As I sat waiting for Japanese heartthrob Joe Odagiri to begin his Asian Film Awards press conference, I couldn't help staring at the much-discussed head of hair belonging to the Nipponese acting heartthrob. Famed for his wild bouffant in even traditional samurai movies, Odagiri's haircut in Hong Kong featured a shaved incursion oddly placed near his right temple that made it look as if he was wearing an askew wig.
And for a long time Hong Kong's Filmart had a similar feel. From the early 2000s when the Hong Kong Trade and Development Corporation really started to promote Hong Kong as the gateway to the Chinese film industry, it didn't also quite look right. Not quite fitting. Slightly, but significantly out of place. They positioned Hong Kong in the middle of invited companies and government agencies from Europe (Unifrance has been a long time supporter), Asia (cue the Japanese, Koreans and the Taiwanese) and a small smattering of US hopefuls, and created Filmart as the perfect way to introduce these producers and government film bodies to the huge market and wealth of Mainland China. But it just didn't convince. Likewise, the addition half a dozen years ago of the Asian Film Awards. All the star-studded fanfare of everyone from Jackie Chan to Tony Leung just made it look like the Hong Kong film industry was whistling in the dark.
Now several years and one Global Financial Crisis later, all the ducks (Peking or otherwise) seemed to have lined up. The gamble seems to have paid off and Hong Kong has indeed become the place for all those film production dreams to come true. In recent years, the Mainland presence has been significant, and there was enough sense of optimism amongst boothholders that things were looking up. One regular Hong Kong attendee working for a Hong Kong sales agent went so far as to describe Filmart as reaching a turning point, that it was clear that Asian companies could do sufficient business in their own backyard and that Cannes – while still essential for visibility – was no longer the centre of the universe.
Similar optimistic remarks were heard from American companies who visited. On a scriptwriting panel hosted by Film Business Asia's Patrick Frater, Hollywood producer Tracy Trench (Ever After, Just Married, The Pink Panther) said that the US was finally waking up to China and that studio heads who had felt that all the company's business should be done in LA were getting out of their offices to scope the terrain.
Trench added, in words that I thought I would never hear from a Hollywood executive, that given that the majority of Hollywood's box office receipts come from outside the United States, it is likely that within a decade that American film companies will be making more non-English language films to directly cater to the world market. Maybe Trench wouldn't say that if she's on the lot in LA, but the fact that she was willing to say it in a public forum is notable. As a flirtatious come on to Chinese companies it was unmistakeable.
The only downside of having more big players in town and more exhibitors is that the number of attendees on the market overall has not really expanded. There was anecdotal evidence that the American companies and the big Chinese players (whose booths get taller and higher every year) are actually drawing attention away from the smaller exhibitors.
And in the wake of Mao's Last Dancer, The Dragon Pearl and even Pauline Chan's 33 Postcards, where were the Australians? Well, apart from Tony Ayres being in town repping his romantic comedy project, Ali's Wedding, for the HAF (Hong Kong Asia Film Funding Forum), it was almost an Oz-free zone. Sure there was Soundfirm, whose post-production facilities have long had a presence and interest in Mainland China; Christian Were from Madman Entertainment looking to beef up the company's Asian DVD catalogue; and sales agent Michael Favelle of Odin's Eye Entertainment, who was looking for international investment opportunities. (Odin's Eye repped last year's Beijing-filmed, bilingual Kevin Spacey/Daniel Wu starring Inseparable.) From the academic side of the fence were Flinders University's prominent Asia-philes Mike Walsh and Ruth Vasey, who was also in town doing some guest lecturing at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
In the market screenings the sole Australian film was a showing of the Sundance-acclaimed but racially contentious Wish You Were Here, directed by Kieran Darcy Smith and featuring Joel Edgerton, but that was held by Danish sales agent Level K Films who seem to have bought up all the non-Anglophone rights to the film. If there were any other Australians present on the scene I missed them (or they missed me). Not exactly a wave of interest from Australia. Saddest of all is that when approached beforehand about possible Australian attendees, Screen Australia didn't have even a list.
But while the absence of Aussies might resemble some antiquated mindset guiding Australian film's policy, there might be something else going on.
As it does politically, the spectre of Beijing also overshadows Hong Kong when it comes to Filmart. Last year, the annual event for programmers and sales agents known as the Beijing Screenings was moved from its traditional September slot to April to coincide with the new Beijing Film Festival. Perfectly placed by government officials to divert attention from June's cashed up Shanghai International Film Festival, the market sidebar is also poised to divert attention from Filmart. If China can get momentum for its Beijing event, then Hong Kong Filmart will have lost its primary reason for existing. While directors like Pang Ho-cheung are doing their best to preserve the Cantonese favour of Hong Kong filmmakers with films like Love in the Buff and Vulgaria, most Hong Kong filmmakers have been using China's laws, censorship and mores as their north star since before Britain handed the territory back to the Mainland. Some exhibitors speculated that the transfer of interest from Hong Kong to Beijing will occur within five years. Hong Kong Filmart had indeed come of age, but is it too late?
Less than 24 hours after Filmart closed its doors for another year, Screen Australia called for submissions for the Inaugural Australia-China Film Industry Forum whose dates also coincide with the aforementioned Beijing Film Festival. It looks like Screen Australia has already decided that Hong Kong Filmart is already an irrelevancy and they are betting on Beijing's increasing momentum.
There is a strong rumour – fuelled by a deleted tweet from a reliable Asian-based source – that Queensland's Asia Pacific Screen Awards will be held in China this year. All Filmart needs is for their flagship Asian Film Awards to be eclipsed by a Mainland event. How will they attract the likes of Joe Odagiri to Hong Kong in future?
When I asked Odagiri (pictured) which award he was presenting, why was it special to him and how were the awards perceived in Japan, the official interview co-ordinator didn't bat an eye as he softly, if shamelessly, conceded (in translation) that he agreed to present the award (whatever it was) only because he liked to come to Hong Kong to shop. Thanks for nothing Joe. Remarks like that will ensure you're not the only one to receive a bad haircut.