Hong Kong International Film Festival Director: Our Movie Industry "Will Rise Again"

Courtesy of HKIFF; Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival
'The Shadow Play,' 'Bodies at Rest,' 'Grace of God'

Ahead of the event, which runs from March 18 to April 1, Albert Lee shares his thoughts on Netflix titles screening at the fest, the current market in China and reviving one of the world's most storied film sectors.

Albert Lee, incoming executive director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, has been involved in his city's fabled movie business for most of his life. He began his career in distribution at legendary studio Golden Harvest in the late 1970s, later taking up the position of CEO at film powerhouse Emperor Motion Pictures.

Unlike the struggling local film industry, the HKIFF, now in its 43rd edition, has maintained strong local support over the years, regularly attracting roughly 76,000 festgoers annually. The event will open with Renny Harlin's Hong Kong-set thriller Bodies at Rest and close with François Ozon's acclaimed drama By the Grace of God — with plenty of contemporary Chinese cinema packed in between, such as auteur Lou Ye's latest, The Shadow Play.

Lee, 65, sat down with THR at his Hong Kong offices on the eve of the event to discuss the future of Hong Kong's film industry.

This is your first time overseeing the HKIFF as the executive director of the festival, after a long career making films in Hong Kong for major studios. How are you bringing your previous experience to your new position?

I have been working in the film industry for a long time, but I am a novice at running a film festival. Although I have been to many, many film festivals in the previous decades, attending a film festival is a completely different thing from running one. This is a whole new experience for me. So it has taken me quite some time to get used to the new environment, and I have to learn so much from scratch. I began my new position in November 2018, succeeding Roger Garcia, and since then I have been adapting. So I can’t really say I have much experience to bring from my previous working life. I might have seen a lot, have worked with many different people and built up relationships, but I am still adapting and it might take some time. There have been a lot for me to take up and learn.

For an outsider, a film festival might just be screening films, or organizing master classes, but there are so many moving parts in a film festival, most of them are not visible to the eye. People see the programming, but behind the scene many details are involved in order to create the festival experience. They are the things that people won’t see but take a lot of time and energy to get right.

What makes the HKIFF distinctive?

For many major festivals — Cannes, Berlin, Venice — the competition is the main component. But for the HKIFF, it has always positioned itself as an audience's festival, so everything is planned from that perspective.

How do you feel about screening Netflix titles at festivals, especially when Steven Spielberg is calling for films to have longer theatrical runs in order to be eligible for Oscars? 

The issue of Netflix is a very topical, but contentious one. As I have mentioned, the HKIFF is not a competition-based festival. From a competition perspective, they might think it is not a level playing field. For filmmakers, a film made to be streamed online is not the same thing. If I put my filmmaker hat back on, I would also take objection to it. I too am of the opinion that films are made, and should be seen, in cinemas. From that standpoint I completely agree with Spielberg, and support that rules should be changed to reflect that for the next Academy Awards. Films should absolutely be seen in cinemas. But from the perspective of a film festival, I am not as apprehensive. For the HKIFF, we just want to bring as many films as we can to give as many choices to viewers as possible. Not everyone has a Netflix subscription. Since I started working in this position, I have traveled to Singapore to visit the Netflix APAC headquarters. Netflix has an extensive slate, and it is very selective, it does not participate at every film festival. We have made a great effort this year to try and persuade Netflix to let us show some of their films to our audience in Hong Kong. But it did not work out. I think it is a pity. We will try again next year, and hopefully we can screen some of Netflix’s films in the festival. From this point of view, I will not reject any streaming service’s production. Because our mission and goal are not the same as some of the other film festivals. But speaking as a filmmaker and a cinephile, I think films should be shown in cinemas.

Will the HKIFF consider having a part of its selection available to be shown online?

My predecessor Roger Garcia has raised that suggestion, and it has been discussed, but not in depth. I, though, have some reservations about that idea. The technology nowadays should be able to support that. But for a film festival, would it be something we should encourage? Will we get to a point where a film festival does not need to screen in cinemas but totally online? Personally, I… have reservations. It is something we need to discuss with our colleagues. But for me, films and film festivals should be seen in cinemas.

How about the idea of a brick and mortar cinema that belongs to the festival?

The HKIFF has an established position, and Hong Kong is also an established producer of films. What is sad now is that when a foreign friend comes to Hong Kong, and says that Hong Kong films are so renowned, but where can you experience the world of Hong Kong films? Apart from the Avenue of Stars, which has reopened after renovation, that you can see handprints and statutes of Hong Kong movie stars, you cannot feel the world of Hong Kong films anywhere at all, not to mention to get a sense of its heyday or historical splendor. Therefore it has always been my hope, which I do not think I will see in my lifetime, to have a cinematheque. For many major film festivals around the world, in Busan, there is the Film Center; in Cannes, there is the Palais; in Berlin, there is the Palast; in Toronto, there is the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Each of these festivals has a film center of its own. In Hong Kong, the HKIFF shares the Cultural Centre with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra as its home ground. The Hong Kong government has spent billions building a Xiqu (Chinese opera) Centre, but we cannot see anywhere dedicated to Hong Kong cinema. I think it is a great pity. We deserve a film center, especially when we consider the glorious history of Hong Kong cinema. But the discussion would inevitably become politically charged, and it depends on the government’s take on it, and where to put it. A considerably difficult exercise.

As the HKIFF is a government subsidized event, do you have any plans to protect the independence of the HKIFF from political interference? Or is that a concern at all?

It is a rather difficult question to answer. In this day and age, there is nothing that is not political. As a film festival, we uphold the principle of film culture promotion. Our objective in film selection is to get as many films as possible; we cast a wide net. This year, we have over 3,000 films submitted to us. For our film programming, we try to be as independent as we can. We try to make room for all kinds of different voices, try to be as open as we can. Hong Kong has its own department for film classification, all films screened have been seen and rated by the government. It can ban a film, but it is almost never done. We have never considered from the perspective of political interference. We only try to curate the best and richest selection. We open our doors and welcome everyone.

 

How can Hong Kong cinema preserve its legacy?

I've been working in the film industry for a long time, and I realize that like many other industries, it goes through cycles. During the 1980s and '90s, we were at the top of the circle, and then it dropped. But it will rebound. The Hong Kong film industry will rise again. In the past few years, many new directors have emerged, and their work will get better and better.

There are complaints about Hong Kong studios not investing in big budget action films anymore. What is your take on that?

Film is a business. A studio might be willing to lose money on one or two films, but it has to survive, so it has to make financial considerations. In the golden days of Hong Kong cinema, when Jackie Chan or Sammo Hung made a big action blockbuster, they had a wide range of markets. I have worked many times with Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung at Golden Harvest, their films always had huge budgets, but they also traveled very far. So the budgets were justifiable. But there are not that many action stars anymore. Donnie Yen is one, while stars such as Sammo Hung are not getting any younger. So it is very difficult to make a purely Hong Kong action film without taking into account the Chinese market. Action films are expensive, the set ups cost a lot. It is not just two fists and some kicks. What is more is that that kind of action film has reached the end of the road. Every conceivable set up has been filmed already. Also, action films nowadays have to use a lot of CG, and that drives up the cost. So it is impossible not to consider the market, otherwise it would be very risky.

Chinese regulators continue to crack down on capital outflow and tax fraud in the film sector. What are your expectations of the local market for the rest of 2019?

Studios are more careful when they greenlight new productions. Of course, there was the tax issue last year. In the first half of 2019, I don't think the number of films will decline, because most of them began production in 2017 or 2018. But the number of films might drop next year. Undeniably, fewer films have entered production since the tax crackdown. Everyone is being cautious.

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This story first appeared in the March 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.