It has been six months since the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society (HKIFFS) brought together all of its industry initiatives under one roof, appointing Jacob Wong as Director of HKIFF Industry.
The film festival programming and project market veteran previously served as the director of the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF). Wong spoke to Screen on why he’s spending more time in China, the first projects to cross the entire HAF ecosystem, and the latest on the Back to Basics initiative.
Since taking office six months ago, what key changes or developments have you introduced?
For the past six months, I have spent most of my time in China looking for partnerships and films directly related to my work in Hong Kong. We [HKIFFS] made some big national changes to make things a little clearer. We have set up the HKIFF industry office, bringing together all non-screening activities under one roof. This includes the HAF in March, the HAF Goes To Cannes in May and the HAF Film Lab in August. Then we have the HKIFF collection, which is overseas sales and advice; the strategy of the investors, which extends over the whole year; and collaborations and co-productions with third parties in feature films and documentaries. These third parties are all Chinese companies, which is also why I spend more time in China.
What are some of the changes you’ve seen in China? Has the pandemic impacted production?
Not really. It’s really a matter of size: 1.4 billion people – they want some form of entertainment. It’s not just movies. Anything two-dimensional and moving, people want to watch. In the industry, people will tell you how hard it is, but there’s no shortage of people who want to get into it and put some money into it.
They have a lot of national project markets and that helps me understand how it has changed from project markets like HAF or PPP [now called Asian Project Market] in those early years. They were all thinking of Europeans and co-production. But it’s become very apparent in Asia that people don’t do co-productions because they don’t need foreign money. They do not see the point of making efforts to attract foreign investment even if it comes from neighbours.
They welcome him. For example, CJ goes to Vietnam and sets things up – very good. Maybe Chinese efforts are going to Malaysia. But bringing in foreign money is not a priority because it requires monetary investment and people to do it.
And major internet platforms like iQiyi and Tencent are downsizing. Then you have new platforms like Bilibili – a platform we’re working with to do documentaries now. The platforms bought everything and anything, but not so much now. They invest money in their own productions.
Tell us about Borrowed time and The sunny side of the streetthe first projects to have passed through the HAF ecosystem, from the Film Lab to projects in development, and now to works in progress.
It’s something we want to do, especially for Hong Kong cinema, to help refine the projects of young filmmakers, bring them to HAF and see if they can find funding. All of the most senior filmmakers – as well as in the creative departments of film projects – work in China, so there are only young people in Hong Kong working on low-budget films. The way forward is to make small subsidized cinema the production as European countries do with geographical and cultural affinities. This is where we come in. We take charge of a young person’s project, from cradle to maturity.
He or she can come to the Film Lab in August. If you win a prize, you receive additional training to polish your script leading to HAF so that there is a bridge. And then, about a year later, it goes into production. From development, you’ve probably graduated from an ongoing project that can join HAF Goes to Cannes. When it becomes a film, you can choose to seek advice from the festival on how to plan your festival strategy and make overseas sales as well, if you so desire. The only thing we don’t do is be directly involved in the production. We do sales under HKIFF Collection. We actually do overseas sales of very small films and not just HAF projects. It is open to all.
What happened to the documentary section?
It was closed. The government told us that it had no money and that it wanted to concentrate on fiction. But we are now working with Bilibili to make documentaries for their platform. We look for projects and they put the funds in place. We started last year. And probably, if and when they’re made, they don’t need to premiere in Hong Kong. We and the filmmakers will probably want to speak at larger film festivals, hopefully traveling. We will try to initiate three to four projects each year.
What’s up with the Back to Basics initiative where HKIFFS and China’s Heaven Pictures challenged six top Asian directors to make a movie with a budget of just $150,000?
We did the Ishii Yuya, All the things we never said. It was in Busan [in 2020]. The second film was that of Tan Chui Mui Barbarian Invasionwho was in Shanghai where he won an award [the Jury Grand Prix] Last year. The third, from Brillante Mendoza, is in place. We are waiting for him to finish. Zhang Lu has pledged to do one but I think he wants to wait out the pandemic. He wants to shoot in Korea and is back in China right now. Tsai Ming-Liang dropped out and was replaced by Mendoza. Philip Yung and Yang Jin haven’t started as they are busy with other projects.