HKIFF puts female helmers in spotlight

Three out of four opening and closing films are by women

HONG KONG -- The common refrain among directors, screenwriters and producers on the topic of female filmmakers had been bemusement, and the same question, "why the focus on female?"

Why, indeed?

The answer might lie in the words of the freshly minted Academy Awards best director winner, the first woman to ever receive the accolade, Kathryn Bigelow, who articulated on the night of her win, "I'd love to just think of myself as a filmmaker, and I long for the day when a modifier can be a moot point." The significant operating verb in her statement was, of course, "long," as it revealed how there still exists a distance between the aspiration and the reality.

It might also be a simple case of having three out of four opening and closing films at the 2010 Hong Kong international Film Festival directed by women. Ivy Ho's romantic comedy "Crossing Hennessy" and Clara Law's drama "Like a Dream" launched this year's edition of the festival on March 21, while Heiward Mak's "Ex" will be one of the two films that conclude the festival. Barbara Wong's "Break Up Club" is also in the festival.

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The pride of place occupied by the work of female directors in this year's HKIFF lineup made conspicuous the fact that not every year do we see an assemblage of female directors, while a showcase of the work of male directors would attract nary a comment. After all, the film industry in general is one where none among the top 10 highest-grossing films had been helmed by a female director, and in Hong Kong, the number of women who have directing credits under their belt could be counted with two hands.

Therefore, the question might as well be, why not the focus on female?

It is understandable that there was a discernible sense of exasperation in the voice of director Clara Law, a filmmaking veteran of a quarter of a century, on the attention placed on her gender. Already an accomplished director in Hong Kong before her immigration to Australia in 1995 with her screenwriting partner and husband Eddie Fong to be with her parents, Law's 14 directing features to date have won her a Golden Leopard in Locarno for "Autumn Moon" (1992), garnered 25 Hong Kong Film Awards nominations and 37 Taiwan Golden Horse nominations, including nine nods at last year's edition of the Golden Horse for her HKIFF opening film, "Like a Dream," with Daniel Wu and Yuan Quan in the leads. One can only imagine the number of times Law had heard the question about her being a female director.

"I've never consciously thought of myself in terms of being a 'female director,' said Law. "I don't like to take that view, which, to me, is restrictive. Yet, what I am as a woman will always a part of my consciousness, as much as how I feel as a human is a part of my being. A person's sensitivity comprises both female and male." Law has been nominated twice for the Hong Kong Film Awards best director award for "Temptation of a Monk" (1993), starring Joan Chen, and "Farewell China" (1990), starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Ka-Fai, and nominated four times for best director at Taiwan's Golden Horse Awards.

Law's reluctance in receiving the attention drawn to her gender was echoed by fellow directors Ivy Ho and newcomer Heiward Mak, but all were more willing to help ponder why there just aren't more women directors. Theirs is a physically challenging profession, the directors pointed out unanimously; moreover, "a woman might feel the need to give birth and bring up their children, which might be at one of the most crucial time in her career; whereas a man might not feel the urge or see that as a burden," opined Law, who said she made a choice not to have children.

Motherhood also factored into Ivy Ho's reason for taking up directing (her own scripts) after earning the title of "queen of screenwriting" for her writing career that began in the 1970s in television and 1980s in film. Ho has earned two best screenplay awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards for "Comrades: Almost a Love Story" (1996) and "July Rhapsody" (2002). "Rhapsody," helmed by the forefront Hong Kong woman director Ann Hui, also bagged a best screenplay Golden Horse statue for Ho.

When asked why she made the decision to take up directing for the first time for the 2008 festival favorite "Claustrophobia," starring Karena Lam and Ekin Cheng, her initial response was, "that's because my daughters were all grown up," before adding that she felt she was the only person who could have brought her screenplay of "Claustrophobia" on to the screen.

The issue of the biological clock is one that female studies discussions could not escape; the same is true for all professions. But to look beyond the issue of the body, the relative scarcity of Hong Kong directors who happens to be women could also be attributed to genre. For decades, action reigned at the Hong Kong boxoffice; it was the genre that first crossed borders in the 1970s and put Hong Kong cinema on the map.

It is seen as a masculine genre, and more tellingly, in the perspective of a writer, successful action films are considered to require less of what women are generally perceived to be good at, such as dramas or portrayals of relationships and emotions. "Many directors feel that action films only need scripts with a beginning and an end; there's less need for in-depth character studies and emotional depictions," Ho said. "They can work out the action sequences with action choreographers with just the basic skeleton of a script." Ho tried her hand in the genre with the screenplays of the Jackie Chan starrer "The Accidental Spy" (2001) and the Benny Chan-directed "Divergence" (2005), but called the experiences unsatisfactory.

Yet, sometimes for not-purely-action films, even outside of the romance genre, women writers were preferred. Ho asked, "Why are there more female screenwriters than directors? It's because male directors like to work with women writers for their female perspective. The result is a more well-rounded and realistic portrayal of relationships, be they romantic or familial." Ho gains this insight from working with directors Peter Chan, Yee Chung-man, Vincent Kok and more. But female directors including Ho, Law, Heiward Mak and Mak Yan-yan, who is directing drama "Merry-go-round" for charitable organization Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, all stated that their interests lie in drama, Ho was even once rebuffed for her action attempt and told to "go back to romantic drama, where she belongs."

Nevertheless, rising writer Christine To Chi-long, who was responsible for the scripts of martial arts fantasy "True Legend," crime mystery "Murderer," Jet Li period actioner "Fearless" and gangster thriller "Triad Underworld", took a different view. "More producers and directors are becoming increasingly broadminded and less likely to resort to gender stereotypes when they choose screenwriters," To said. "Women writers are no longer limited to only writing romance."

Equal opportunity is now given to the new generation of directors, as Heiward Mak attested. Mak shot her first feature film, "High Noon," at 23, almost right after her graduation from university, where an internship program in the film industry was set up for film students. "It was an opportunity given to all of us, regardless of our gender," said Mak, who directed one of the closing HKIFF films "Ex", and co-wrote the screenplay of the other closer, "Love in a Puff" with the film's director Pang Ho-cheung. "It only depends whether one has the determination and diligence to seize it."

It would also help if more women ventured out of the traditional domain of producers and writers on the filmmaking team, as it would create a bigger presence and voice for women, Ho said. "What has been very encouraging was that lately I have seen female grips on crews, which was never seen before, she said. "I am fervently hoping to see a female cinematographer in Hong Kong. Women are by nature attentive, sensitive, and communicative, all valuable assets for a good director. We need a bigger voice."