Money, censorship and the future of Asian cinema

by Giovanni Fazio

Special To The Japan Times

Flitting around Roppongi Hills during the week of the Tokyo International Film Festival, you get to meet and chat with any number of interesting people, but one of the better conversations I had was sitting down for coffee with Jacob Wong, curator of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, held each year in late March and early April.

Wong, a genial graybeard, was at TIFF as a juror for the Asian Future competition, which awarded its top prize to Beijing director Yang Huilong’s debut feature, “Jin Tian Ming Tian (Today and Tomorrow).” But, forbidden to talk to a juror about films in competition, I instead spoke with Wong about how he feels film-festival culture and Asian cinema have developed over the past two decades.

Hong Kong’s sovereignty reverted from Britain to China in 1997, the year Wong took over as festival curator. But, says Wong, the changes the festival has seen aren’t political.

“The trappings of civil society, a liberal society, are still pretty much in place in Hong Kong,” he says. “There isn’t any censorship; the film festival is independent in its programming, there’s no interference from anybody. But the changes are really with the general ecology of how film festivals are being run.”

When asked to elaborate, Wong pointed to the proliferation of film festivals and increased competition for product to screen. “Many years ago, when you’d hear there’s a new festival, you’d think, ‘Great! There’s another festival!’ But now you hear it and it’s like, ‘Oh no, not another new festival!’ ” he laughs. With film fests numbering over 5,000 and counting — with 400 or so considered “major” — overkill does rear its head.

There’s also the proliferation of “festival films,” movies that cater to and largely feed on the festival circuit. “In a way, it’s something like mystery novels,” muses Wong. “They’re only read by a small audience, they don’t get mass circulation. These type of films, they’re only enjoyed by a few hundred people in each city. But these non-mainstream films are really having a hard time attracting enough of an audience to sustain themselves.

“When I started, the HK Fest would show a film and sometimes it would get picked up by a local distributor; now it’s very rare, because (the distributors have) been burned. They pay for a film which had maybe two screenings at the festival, and then they discover that all the people who wanted to see it have already seen it at the fest. I talk to people here and they say the same thing. After their life on the festival circuit, these films may have a hard time finding distribution or theatrical release.”

But the bigger point seems to be, he notes, that “the festival circuit has become a business. There’s a lot of business interest in festivals, which was nonexistent 20 years ago. So, like with any kind of change, some people are annoyed, some people are energized.” In Hong Kong’s case, no doubt, this change is partly due to government funding being reduced drastically in 2004.

The Hong Kong Festival is one of Asia’s oldest, now going into its 38th year. When it started in the ’70s, says Wong, “it was a very simple platform for film-culture exchange.” Wong spoke of programming films that only attract five or six boffins being as important a part of his mission as ones that pack the house, but since the turn of the century, he says, “the ecology of the festival changed. Festivals started to have activities that were initially peripheral, like coproduction markets, but they’ve become quite central for any film festival that has the intention to be international. You need a coproduction market to draw in filmmakers, especially younger ones, and then a film market to draw in industry from around the world, or at least around the region.” Hong Kong’s film and TV market, Filmart, is timed auspiciously in late March, notes Wong, just before Cannes, so a lot of deals that are broached in Wan Chai are closed a few weeks later on the Riviera.

The Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF), which Wong also heads, mimics the European approach of bringing together aspiring Asian filmmakers with projects and the people who may fund them: producers, investors, bankers, distributors and buyers. Projects are screened and selected to participate, and past HAF events have green-lit projects by Hirokazu Koreeda, Jia Zhangke, Peter Chan, Shunji Iwai, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Park Chan-wook, to name but a few.

Such efforts to find funding are essential; Wong points to the lack of state funding for film in Asia, as opposed to Europe — this, he notes, “makes it even harder for filmmakers who are not in the mainstream.” He also laments that a crucial funding source for auteur cinema is drying up: “European producers are losing interest in coproductions in Asia, for the past three years or so.” Trends come and go, apparently, although interest in Southeast Asian filmmakers remains high.

On the plus side, Wong sees Chinese capital as a new base to draw upon for Asian film financing: “Last year’s figures for Chinese television and film markets, the intake was $100 million. So there is actually a lot of interest from China to invest in cinema. Some of these people are venture capitalists. They look at it as an investment; they don’t really care what you are making as long as it makes money. But there are also people who are a little interested in the business itself. It’s not just for the money but also the prestige, to have their name appear as a producer of quality projects.”

Making Chinese coproductions is also one way to gain a foothold on the exploding Chinese market — since the Chinese government still has a quota on how many foreign films it will allow to open annually. Of course, that does bring up the prospect of state censorship: Wong notes with a smile that “for a commercial producer, it’s not really a problem. The restricted areas are really clear: excessive sex and violence, politics and religion. You just avoid them: It’s not so hard. It’s a business consideration, not an artistic one. But if you’re an artist and you have something to express, that’s a constraint. No one’s going to stop you from making it, just you can’t show it.”