Eric Tsang with his Golden Mulberry. Photo: FEFF

The 19th edition of the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, drew to a close on Saturday night with the Naoko Ogigami-directed Japanese drama Close-Knit receiving the coveted Golden Mulberry Award, voted on by members of the audience.

South Korean films – the thriller Split, from director Choi Kook-hei and the Chang-directed family drama Canola – filled second and third places respectively, but there was a distinctly Hong Kong flavor added to the nine-day event as it reached its conclusion.

FEFF president Sabina Baracetti says farewell to the festival alongside Herman Yau, director of closing film Shock Wave. Photo: FEFF

Veteran director Herman Yau’s thriller Shock Wave – starring superstar Andy Lau as a cop dealing with terrorists and their bombs – showcased the pure entertainment Hong Kong cinema has long been famed for (as did his blood-splattered The Sleep Curse, which screened the night before).

There was also a Golden Mulberry lifetime achievement award to another veteran in Eric Tsang, who brought the gripping drama Mad World to town, fresh from best supporting actor nod at the recent Hong Kong Film Awards.

The presence of a huge Hong Kong contingent showed that while back home the city is still finding its own identity within China, FEFF is striving to help preserve its cinematic traditions.

This year Hong Kong marks the 20th anniversary of its handover to mainland Chinese control and 1997 was a special year in terms of FEFF, too, marking the date that festival president Sabrina Baracetti first traveled to the city and spoke to producers, filmmakers and distributors of films there. What she discovered was fascinating.

“Hong Kong is very special for us. We discovered a completely different world there,” Baracetti said. “Hong Kong cinema is a mixture of West and East, which is our first love.”

The FEFF began in 1998 with a program exclusively of Hong Kong films. The festival has since grown to include works from across Asia, including Japan, South Korea, mainland China and Thailand. Some of today’s headliners in Hong Kong cinema – Peter Chan, Stephen Chow and Johnnie To – were among the first guests at FEFF.

In the two decades that have passed since the first edition of the festival, Hong Kong’s film industry has faced the twin pressures of market forces and of the censorship imposed on movies distributed in mainland China.

Festival-goes gather for Saturday night’s finale. Photo: FEFF

“Every Hong Kong director now has to deal with the mainland,” Baracetti said. “We can understand that they have to make compromises but we are trying much to support the origin of the Hong Kong cinema tradition.”

Read more on the Far East Film Festival

Baracetti says that after being screened at FEFF, many Hong Kong movies are distributed in Europe. That certainly helps with financing, but Far East Film Festival Hong Kong program consultant Tim Youngs acknowledges that European markets can only do so much to prop up the declining sales of Hong Kong movies.

Box office figures reveal that Cold War 2 and The Mermaid were the only Hong Kong productions in the top 10 grossing films in the city last year. Overall there were 61 Hong Kong titles screened last year, competing against 287 from elsewhere.

The soft demand for Hong Kong cinema has not discouraged two young filmmakers, Chiu Sin-hang and Yan Pak-wing, from co-producing their first feature-length film. The pair have directed Vampire Cleanup Department, which screened at this year’s FEFF. It is one of the few contemporary Hong Kong films been backed by a mainland company, in large part because vampire movies – a perennially popular genre in Hong Kong – are banned on the mainland.

“We’ve had this idea of making a Hong Kong vampire movie for more than half a decade and we never thought about the market. We did it just because we like those Hong Kong vampire movies of the 1980s and 1990s. All is [done] out of fun,” said Yan.

A still from Made in Hong Kong.

Support from the Hong Kong government brought a retrospective of the city’s film to this year’s FEFF. Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997-2017 made its first stop here as it travels to 10 international cities as part of Hong Kong’s handover anniversary celebrations.

The 10 Hong Kong films shown included the acclaimed Infernal Affairs by Andrew Lau and the 2010 romantic comedy Love in a Puff by Pang Ho-cheung. In a timely move, FEFF also had a hand in reviving Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong from 1997, a movie that was widely interpreted as reflecting anxiety about the handover.

Natalie Ngai Tsz-lam was part of the FEFF Campus program for young journalists, which was sponsored by Asia Times

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