Established in 2005, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council's Fresh Wave International Short Film Festival has become the best platform for Hong Kong’s young independent filmmakers to showcase their talents. The December 2011 edition was open to any Hong Kong resident aged 18 to 35. Fifteen local higher education institutions each sent one representative to participate in the Student Division.
For Hong Kong film students – both local and foreign – trying to make a respectable thesis project, Fresh Wave offers a unique opportunity to gain much-needed funding. Each qualified participant was given a HK$40,000 grant last year to produce a 30-minute short film. Professional filmmakers were on-hand to serve as a mentors. Directors Mabel Cheung, Fruit Chan, Benny Chan and Herman Yau were some of the mentors for the 2011 competition.
The competition was held as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival in its early years. But it separated for the fifth edition in 2010. The festival is now held independently. It features an opening film, and screens shorts from around the world. Film director Johnnie To, in his official capacity as Chairman of the Film and Media Arts Group at the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, has taken a key role in raising the profile of the event. In addition to holding public screenings in cinemas, the festival has presented winning films in schools around the city and on a local pay movie channel. The festival also makes films available for free on demand on cable.
Benefiting from the publicity push, Fresh Wave 2011 featured the most diverse line-up in its six-year history last year. The international program featured films from Thailand, Taiwan, and Belgium, among others. The local competition boasted 30 films from a wide variety of genres. There were family dramas like Riley Leung’s Remains, Anchel Wang’s Family and Cheung Ming-yee’s This File Cannot Be Deleted. There were also psychological thrillers like Tamzid Habib’s Identity and Pauline Lam’s Puppeteer.
This year will be most remembered for its social and political films. During 2010 and 2011, Hong Kong’s “post-1980s” generation (those born in the 1980s) became politically active. Some publicly accused the government of not fixing long-standing social problems. Irked by issues like the building of a high speed rail project and proposed electoral reform that some feared would hurt democratic development, the more radical post-1980s youths engaged in civil disobedience protests that disrupted traffic and tested the patience of the Hong Kong police.
A majority of the Fresh Wave contestants are part of the post-80s generation. Many 2010 contestants decided to use the medium of film to voice their views. Wong Chun's 6th March – named after the day of a protest that led to 114 protesters being arrested for holding a sit-in on a major roadway – tackles political discourse directly by depicting a heated debate between three protesters and three policemen. Other films tackled the new political movement in more creative ways. Lo Chun-yip’s Paradox suggests a parallel between the 1989 student movement in Beijing and the current wave of protests through the story of a partially deaf elderly man. Yuen Chi-him’s Not Now But When is a hypnotic drama that encourages political action with references to the 2012 “apocalypse”. Li Miao, a film school student from Beijing, documents Hong Kong’s annual July 1st protest (which occur on the anniversary of the city’s handover to mainland China) through the eyes of a young couple in the mockumentary July 1st, An Unhappy Birthday.
Even more daring was Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Gwangong VS. Alien. This was about a Lord Guan Yu’s battle with an alien invader. Inspired by the 1970s Taiwan cult film War God, director Leung Chun-man produced a satire that poked fun at Communist Party mascot Lei Feng, the People’s Liberation Army, and the perception that Macau citizens are more patriotic than their Hong Kong neighbours.
Many 2011 contestants showed concern for hot-topic social issues, too. The gentle docudrama Still on the Bridge by Pako Leung shows the life of a street vendor struggling with a dwindling business and being persecuted by the authorities. The film was likely inspired by an elderly street vendor who attracted public attention when neighbourhood shop owners were filmed trying to stop the authorities confiscating his wooden cart. Also inspired by true cases is Lee Cheuk-pan’s visually stylish Cyber Bully, a schoolyard drama about viral videos and internet witch hunts.
The problems depicted are not restricted to Hong Kong. The city’s film and graduate schools have seen an influx of mainland Chinese students in recent years. 2010 featured Broken But New, a film about single-parent families in post-earthquake Sichuan. This year there were even more films by student filmmakers from up north which explored social topics too sensitive for Mainland China. Yang Xiaoli’s Sunny’s Baby shows a lesbian relationship in a rural town, for instance. Yang Zhengfan’s The Surroundings depicts forced evictions through the eyes of a young man working as a caretaker for an old man on a farm in Zhuhai.
There are no venues that screen independent short films on a regular basis in Hong Kong. So Fresh Wave is quickly becoming an important event for young filmmakers. As the commercial film industry continues to focus to the China market for its own survival, the city is seeing fewer films catering directly to local audiences. Most films in the 2011 local competition dealt with social issues that commercial films would not touch for fear of losing touch with the mainland China audience. If this year’s trends continue, the Fresh Wave festival will surely become the best place for audiences to see the future of Hong Kong cinema and the voice of Hong Kong youths.