A still from the Korean movie The Handmaiden. Photo: Handouts
A still from the Korean movie The Handmaiden. Photo: Handouts

Ahead of the Asian Film Awards on March 21, Asia Times spoke with Roger Garcia, executive director of the Asian Film Awards Academy, to hear his thoughts on the awards, the state of Asian cinema and how the region’s filmmakers are evolving.

Garcia is also executive director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society (HKIFFS), which runs the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum and the film festival that starts next month.

Q.  Five of the nominees for best film are from four different countries. That’s quite a diverse list?  Can you explain the nomination process?

Basically for the nominations of the AFA, we look at films from the preceding calendar year. So the films that are eligible for nominations were films that were released from January 1 to December 31, 2016.

For “Asia,” it’s very broadly defined. It goes from Iran to Korea. It’s really wide.

We compile a list of about 1,000 films, which is physically impossible to watch. We then sieve through the films  and come up with generally a list of about 100 films. The films are usually more prominent from the major film producing countries and places – that’s Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, India and some Middle Eastern countries.

Roger Garcia, executive director of the Asian Film Awards Academy at the recently concluded Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum 2017. Photo: HAF

The nominations committee is basically representatives from the three partners in the AFA – that’s Hong Kong film festival, Busan film festival and Tokyo International Film Festival. There’s also some industry representatives and experts from different places, who then look at the different titles. After a couple of meetings and discussions, they will come up with the final nomination list. It’s a debate and a discussion. In this, we are not too different from the Oscars and also probably the BAFTAs.

Q.  What quality of film are you seeing?

What we try and do in the nominations committee is to try and recognise the quality of the film and the filmmaking, but also to try and recognise some films reflect what is going on in the cinema at that time.

For example, South Korea was quite strong in filmmaking in 2016. China as we know is not that strong. I mean, the output is high but the artistic output, if I can put it that way, aspect of the films vary from year to year. It’s the same for every country. In some years it’s a good year for China, and in some years it is a good year for South Korea. We take that into account to try and reflect all that is going on in the country.

I know it doesn’t sound very scientific if you put it that way. If you are going to into an awards show that is supposed to celebrate excellence in Asian cinema, then you have to look at what is going on in terms of some of the commercial success, as well as some of the artistic success. It’s a kind of mixture in terms of artistic and commercial.

We in the AFA tend to go more for commercial films, as you know. This is not an art film festival, in fact it’s not a festival at all, it’s an award show and the giving of awards. So, we want to also reflect the popularity of certain films.

Q.  What about I Am Not Madame Bovary and The Handmaiden, the two films that received the most nominations?

These are artistically ambitious films that are made within a commercial framework. They include some big stars, so it’s not like some obscure arthouse movie, that we would show at the HKIFF.

Sometimes you have an arthouse movie that is nominated, if it’s an outstanding movie. But in general we go for some mainstream but artistically ambitious mainstream films.

Q.  So do the nominees for best film reflect what is going on in each country?

Feng Xiaogang’s film (I Am Not Madame Bovary) will surprise people. It has a round framing and … (laughs) Feng’s film is not typical of Chinese output. But just as a film lover myself, it’s very interesting that one of the successful commercial film directors in China would come out with a film like this. It’s quite unusual.

feng xiaogang
Feng Xiaogang’s I Am Not Madame Bovary in a circular frame. Photo: Handouts

The Handmaiden is a very handsome production. It looks great and I think that the nominations in the production design and the costume design do reflect some of the film’s merits.

If you look at films of Asia, I have always thought that Korean films are generally very well shot. They have very high production value – the films look good on screen. I think this year it’s reflected in The Handmaiden.

The Wailing, which is nominated for best film, is a kind of a horror type movie and as we know South Korea has been quite strong in the psychological horror genre for several years.

Kim Tae-Ri in The Handmaiden.
Kim Min-Hee in The Handmaiden.

So in one sense, it does reflect something of what is going on.

But Japanese films are a little unusual here, such as Harmonium, by Koji Fukada, who has made about five or six feature films, so it’s nice to have a younger guy as well. We do, as I’ve said earlier, go for the commercial films, but in this particular case it’s something that is more independent. But it does feature a big star, Asano Tadanobu.

Q. Tell us about the state of the film industries in the different countries.

The industries I have to say, are a little unpredictable, because things have changed with the onset of digital platforms like Netflix and Amazon. Also, the audiences are changing as well. As to the direction and the way it is going, it’s little difficult to say from five films where it is going.

What I would say is there’s continued growth in Asian Cinema seen in this group of films that we have in AFA this year in the best film category.

I think 10 years ago, we wouldn’t really have thought of such a mix actually. That sort of shows how the asian film industry has developed. There’s been an emergence of independent cinema that can reach a bigger audience. Films that are made in a commercial framework that also have artistic ambition are reaching big audiences as well.

You look at a country like Thailand, which I’m sorry doesn’t feature this year, but you have commercial movies like Ong Bak with Tony Jaa and then you get total art movie makers like Apitchapong who also does art installations. So you have an industry in Thailand where you have these two types of films and filmmakers existing side by side.

That’s a development that you see in say the United States or France, to have this kind of existence and co-existence of these two types of cinema. It would have been difficult before in Asia because the cinema 20 or 30 years ago was commercially driven.

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In Thailand it was mainly commercial movies, but now you have this introduction of more experimental films and I think that’s an encouraging trend. Because you have young filmmakers with different ideas coming up, eventually they will feed into the mainstream industry and hopefully take the mainstream industry one step forward.

Q.  What is different in this year’s awards?

Last year, there was Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film The Assassin that was highly regarded and actually got a lot of nominations and won a number of them as well. So last year was a little bit more dominant for one film. Hou himself is truly one of the great filmmakers, so in a way there was an emphasis on The Assassin.

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This year, I think we don’t have one film that dominates everything really. We have a little bit more variety, in the nominations in the different categories .

This is not really a pattern, as I said, it really depends year by year what is going in the cinema.

Q. What’s the future for the Asian Film Awards?

We are in our 11th year now. We have achieved a certain balance of concept in the AFA.

I think our future will rely on how cinema develops, but we are also more active in the Asian Film Awards Academy now, where we do year round programs.

We sent students to festivals for visits, we’ve been to the Golden Horse Awards and the Busan film festival.

We organise screenings of AFA nominated films around the region, and we are now sending young professionals from Hong Kong to intern or work with post-production companies. We have two people in Germany and we’ve been asked by the Hong Kong government to increase to eight to 1o people.

So activities – that’s where our evolution is happening.

I think for the AFA we have a certain template and framework that will continue. As for the introduction of new awards, that takes a bit of time to consider. We have 15 awards and that’s quite a lot for an awards show. So I’m not sure whether we will introduce any new awards at the moment, but that’s something we will keep an eye on.

So I would say that the future of the AFA is more or less along the same lines as now – but our evolution in terms of how we develop is in terms of the AFA Academy activities.