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Friday, March 15, 2019, 11:24
The festival director’s cut
By Mathew Scott
Friday, March 15, 2019, 11:24 By Mathew Scott

Editor’s Note: In the lead-up to Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) 2019, its new executive director, Albert Lee, spoke about the festival highlights as well as exciting challenges ahead for young Hong Kong filmmakers in an exclusive interview to China Daily Hong Kong.

Albert Lee, executive director, Hong Kong International Film Festival. (EDMOND TANG / CHINA DAILY)

You have worked for both Golden Harvest studio and Emperor Motion Pictures for many years. You were rumored to have been enjoying the quiet life after your retirement. Who — or what — brought you back to the workplace?

I’d retired at the end of 2017. I was enjoying myself, doing little things here and there. Then one day my predecessor Roger Garcia asked me if I might be interested in applying for this position. Retirement feels okay for a month or two. Then you start questioning yourself, “Okay, so what am I going to do today?” So I said, let’s have a chat, and it all started from there.   

You’ve been on the job for a few months now. How do you find the transition?

Well, I’ve been going to HKIFF since the first one, so I know the festival. But running a festival is quite different from attending it. You’re on the other side of the fence. It’s not as glamorous as it might look. There’s a lot of logistics and things going on under the hood that you have to deal with and learn about — things like the ticketing service, for example, which we need to improve. At the moment we use so many different venues and they each have their own ticketing system. We need to find a solution. Accessibility in terms of subtitling all the films in Chinese is another thing we are moving toward. At the moment about 75 percent of the films carry Chinese subtitles. You can’t do these things overnight but every year you move forward.  

Hundreds of film festivals take place around the world these days. How do you make HKIFF stand out in the crowd? 

When the festival started 43 years ago, it was the only one in Hong Kong and one of the first of its kind in Asia. Now there are festivals everywhere, there’s Netflix, there’s all these other options. The mandate is to promote film culture, so we need to grow the audience and the outreach. The diversity of the program can help achieve that.

HKIFF is wedged in between two of the biggest festivals, in Berlin in February and Cannes in May. Does that make things difficult for you?

Trying to secure newer films is hard. We are in between Berlin and Cannes, and there is a growing market for films on the Chinese mainland. A lot of producers want to hold on to their films until a certain release date on the mainland. It’s competitive, and programming is quite difficult. In terms of Hong Kong films, the numbers are down. I think everyone knows that. But it is important that we sustain the presence of Hong Kong films on the program. It’s a challenge but we have an important role to play (in showcasing Hong Kong films) and will never lose sight of that.

There were only 53 homegrown films released locally in 2018. Is there hope that young upcoming filmmakers might help kickstart the local film industry?  

There are great signs of a new generation of younger filmmakers coming through. I sit on the Hong Kong Film Development Council as well and (I feel) the First Film initiative from the government has helped. It’s not a lot of money — HK$2 to 3 million for first-time directors — but now we are seeing quite a few young filmmakers coming through. The films are quite decent — not terrific as that takes time, but at least they’ve learnt the ropes and got their first films made. In the next three to five years you will see a number of them maturing.

That’s certainly reflected in this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, Oliver Chan’s Still Human being an example of competent work.

Still Human got eight nominations for a first-time filmmaker, Men on the Dragon by Sunny Chan got 11. If you look at those films, the presence of some big names like Eric Tsang and Anthony Wong helped. And they took a nominal fee to help out. It’s a testament to those people that they would help (if need be). So I’m optimistic but in a guarded way. All film industries work in cycles. We have been to the top, we probably reached the bottom a few years ago, and now we are starting to climb again.

So why did you get into the film business?

I suppose it’s in my blood. My father, my grandparents — we have all been in this business. Now my daughter is in this business too. So it carries on. I watched films with my father for as far back as I can remember. You have to love cinema to be in this business. 

Who are the people and what are the films that have inspired you?

I’ve watched so many that it’s difficult to say. There are so many wonderful films I have seen over the years, and also bad ones. In our profession you need to see the bad ones. But bad for me might be good for others. It’s subjective. So I’ll escape that question. 

My father was the first to have inspired me to join the business of films. I was also inspired by all the masters that I worked with — Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho at Golden Harvest, Albert Yeung at Emperor. They taught me different things.

Now the million-dollar question: What excites you about this year’s festival?

HKIFF 2019 features (around) 230 films. Personally, I home in on the restored classic section because I like old films. There’s a restored version of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey I’d love to see on the big screen, and Bertolucci’s 1900, which we are screening in two parts. I’m really looking forward to Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old in 3D — it’s an astonishing film. Another one that will be great on the big screen is the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, about free climbing (without the aid of mountaineering equipment), which I find terrifying. The filmmaker in focus is Sammo Hung so we are looking at his whole career. We are also helping to celebrate 100 years of Korean cinema.

Interviewed by Mathew Scott

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