produce such a range? These are interesting questions, and countries that provoke such issues in cinema are the interesting ones.

If you had to recommend three Hong Kong films from any era that every cinema lover should watch to get a greater understanding of HK, what would they be and why?
Cold Nights by Li Dit is a great Cantonese 1950s melodrama with Ng Cho-fan and Bak Yin – it shows the dominance of mise-en-scene around the world at the time. It’s like Sirk, Duvivier, and Yoshimura all rolled into one. Dirty Ho (1979) by Lau Kar-leung is his masterpiece, a wonderful almost Eisensteinian piece about deception, loyalty, and class struggle. Ah Ying (1983) by Allen Fong is one of the greatest Hong Kong movies – it’s a film about finding and believing in identity and Hong Kong and how movies confront reality.

Is there any one person you’d love to have as a guest at the HKIFF who’s never made it?
Yes, I think we should try and get Francis Ford Coppola over to HKIFF sometime. He’s a great speaker and of course a master filmmaker (and wine maker) but more importantly, The Godfather had such a profound impact on Hong Kong filmmakers that it seems the right thing to do.

When this year’s festival is over, what do you plan to do to celebrate/relax and why?
Usually after the festival, in late April, I head to the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, where I have been an adviser for quite a number of years, and then to Cannes. These are all quite busy working trips of watching films and meeting people. I try and take a few days off in between with my wife. Because I studied painting and art history, I enjoy visiting museums and exhibitions, strolling through corridors and galleries.

The 42nd Hong Kong International Film Festival 2018 takes place from 19 March to 5 April.

About the author

Tania HallTania Hall Tania Hall
Tania Hall is a London-based editor and former journalist who has worked for national news organisations in New Zealand and the UK.
Read all posts by Tania Hall

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