This year marks a radical shift in the ambitions of the 31-year-old Hong Kong International Film Festival (Hkiff). Although respected for the quality of its programming, the festival has traditionally focused on local audiences and has not had a high profile on the global film-festival circuit or been regarded as a key industry event.
As a result, better-funded festivals in the region, such as Pusan and Bangkok, have been making more noise, though the latter is going through a period of restructuring and uncertainty. Meanwhile, Asia's other veteran film event, the 20-year-old Tokyo International Film Festival, has had its ups and downs, but has also been talking up a comeback.
In this competitive environment, the organisers of the Hkiff were aware they needed to carve out a new role for the festival. Previously a government-funded event, it was taken over by a private non-profit organisation, the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society, after the 2004 edition. Although government support has since been reduced, the festival has been successful in attracting sponsors and increasing ticket sales, as a result of a more mainstream and youth-oriented line-up. Its $2.4m budget, plus $500,000 of in-kind venue-rental sponsorship, is much smaller than Pusan's budget of $7.9m but healthy nonetheless.
In the future, festival director Peter Tsi plans to increase the Hkiff's international profile and transform it into more of an industry platform. While other festivals in the region focus on introducing new Asian directors, Hkiff also aims to play on Hong Kong's credentials as a place where East meets West by bringing together film-makers and industry professionals from different continents and helping them interact with the mainland China market.
'Now everyone sees film festivals as a business opportunity and there's also a strong emphasis on the glamour quotient,' says Tsi. 'We've traditionally catered to film buffs and the local audience, but now we're looking at the possibility of playing a bigger role in facilitating the business of film.'
The first steps in this process were to change the dates of this year's festival to open at the same time as the industry-focused Hong Kong Filmart, and to take over organisation of the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF).
In order to boost ticket sales, the festival also needs to run through the Easter weekend, which accounts for its long running time of 23 days. The first nine days will focus on international guests, press and industry, while the second half will be geared towards local cinephiles.
Due to its length, the festival will not feature a closing film but will treat the Hong Kong Film Awards, which wrap up Entertainment Expo on April 15, as its closing event.
Another major plank in the new strategy is the launch of the Asian Film Awards which has raised the star quotient by attracting major international talents to Hong Kong (see sidebar). This year the festival has also secured an unprecedented 16 world premieres, including Zhao Yaodong's Mid-Afternoon Barks and James Lee's Things We Do When We Fall In Love, along with nine international premieres and 22 Asian premieres.
In line with its new industry focus, the Hkiff has also jointly organised the Hong Kong Asia Screenings (March 20-23) with Hong Kong Filmart for the third year running. The programme, which aims to introduce international distributors to new Asian directors, will feature around 30 titles. The line-up includes Berlin Golden Bear winner Tuya's Marriage.
Tsi says the next step is to expand HAF from being a co-production platform into an entity that takes a more active role in film financing.
'We're actively exploring taking HAF forward,' says Tsi. 'The eventual aim is to become an investor in new projects, if not directly, then by diverting investment from available sources.'
HIGHLIGHTS OF 31ST HKIFF (MARCH 20-APRIL 11)
I'm A Cyborg, But That's OK and Eye In The Sky.
Bubble Fiction: Boom Or Bust, Sakuran, Love And Honour, Arthur And The Invisibles, Black Gold.
HKIFF AWARDS GALA
The Go Master.
Prokofiev's Peter & The Wolf with Hong Kong Sinfonietta.
ASIAN DIGITAL COMPETITION
Eight digital features from Asian film-makers (two cash prizes will be awarded).
HUMANITARIAN AWARD FOR DOCUMENTARIES
Eight documentaries which deal with issues related to human rights (two cash prizes will be awarded).
Other sections include gala presentations, master class, a Pedro Costa retrospective, Chinese Renaissance, Hong Kong Panorama, Director In Focus: Herman Yau, Young Romanian Cinema, new section Animation For All and youth-focused programme I See It My Way. In total, 300 films from 52 countries will be screened.
ASIAN FILM AWARDS
Rewarding industry talent
Just as Hollywood has the Oscars and Europe has the European Film Awards, it seems only fitting that the dynamic Asian film industry has its own awards show, which recognises talent from across the region.
Organised by the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society, with funding from sponsors and Hong Kong's Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority, the inaugural Asian Film Awards will be held on March 20 on the opening night of Entertainment Expo.
The awards, which are being presented in 10 categories, are designed to honour both established and up-and-coming talent from across the continent, including Iran, India and Japan.
The jury includes 17 internationally recognised film professionals, such as Kofic chairperson An Cheong Sook, Venice director Marco Muller and Cannes' Christian Jeune. After sifting through 700 eligible films produced in the region, the jury selected up to six nominees in each category and will also pick the winners.
With nominees including Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, white-hot Korean singer-actor Rain and Oscar-nominated Ken Watanabe, the awards promise to turn up the star wattage at Entertainment Expo and reinforce Hong Kong's image as a hub of the pan-Asian film industry. International guests such as Luc Besson and Wim Wenders are also expected to attend.
The AFAs are being held in addition to the Hong Kong Film Awards (April 15), which focus on Hong Kong films and film-makers.
For a full list of nominations, visit www.ScreenDaily.com/hongkong