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Vulgaria Vulgaria
MARCH WAS UNSEASONABLY COOL IN HONG KONG THIS YEAR, BUT THE ACTION AT FILMART MORE THAN MADE UP FOR THIS. THE MODEL FOR A MORE MATURE CHINESE FILM INDUSTRY IS FALLING INTO PLACE, AND THE MARKET WAS ALIVE WITH SMOOTH OPERATORS TALKING UP THE PROSPECTS OF “MONETISING CONTENT” (IE MAKING A BUCK).

China has now emerged as the world’s third biggest box office surpassing $US2 billion, only marginally behind Japan. Online revenue streams are also taking off as the industry stabilises around a new release chain. The freshly technologised China may abandon DVD altogether, given that it is so hard to protect the format from piracy. Instead, online platforms like Youku have emerged as second markets after theatrical exhibition. People are increasingly prepared to pay for content delivered to mobile devices.

There are also signs that the Chinese government is more interested in reaching an accommodation with the international film industry, allowing more “enhanced” foreign films (3D Hollywood blockbusters) to be distributed under better revenue sharing conditions. A joint venture announced with Dreamworks Animation suggests that, after years of frustration, Hollywood now thinks it can participate in the Chinese expansion. Expect to see more Chinese names in the credits of Kung Fu Panda 3.

Strangely though, once the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) started a few days later, there was a distinct dearth of Chinese films. As the HK industry declined over recent years, HKIFF became the place to see alternative Chinese films. This year, however, it was clear that the alternative Chinese scene is in sorry decline. Maybe everybody wants to come up from underground and get a piece of the commercial action, or perhaps the festival stopped programming the films because local interest was lacking.

love is in the air

Love Love
Instead, love is in the air for Chinese filmmakers. With the success of Taiwan’s You Are the Apple of My Eye and the mainland’s Love Is Not Blind, romantic comedy is the favoured genre of the region’s nascent commercial cinema. Doze Niu Chen-zer’s Love is a good example. Doze’s last film was the tough gangster film Monga, but Love is a network narrative of trendy young things who travel across the Taiwanese straits with more ease than they cross lines of class and gender.

Tsao Jui Yuan’s Joyful Reunion was another example, where food—the new bourgeois religion—is the currency of romantic complication, and where the divisions between Taiwan and China are effortlessly effaced by young and old lovers. These romances might prove harder for Western audiences to embrace, as they are directed at women rather than the male cult audiences that have traditionally sustained Asian film in the West. There’s also a kind of lush coyness with which the subject is approached. Given that the characters rarely enact their passions, gimmicky gesture and fairly obtrusive music become inordinately important as a way of signalling emotion. The result can be rather cloying, as Love Is Not Blind demonstrates. A young marriage planner breaks up with her unfaithful boyfriend and ends up with her prissy co-worker in a triumph for mannered cuteness.

bye bye miserabilism

After years of watching miserabilist films full of seedy pimps and chain-smoking grunge, it takes a little readjustment to see that Chinese audiences might enjoy seeing beautiful stars and conspicuous consumption of name brands (a lot of Häagen-Dazs is eaten in Love). Since the time of the Fifth Generation, the Chinese government has charged that underground filmmakers “pulled down their mother’s pants so foreigners could see her arse,” but the new rom-commies present us with the challenge of expanding our preconceptions about 21st century China. Previously, the Australian media only wanted to know that China was not a nice place. As the consumerist economy flourishes and an entertainment cinema emerges, we may have to look at frivolous genre films with a fresh measure of respect.

On the other hand, gloom is in the air for Hong Kong filmmakers. The money and the audiences are all on the mainland, and the glory days look to be in the past. This is the best framework for watching the two films by Pang Ho-cheung in the festival. There are two options for HK filmmakers: go to the mainland or stay in HK and make cheap movies. Pang’s Love in the Buff and Vulgaria are responses to these two options.

love in the buff

Love in the Buff Love in the Buff
Love in the Buff is a sequel to Love in a Puff (2010), a romantic comedy with Shawn Yue and Miriam Yeung as two HK office workers who meet while smoking outside their offices. The new film relocates the characters to Beijing, where they have to fall in love all over again. Pang’s films are based around the idea that men and women are essentially opposed to each other. It might be the case here that men are from Mars and women are from Hong Kong, but the logic of the film is that geography tops gender, as our ill-suited couple form a tacit alliance against the northerners. The couple conspire in Cantonese against the more earnest, and nicer, Mandarin speakers. Hong Kongers are pictured as cool smart-arses whose sense of their own imperfect identities triumphs over the attractions of the north.

vulgaria

Vulgaria Vulgaria
Pang’s quicker and nastier comedy, Vulgaria, is as cheap as it is full of cheerfully scatological humour. A HK producer must go to any lengths to raise finance. This involves dealing with mainland gangsters whose idea of a big night out includes meals built around animal sex organs, topped off by a spot of bestiality. This is what it means to stay in HK and survive in the film business. No gag is too cheap and no in-joke too local. Stripped of this context, I’m not sure anyone would want to watch this film for more than 10 minutes. However, context is king here. Despite the tackiness of its mise-en-scène and the smuttiness of its humour, there is a strange grandeur to those who swim against the tide of history and persevere with lost causes.

Australians were thin on the ground at FilMart, which added a further layer of irony to the title of Wish You Were Here, one of the few Aussie films at HKIFF (see review). Asia features here as a place where Australians go to give in to their vices. It’s an inward-looking film about glimpsing the dangers of the world and retreating back to the family. Seen in Asia, this seemed a cogent statement on the limitations in the imaginative vision of Australians.


Hong Kong International Film Festival, March 21-April 5, www.hkiff.org.hk

This article originally appeared as part of RealTime's online e-dition May 22

RealTime issue #109 June-July 2012 pg. 13

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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