Festival Roundup #1 – Hong Kong International Film Festival 2017

We’re now just past the halfway point of the 41st Annual Hong Kong International Film Festival. This year’s event, which runs to April 25, features over 230 films from 65 countries and regions, 69 of which are world, international or Asian premieres. There are also master classes with directors Olivier Assayas, Agnieszka Holland and Ildiko Enyedi, and includes sidebars of post-97 HK cinema (14 films), Latin American cinema (8 films), Romanian cinema (6 films), and restored classics (10 films).

Sadly (for me), I haven’t had the best of luck in my film choices this year and, more often than naught, I’ve left the cinema less than impressed with what I’ve seen. Here’s the roundup of what I’ve seen so far:

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Variety calls this film “a fascinating documentary capturing the showdown, half a century ago, between the activist Jane Jacobs and the Trumpian urban planner Robert Moses: a fight for the future of New York.” When I first heard about this film, I knew I had heard of Jane Jacobs but I didn’t know from where. So I did a bit of research on her and learned that she had moved to Toronto after she won her battle in New York. She was also involved in the death of the Spadina Expressway in Toronto, a fight that I had supported way back when I was living there.

This is a very interesting and well made film that has lessons for both urban planners and city dwellers everywhere. Certainly, our road-loving city planners here in Hong Kong could learn a few things from watching it.

The Death of Louis XIV

Beautifully filmed with fabulous wigs and a sumptuous set, the story recounts the final days of the 17th/18th century French king as he lay in his bed dying of gangrene brought about by an infection in his leg. That’s the good. The not so good is that it’s terribly slow and most of the action takes place in one room.


The true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a couple whose arrest for interracial marriage in 1960s Virginia began a legal battle that ended in the US Supreme Court in 1967. The film stars Ruth Negga, who received Best Actress Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, and Joel Edgerton (EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS), who barely cracks a smile throughout. Although I liked the film (it’s an incredible story, after all), I wasn’t wowed by it.

The film hasn’t been scheduled for general release in Hong Kong anytime soon and it may not get released. Sadly, black lives on movie screens don’t matter here.


Adam Driver (FRANCES HA; INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS; WHILE WE’RE YOUNG; the new STAR WARS franchise; SILENCE), who may be Hollywood’s busiest actor these days, stars as a bus driver and aspiring poet named Paterson living in Paterson, New Jersey. His wife (Iranian emigrée Golshifteh Farahani), meanwhile, when she’s not redecorating either their modest bungalow or herself in black and white geometric designs, has her own dreams of being a cupcake queen and country music star. This is a very sweet film about finding poetry in the simplest things in life.

The film is written and directed by Jim Jarmusch (DOWN BY LAW; BROKEN FLOWERS; ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE) but don’t see this film because of him. The Patersons’ English bulldog, Marvin, steals the film with his mugging. Nellie (the dog’s real name) won the Palm Dog award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

PATERSON will open commercially here in a few weeks’ time.

Window Horses

We Canadians are a quirky lot. We also embrace multiculturalism. That’s why WINDOW HORSES is a quintessential Canadian film. It’s the animated story of a young Chinese-Canadian woman (voiced by actress Sandra Oh) who travels to Iran to perform at a poetry festival. While there, she not only learns a lot about her roots, she also learns a lot about Iranian culture and poetry. Kudos to director Ann Marie Fleming for writing a very thoughtful and well-constructed story.

Past Life

I like Israeli director Avi Nesher’s films. After all, I brought two of them (THE MATCHMAKER and TURN LEFT AT THE END OF THE WORLD) to Hong Kong in years past. But PAST LIFE is a mess. Based on a true story and set in 1977, two sisters – one an introverted classical musician and the other an outgoing scandal sheet journalist – unravel a wartime mystery that has cast a dark shadow on their family’s lives.

Now I’m going to get into some spoilers, so if you plan to see this film, skip over the next paragraph:

Let’s start with the older sister. First she’s a complete bitch, then she gets cancer and suddenly she turns sweet. Next there’s the brother-in-law. First he’s hitting on the younger sister, then he also turns sweet. Next there’s the relationship the sisters have with their father. He’d smack them around but they’re still devoted to him, even more than they are to their mother. As for the mother, she’s a chronic nose bleeder. Why is that? Next is the possibility that the sister’s cancer is related to the father’s secret. Really? Next is that the sister must have undergone at least a few weeks of chemo (enough to go bald) yet the mother doesn’t wonder where her daughter has been all this time. Next no one even tells the mother about the cancer. What did she do to deserve that? Next is the music teacher who discourages the younger sister from becoming a composer. Okay, he’s a chauvinist but he’s also an educator. A pretty crappy one apparently. Next is the matter of the dead Zielinski sister. Did she really commit suicide or did the father give her an abortion and kill her? He is an ob/gyn, after all. Next is the Polish composer who clearly knows more than he’s letting on. Why doesn’t he tell the sister what he knows? They seem to be bonding. Going back to the dead Zielinski sister, why does her gravestone show that she was born Jewish but died Christian? Were the Zielinskis closet Jews? Going back to the Zielinski son, why does he insist on taking the sister to a smoky bar the night before her big concert? Doesn’t he know that the smoke will affect her voice? Plus, he said that others from the ensemble would be there but they didn’t interact with anyone while they were there. Going back to the mother, the father says that he met her while he was involved with the Zielinski sister and that she was much younger than him. What was that all about and how much younger? Did she steal him away from the Zielinski sister? And there’s the whole parallel with Israel and Egypt making peace. Ugh! Need I continue?

Although it’s nicely shot, this is an awful film.

Glory (Slava)

A Kafka-esque film from Bulgaria. After a simple railway employee finds a sack of cash on the side of the tracks, the Transport Ministry’s PR department shifts into high gear as it spins the event to deflect from its poor image of corruption and incompetence. There are clearly parallels between the events in this film and what’s currently going on in the White House but GLORY didn’t do it for me. I fell asleep, as did the fellow sitting next to me. He snored; I didn’t.


I don’t get it but Holocaust tourism is big business. AUSTERLITZ shows the Sachsenhausen concentration camp as hordes of tourists descend upon it to walk through it’s “Arbeit Macht Frei” gates and pose for photos in front of (reconstructed) gallows. German director Sergei Loznitsa sets up his camera at various points in the camp and we watch – for five minute stretches at a time – as the crowds mill past, often as sheep, not taking in the gravity of their surroundings.

This is a boring and repetitive movie. After you watch the first five minutes, the point is made and there’s no reason to continue the punishment.

More HKIFF films next week!

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