SineScreen caught up with Roger Garcia, the executive director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society (HKIFFS). Garcia has internationally promoted Asian and Hong Kong cinema since the late 1970s and has served as programmer, consultant and juror on numerous international film festivals. As a producer, Garcia has produced both commercial and independent films in Hollywood and Asia. His critical writings on film have been widely published by the British Film Institute, Variety, Film Comment, and Cahiers du Cinema among others. Garcia further heads the Asian Film Awards Academy and Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum.
Can you tell us about some of the projects and organisations are you currently involved with?
My main preoccupations are organizing the Hong Kong International Film Festival. As one of the largest and oldest in Asia, we will celebrate our 40th anniversary in 2016. I’m also involved in the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum – one of the largest film project markets in Asia where submissions have almost tripled in the last five years – and the Asian Film Awards Academy (AFAA) which includes the annual Oscar-type awards show that is held in Macau, along with its year round activities like masterclasses of Asian filmmakers, Asian film showcases, and student tours to international film festivals. For example, in June a well-known Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To will conduct an AFAA masterclass at the prestigious British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), and at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, a major European event.
What are your ambitions for the HKIFF this year?
For HKIFF in 2016 we are planning a program to celebrate our 40th anniversary. I cannot reveal too much at the moment but let me just say that we will not only celebrate 40 years of HKIFF but also I hope some of the 40 years of Hong Kong cinema. In general we will continue to do what we do best – celebrate auteurs and cinephilia. I believe it’s important in our digital age to encourage watching movies in theaters, especially the artistically ambitious personal films and other wide-ranging works. We have found our “Restored Classics” section in the festival to be popular which is encouraging because to be a true cinephile you need to look both at the past as well as the present.
Would you say that, in recent years, there has been a wider integration of Western filmmakers and actors into the Hong Kong film scene, and vice versa?
Not really. I think the Hong Kong film scene in this context needs to be read as the China film scene. The strength of the China market means that films are largely aimed at those audiences and of course these films mostly cast Chinese talent, with the occasional Korean. However, you do have instances of Hollywood actors in Chinese films – for example, Adrien Brody and John Cusack in Jackie Chan’s recent “Dragon Blade”, and Brody in Feng Xiaogang’s “1942” – however it is not a regular occurrence.
We’ll be seeing Bruce Willis and Matt Damon in China-based productions in the near future, but one could regard such films rather as international films with a China element and sometimes Chinese story. I think that evolution of Western films using China locations and some elements (and some talent) is a bigger picture and perhaps is the trend to watch. Clearly these films are being made with the China market in mind but will be geared still to a wider distribution.
As for Hong Kong or Chinese actors in Western films we have seen that Hong Kong talents have been most successful at it – consider Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat, Jet Li, and directors like John Woo and Kirk Wong have had successes in Hollywood. However, I think that specific phase (which occurred in the mid 1990s to early 21st century) is now over as those talents concentrate more on the China market. We have seen some Korean talents in Hollywood films – generally with unsatisfactory results, I think. Mega-pop star Rain for example appears as an effeminate bad guy side-kick to Bruce Willis in clichéd film, “The Prince”. Park Chan-wook and Kim Ji-woon, both great directors, flopped with their Hollywood films despite the presence of name stars Nicole Kidman and Arnold Schwarzenegger, respectively.
Do you think that independent cinema has become a ‘different animal’ in recent years?
Yes, especially in the US where it has come to mean something like an arty studio film made for lower budget with a couple of big-time actors doing so-called “quality” work. Independent cinema before used to be more cutting edge. It is now opportunistic without much regard for the art of cinema. I think part of the problem has been festivals which promote so-called “independent” work but are in reality trying to generate publicity, sponsorship dollars, and kudos by showing “independent” work with big-name actors, i.e. commercial movies without the big bucks.
What is the biggest challenge that independent filmmakers face today? How do you suggest they get around this challenge?
I think the biggest challenge for independent filmmakers today remains same as it always has been: how to make a good film and get it recognized and seen. It has become more complicated because the ease of digital technology has enabled many more people to make films. Just take a look at YouTube! We have witnessed an exponential rise in the number of submissions to film festivals. But it’s important to note that more films do not mean better films. More films usually means more of the same, and more mediocrity too. The cinema is a difficult art form – it’s more an art of re-invention rather than an art of invention, and that requires great creativity. That’s why we often say that in cinema that it is the technicians who invent but it is the artists who re-invent.