Emerging Hong Kong Independent Cinema in the UK: Hong Kong Film Festival (UK)

Posted on December 1, 2022 by Guy Fong

Categories: Diversity

In this blog Guy Fong speaks to Hong Kong Film Festival UK Curator, Ka-Leung Ng, about the success of their festival’s inaugural edition, their overall strategy, and how exhibitors can connect more with Hong Kong audiences.

The recent arrival of Hong Kong immigrants in the UK may help reshape the independent cinema landscape. The first edition of the Hong Kong Film Festival UK (HKFFUK) took place in London from March to April 2022, and later in Manchester, Bristol, and Edinburgh. At first, exhibitors had underestimated the demand, but within days the influx of customers had overwhelmed the online ticketing systems with the festival’s attendance rate exceeding 93%.

I spoke to Ka-Leung Ng, one of HKFFUK’s curators, about the influence of Hongkongers settling in this country and the potential of Hong Kong independent films in this unsettling era.

Promotional poster for Hong Kong Film Festival UK 2022 showing a hand reaching out of a void with drops of liquid floating around it.
Promotional poster for Hong Kong Film Festival UK 2022

Why should we have a film festival dedicated to Hong Kong independent cinema?

Ka-Leung Ng explains that one of the aims of HKFFUK is to expand the scope of ‘Hong Kong cinema’ beyond mainstream genre films. ‘Usually when Western audiences talk about “Hong Kong cinema,” they refer to genre films such as action and gangster films, or arthouse “classics” such as Wong Kar Wai’s films. These films definitely represent Hong Kong cinema; however, we also want to introduce non-commercial, independent films that reflect Hongkongers’ changing tastes and interests in recent years, along with the upheaval of the social environment.’

Some of the films Ng refers to are banned in Hong Kong, such as Revolution of Our Times (Kiwi Chow, 2021) and Inside the Red Brick Wall (2020), which both document the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong. In June 2020, China passed a new national security law (NSL) for Hong Kong, which the UK government viewed as ‘a clear breach of the Joint Declaration’ between China and Britain, and led to the British National (Overseas)Visa (BN(O)) scheme that opens a new immigration route to many Hongkongers.

In October 2021, the Hong Kong legislature passed a new censorship law ‘to safeguard national security’, but before that, political censorship had already taken hold in different ways. Some film distributors and exhibitors refuse to show certain titles related to the protests, such as the two films mentioned above, meaning that the only chance for Hong Kong audiences to see these titles is to watch them overseas.

Ng observes a surging demand for non-mainstream Hong Kong films because of the influx of Hong Kong immigrants. More than 140,000 Hongkongers have applied to live in the UK through the BN(O) Visa scheme by June 2022. As a result, some Hong Kong filmmakers and professionals have arrived in the UK, including Ng and some of his HKFFUK colleagues, which, as Ng notes, provides the festival with a unique opportunity to get these films seen: ‘We can screen those films freely here, so their visibility becomes more important than ever. They capture the genuine voices and stories of Hong Kong that are barred to those who live there, but we can pass them on by screening them [in this country]. There is a huge demand among Hong Kong immigrants who cherish the opportunity to watch these films.’

Ng explained that HKFFUK also engaged audiences from other backgrounds in this country. ‘For other local audiences, it is also a great opportunity to explore the latest wave of Hong Kong cinema beyond genre films or established icons. HKFFUK introduces the younger generation of filmmakers who are less known here. We want to make these hidden gems visible. We aspire to create a space for new talent, showcasing what is experimental and pioneering.’

However, it takes time for local exhibitors to realise the implications of the wave of immigration from Hong Kong, posing a challenge to HKFFUK in getting enough screenings. ‘At first, it was difficult to get enough time slots from local exhibitors because we had no track record. We had to highlight those award winners, such as May You Stay Forever Young, the winner of the NETPAC Award, and Revolution or Our Times, the winner of Best Documentary, at the Golden Horse Film Festival in 2021. Although the exhibitors were more willing to show these films, they retained a wait-and-see attitude and didn’t expect the huge demand. When ticket sales began, the flood of customers overwhelmed the servers of the exhibitors’ websites. Since then, they realised that there is a rise in demand for Hong Kong independent films.’

Poster for May You Stay Forever Young(2021) showing two pairs of hangs clenching each other over a pale blue background.
Poster for May You Stay Forever Young (2021)

How did HKFFUK market itself and reach out to its audience? 

‘HKFFUK targets both Hong Kong migrants and local audiences. It is not surprising that several films banned in Hong Kong have become the biggest hits and sold out quickly, such as May You Stay Forever Young, directed by Rex Ren and Sam Lam, and Revolution of Our Times.’

These challenging titles seem to draw a lot of attention in the festival, but what about other lesser-known titles? Ng explained that those films under the spotlight indeed helped them promote the lesser-known films. ‘This is our strategy to promote the lesser-known along with the famous titles, and it works. For example, I Miss You When I See You (2018, dir. Simon Chung) and Reunification (2015, dir. Alvin Tsang) are two of the hidden gems having received good responses. Both films centre around the experience of diasporic communities and social bonding. We try to diversify the taste of the local audience. The positive experience shows that the local audience have grabbed the chance to watch quality Hong Kong films rare to see.’

Film still from Reunification (2015, dir. Alvin Tsang) shows a man on the couch in pyjamas seated next to an ephemeral figure of a man.
Reunification (2015, dir. Alvin Tsang)

Talking about HKFFUK’s campaign strategy, Ng admitted that it was largely restricted by resources. ‘Besides basic channels, including a website and various social media [channels], the film festival’s promotion relies on personal networks. Exposure in traditional media outlets is rare because we are unfamiliar with the media ecology here and have no budget for advertisements.’ He revealed that funding was always a problem for the film festival, and they were still looking for more financial sources.  

The overall strategy is effective. The box office is good, and the total attendance reached 11,000 over 40 screenings. Many viewers have shown their appreciation and word-of-mouth publicity seems to be the most effective tactic. Ng emphasised the communal aspects of the film festival: ‘Our strategy not only aims at promoting particular films but also reconnecting the Hong Kong immigrants. Some screenings showed pre-recorded Q&As with the directors, with which we tried to engage the audience and create a sense of intimacy. Hong Kong people have suffered from social polarisation in recent years.’

If exhibitors and curators hope to connect more with Hong Kong audiences, what content would appeal to them?

For independent productions, besides the films mentioned above, Ballad on the Shore (2017, dir. Chi-Hang Ma) also played well for audiences. It is a documentary about Hong Kong fishermen and the disappearing folk culture. Ng explains, ‘The audience are happy to watch films that preserve local cultures.’

Alongside recent productions, HKFFUK showed contemporary classics like Made in Hong Kong (1997, dir. Fruit Chan), which was also received well. ‘Many young viewers from Hong Kong have never watched it. Local cinephiles also watched this film in the theatre for the first time. They loved it.’ Ng said. ‘Our curation aims at forward-looking films, including “old” films that speak to us today.’

In short, distributors and programmers who are interested in non-mainstream Hong Kong cinema should look to films that reveal the cultural identity and social condition of Hong Kong and its people, both faithfully and vividly.

Read more: Understanding the Caribbean of today through the trinidad+tobago film festival

Header: Reunification (2015, dir. Alvin Tsang)

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