Hong Kong through the lens

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How many Vancouverites have Hong Kong roots? The answer is more complicated than you might think. Statistics Canada is content to let us know that 80 percent of the region's Chinese population in the 2001 census was foreign-born. Statistics Canada can also determine that 342,665 Greater Vancouverites identified themselves as Chinese-affiliated in the 2001 census. Of those, 121,915 spoke Cantonese (the dialect favoured in Hong Kong), 47,165 spoke Mandarin (the most important language in both the People's Republic of China and Taiwan), and the rest spoke either English or some other form of Chinese.

Even though the People's Republic has provided Vancouver with more immigrants than Hong Kong for the past 15 years or so, this "special administrative district" is still B.C.'s dominant Sino-cultural force.

The films of the former Crown colony are very much present in Hong Kong Stories, the 11-part retrospective being presented at the Vancity Theatre in the Vancouver International Film Centre between June 29 and July 7. The Film Centre lineup–being shown to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the July 1, 1997, handover of Hong Kong to China–includes some impressive older masterpieces, including Stanley Kwan's Rouge (1987), arguably one of the most poignant ghost stories ever lensed, and John Woo's The Killer (1989), a tongue-in-cheek remake of This Gun for Hire. There are also some pioneering landmarks, such as The Orphan (1960), starring a very young Bruce Lee, and The Long Arm of the Law (1984), much of which is set in the infamous and now-vanished Kowloon Walled City.

There's also some new material that has never played here before, like Johnnie To's much anticipated Election 1 and Election 2. This diptych about position-jockeying by Triad members on the eve of the Communist handover is so steeped in realí¢â‚¬”˜politik it makes even Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather movies look naive by comparison. Indeed, their political implications run so deep they can make just about anyone question their own corrupt institutions.

Perhaps the most intriguing contribution to this already tangy cinematic dim sum, though, is the world premiere of 0506HK, Quentin Lee's documentary debate as to whether he should or should not return to the electric island where he was born and grew up. This is not the kind of thing that Lee usually does. (He's currently working on a script about a young woman who must figure out which of her five current boyfriends put the bun in her oven.)

"I'm not really a documentarian," the director said with a laugh from his home in Los Angeles, "but I was between projects, so I bought myself a camera, flew to Hong Kong, and started asking people questions." This went on for a couple of years, usually for a month at a time.

Virtually all of Lee's queries revolve around one obsessive theme: Does he want to move back to Hong Kong or not? (Ann Hui and Stanley Kwan have similar documentaries paired for this retrospective: soul searches in which they ask themselves if they should stay or go.)

When asked why he didn't interview Kwan, Hong Kong's highest-profile "out" director (Lee's homosexuality being an obvious concern to someone considering moving bag and baggage to a city under at least the nominal control of Beijing), the director responded: "I talked to Kwan some time ago, but this time I wanted to limit my interview subjects to family and friends." It was not much of a limitation in this case, because 0506HK boasts at least 28 talking heads, a large percentage of whom are relatively high-profile media stars.

But why did he consider the movie in the first place? "My mother lives there, which I guess makes it the motherland, in a way." When pressed as to why he didn't move to Vancouver (we have gay marriage, after all, as well as a live-wire Chinese community), Lee said: "Well, my father lives there, but I thought that Canada would be too much for one movie. I didn't even want to include the L.A. sequences, but my friends said that I should for reasons of contrast."