Fest turns to past to build its future


HONG KONG -- It may be a mature 32 years old, and its new boss may be a venerable senior veteran of the global film festival scene -- but the Hong Kong International Film Festival is a brighter lure today for young and upcoming screen talents in the global ferment than many a newer worldwide film forum.

And it's the aim of HKIFF's newly appointed executive director Albert Lee to ensure that the big cinema event continues to attract a vibrant young audience base while remaining a champion of Asian cinema.

Lee was invited out of retirement to assume the post at the beginning of February, just six weeks before this year's festival was scheduled to start. Undaunted by the mammoth task of pulling the show together on an impossibly short deadline, Lee outlined a vision of the direction he intends to now take the festival that he helped create more that three decades ago.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Hollywood Reporter Lee, lauded as a founding organizer of the first editions of HKIFF, noted that the HKIFF audience is generally younger than those for other international film festivals.

Teenagers and university students "are our core sector and we cater a part of our film selection to their tastes to enlarge our fixed audience base," Lee said.

The core business of government-subsidized organizer The Hong Kong International Film Festival Society, the HKIFF will run this year from today to April 6. It is held concurrently with the 6th Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) today through Wednesday and the 2nd Asian Film Awards today.

Lee maintains that the festival has played an important role in promoting Asian cinema and nurturing the film-viewing culture in Hong Kong over the decades. It is the backbone to which HAF and AFA connect to enhance the organization's commitment to Asian cinema, Lee pointed out.

"HKIFF is a cultural event, whereas HAF, in lining-up regional filmmakers and financiers to develop projects, is an industry-related event that contributes to the Asia film market," Lee said. "On the other hand, AFA recognizes Asian talents. The events complement each other in our mission to promote the Asian film industry."

The executive director post Lee accepted has been vacant since former head Peter Tsi left last October. During that time, Tsi's duties were shared by artistic director Li Cheuk-To and administrator Jannie Ma. Ma has left the organization since Lee's appointment.

Attempts had been made prior to Lee's posting to find Tsi's replacement, but most festival veterans were reluctant to take on such a colossal challenge so close to the festival start date.

A life-long government administrator specializing in culture, Lee was the chief manager of film and cultural exchange of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, whose job included running the Hong Kong Film Archive before he retired in February 2007. He was also among the handful of young government officers and cineastes that helped create the event back in 1977. He stayed with the HKIFF office for more than 14 years.

Things are certainly different from three decades ago, he reflected. Developments in recent years in HKIFF's operation -- such as the online booking system in use since 2007 -- represent exciting times for Lee. During the first week of ticket sales this year, there was more than a 30% increase of tickets sold online when compared with the same period in 2007. Lee sees the online ticketing service as a demonstration of HKIFF's appeal to young film enthusiasts, who make up a major part of the festival's audience.

The popular festival veteran credited the HKIFF for nurturing local film viewing culture for three decades, but was also generous to laud the growing array of local film festivals organized by cultural and commercial organizations and foreign film councils for promoting film culture in the territory.

"I welcome more film events in Hong Kong. It is an interactive and mutually beneficial process -- as more people watch and know more about films, they will have higher expectations and want to see films that are of a higher quality," Lee said. "We gain by pushing each other for higher standards in our selections. It is not conducive to the local film-viewing culture for HKIFF to monopolize the market."

The organizers of the HKIFF has also focused energy on raising the festival's international profile in recent years, but Lee said overseas publicity only serves to supplement the person-to-person networking the programrs had worked hard on over the years.

Lee's homecoming to the HKIFF reminded him of the days when he helped build up the festival from scratch. "Being surrounded by a group of young people invigorates me and I've been enjoying myself every day at work since I started," Lee said.

With a 2-year contract with the HKIFF society, he will oversee the next two editions of the festival and assist in finding a replacement.