Critics believe Sundance holding its second annual Film Festival in Hong Kong is an indication that independent film in the city, and East Asia, is finding success, after a multi-year lull in the region’s film production and distribution. For Hong Kong to regain its place in the international film arena, though, is no easy feat.
“This year, Sundance Hong Kong chose 11 films [compared to eight last year] and has invited local film music composer Peter Kam to host a workshop, therefore, I believe this year’s festival will receive a better attendance rate compared to last year,” says Joyce Yang, a film critic, columnist, and curator who grew up in mainland China and now lives in Hong Kong. She attended the inaugural screenings for Sundance last year, and is excited about Sundance returning for its second year, but also believes the festival still has its work cut out for it in order to make a true impact on the region.
“Compared to other film festivals, for instance, large scale and influential such as the Hong Kong International Film Festival, or small scale and local such as the Hong Kong Independent Film Festival, Sundance Hong Kong still needs to further develop their nurturing of the local audience, and needs to work at further building up a strong link between US indie productions and local indie talents,” Yang says.
Preceding Sundance is the Hong Kong independent Film Festival, which as been running for eight years. Yang says it is this festival that successfully “brought the concept of independent production closer to the local audience.” She feels both festivals can be successful because there is a lot of untapped potential in the city.
“There is a shared opinion both in Mainland China and Hong Kong that the golden age of Hong Kong film has long gone—has Hong Kong films died? From my perspective, HK film is finding new ways to survive in different forms, and to transform under different conditions,” Yang says. “This is one of the distinguishing features of Hong Kong film; it never dies, and always transforms into something new, even through in war and political storms.”
Yang notes that on one hand, it is becoming more common for local filmmakers to look outside of Hong Kong and target the fast-growing market in China. Many collaborate with mainland counterparts, which means they are increasingly subject to Chinese censorship. On the other hand, she says, more low-budget productions have begun to stay in Hong Kong to embrace taboo subjects, which are not accepted by Chinese censorship. For example, Rigor Motors (2014) and The Way We Dance (2013) received a favourable reputation in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as at box office.
“Hong Kong has rich a cinematic history, which is unparalleled in Asia,” Yang notes. “When it comes to independent films, Hong Kong can provide a more open-minded cultural platform to embrace different controversial topics.”
The Sundance Institute itself says they are very pleased with how well the inaugural event transpired in 2014, and look forward to seeing the festival grow.
“This festival began as a bit of an experiment for us and we have been very pleasantly surprised to see how adventurous and excited Hong Kong audiences have been in learning more about American independent film,” says John Cooper, director of the Sundance Film Festival. “I think this festival has proved to me that audiences outside the U.S. are increasingly open to exploring American independent films and that the quality of work we show translates well to other cultures.”
“Overall,” he continues, “the exchange of independent film and cultural dialogue was incredibly exciting for our filmmakers as well as Hong Kong audiences, and we are so excited to return this year with 11 new American independent films.”
Cooper says the Institute has worked closely with their partners at The Metroplex to program a selection of films “that will offer Hong Kong audiences a taste of some of our favorite films from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.”
“Like our other festivals in London and Los Angeles, the Sundance Film Festival: Hong Kong is an opportunity for us to connect audiences to filmmakers and their work outside of U.S. borders, which is key to helping them build sustainable careers,” Cooper added.
Sam Ho, a film historian who specializes in Hong Kong cinema and is an instructor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, agrees with Cooper that embracing international audiences is integral for the longevity of independent film.
“The beginning of the Sundance Festival in Hong Kong is representative of the globalization of all things, not just film and culture—globalization is seeing everything getting everywhere,” Ho says.
Ho lives between Seattle and Hong Kong, and travels internationally to give film studies lectures. He notes how many have referred to today as the so-called ‘Asian century,’ and how China has been driving the economic engine of the world.
“A lot of American educational establishments, such as universities, are establishing branches in China, and especially in art, China has become a major source of money for the art market,” Ho explains. “Hong Kong, before the opening up of China had been the door to the western world to China, and the city continues to play that role even though Shanghai and Beijing continue to open-up, and actually are now rivals to Hong Kong—Hong Kong is the perpetual middleman, and has the infrastructure for doing the work of a middleman.”
The Sundance Film Festival: Hong Kong runs until September 27 at The Metroplex. Information about screenings and ticketing can be found online at hk.sundance.org/eng.