BEIJING — China's one-child policy, sterilization and Japan-Sino relations are just some of the raw, real-life subjects tackled in a cluster of controversial independent Chinese films screening at the 37th Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF).
The festival, which kicks off Sunday and ends on April 2, features 306 feature films and shorts from 68 countries and regions. They range from the world premiere of Herman Yau's "Ip Man: The Final Fight" to the closing-night film, "Closed Curtain," directed by Jafar Panahi and Kamboziya Partovi.
FOR THE RECORD:
Hong Kong Film Festival: The caption for a photo that accompanied a story about the Hong Kong International Film Festival in the March 16 Calendar section identified the actor shown in "Ip Man: The Final Fight" as Anthony Wong Chau-Sang. The photo shows actor Eric Tsang. —
Chinese cinema features prominently. Seventy Asian feature films are in the mix, about half of them Chinese.
In Hong Kong — a former British colony ceded to China in 1997 that operates under a policy of "one country, two systems" — independent mainland filmmakers can escape both the commercial pressures of an exploding Chinese audience eager for blockbusters and the stringent censorship they face at home. Many are using the opportunity to show films that explore contentious issues relevant to ordinary people living in China today.
Festival director Roger Garcia believes that "with the spread in Internet streaming, the increase in the number of screens in China, and growing urbanization in the second- and third-tier cities, we may see a maturing market and audience that might show some interest in the indie product."
But for now, he notes, most independent films are not released inside China. So it is the festivals that are pushing the boundaries.
One of the touchiest issues dealt with in this crop of films is rising xenophobia following the dispute between China and Japan over an island chain in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Last year, anti-Japan protests erupted in cities across China, forcing Japanese-owned shops to close.
One married couple living in China, Huang Ji, who is Chinese, and her Japanese husband, Otsuka Ryuji, have turned to filming their own family to face irrational hatred head-on. Their documentary "Trace," which gets its world premiere at HKIFF, follows the two directors as they travel to Huang's hometown of Qinglang with their newborn daughter.
"Because the Chinese and Japanese relationship is very bad, we worry about our daughter in the future," explains Otsuka. "We thought we must make this video for our daughter."
Children also form a focal point in Emily Tang's "All Apologies," which is being shown in the Young Cinema Competition. The film is a searing criticism of the choices forced upon two families by the one-child policy in rural Guangxi province.
"All Apologies" follows married couple Yonggui and Xun Zhen, who rest their hopes on their small, spirited son. When he dies in a road accident at the hands of a neighbor, the pair's desire to continue the family line by conceiving another child is thwarted when Xun Zhen admits that she has been sterilized. In an act of brutality, fed by a cocktail of desperation and grief, Yonggui forces his neighbor's young wife to provide what he says she owes him: a newborn life.
Tang was inspired to co-write the script after stumbling across a story set in the 1970s in which a peasant family's cow — a beast critical to a farmer's livelihood and happiness — is accidentally hit and killed by a neighbor. She shifted this premise to the present day and replaced the cow with a child.
"Nowadays the most intense conflicts in China are no longer over a cow," Tang explains during an interview in a hip coffee shop in Beijing.
Tang, 43, is intent on showing "the poor people's China." Originally from southern Sichuan province, she attended university in Beijing a year before the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests erupted. It was then, she says, that she turned against traditional education and "lies" spouted by the state.
"I wanted to [show] the voices that are not being heard and the things that cannot be seen," she says. "In the past, plays, movies and art were a tool for propaganda. I am opposed to that. I want my film to be as full of real life as possible."
Yet compromises had to be made to film "All Apologies." In the original script, the wife undergoes forced sterilization — a much maligned practice enacted by officials desperate to meet government quotas for population control. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television made Tang change the line; in the finished film, the wife says sterilization was her choice.
Indie filmmakers say such scrutiny is to be expected given the subjects they are tackling.
"It's sensitive if you want to make a film set in the current time because we don't make such films to sing [China's] praises," says Li Ruijun, director of 2012's "Fly With the Crane," also showing at HKIFF. "If you want to make films about reality, surely they have to show the current problems of society."