Report from Hong Kong

30 films, two days, and the inevitable breaking out in song



Last week I was in Hong Kong, invited to be on the jury of a film festival. It seemed weird to be taking another 15-hour plane ride, so soon after I had gotten back from India; but I had prevailed on the film festival organizers to put me in business class, so, aside from jet lag, the travel was tolerable. All my life I have flown in economy cabins, battling the seat-tilting customers in front of me and trying to find an extra inch of space to extend long legs, while democratically accepting the poor-mouth claims of my gigs’ sponsors. I have finally reached an age, however, when I no longer feel embarrassed to demand better accommodations. I am becoming a connoisseur of business class.

The last time I had been in Hong Kong was 1990. From what I saw of it during the four days I was there last week, when not in screenings, it has been radically transformed by modern high-rises, with nary an old building left. A highly functioning, efficient city, it has lost some of its idiosyncratic charm: its cityscape of mirror glass skyscrapers and global luxury goods chain stores could have been anywhere. Still, there was the poetry of the Star Ferry crossing the beautiful harbor, and the many hills in the distance—and an intangible spirit of defiant pride and resilience, which I associate with cosmopolitan island republics.

I had been following from a distance the fortunes of the Umbrella Movement, that eruption of pro-democracy protests a few years back that occupied streets in the central business district. Largely spearheaded by youth, it had tried to hold mainland China to its vague promises, when the U.K. handed over authority to Beijing in 1997, that Hong Kong would be granted a measure of independence. The protests had petered out, I thought, and just before I arrived, some student leaders had been jailed and an unpopular figurehead installed by Beijing as Hong Kong’s chief executive. I expected the mood to be somber and resigned, but quite the contrary. The Fresh Wave International Short Film Festival organizers expressed outspoken support for the Umbrella Movement as for an ongoing thing, and warmly reminisced about their participation in it. Perhaps because Hong Kong had been until so recently a British colony, it resisted identifying with the authoritarian, Big Brother ethos of the mainland.

I was the only juror out of five who wasn’t Chinese. We watched 30 short films in two days, and struggling to keep my eyes open and fight jet lag, I sat in the back of the auditorium, so that none of my fellow jurors could see if I happened to snooze. The films were quite competently shot overall, but their cinematic technique was generally far in advance of their scripts, which tended to be one-note, sentimental, and shrilly melodramatic. As expected, there were a few gems; these subtler films competed for the prizes. At the end of the second day, we were asked to select a chairman of the jury, and though I kept protesting that it be “anyone but me,” since I was the only one who could speak neither Mandarin nor Cantonese (in which languages much of the discussion was occurring), my fellow jurors shanghaied me, as it were, and voted unanimously that I be the chair.

First at a restaurant and then repairing to our hotel, the voting for the awards took place. It was surprisingly contentious, taking four hours instead of the one hour I had over-optimistically imagined. When I had almost given up that we could agree on a grand prize winner, the other members fell into line and picked the one I wanted.

All that remained was the next night’s awards ceremony and dinner, which took place at a restaurant on the upper floor of a mall, with spectacular views of the city. Johnnie To, the prolific, internationally renowned Hong Kong filmmaker who specialized in gangster genre films of jaw-dropping visual panache (I am a huge fan), presided over the event as chairman of the Fresh Wave Short Film Festival, a job he had taken to encourage the next generation of filmmakers. In person, To is dapper, flamboyant, extroverted, generous, and quite a character. Larger than life, as the saying goes. After the awards had been handed out, a band took over the stage and did a medley of Cantonese pop songs. There was a mini-tribute to Leslie Cheung, the singer-actor who had taken his life on April 1, 2003, by jumping out of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. (The previous day, which happened to be April 1, I went by that hotel and witnessed his fans gathering with bouquets of flowers, as they do every year on that day. The dreamboat-handsome Cheung, who had starred in a number of Wong Kar-wai’s films and was gay, seemed to have become the iconic embodiment of Hong Kong’s creative, outsider stylishness and suffering.)

In the midst of the award night’s karaoke-like profusion of songs, two of the Fresh Wave festival organizers were called to the stage and sang what I was told was the anthem of the Umbrella Revolution, to the assembled crowd’s passionate enthusiasm. Then Johnnie To got up and belted out “My Way” in English, a bravura, hammy performance with its own innuendo of support for Hong Kong independence. Nothing could top that, but I myself was urged to take the stage, as the jury chairman who had come from afar. Not shy, I got up there and sang in the hammiest way “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” followed by a demanded encore, “My Funny Valentine.” Though in my youth I had had a good voice, and had sung in choirs, I was out of practice and could hear myself going sharp; I had to finesse the high note at the end of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by shifting to a lower key. No matter: it was in the spirit of the evening and the room wildly applauded. As Samuel Johnson said about the dog who stands on his hind legs: he doesn’t do it well but you are surprised he does it at all.

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Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.


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