Hong Kong’s Underground Cinema Revealed at Ji.hlava Film Fest

Will Tizard
·3-min read

Film submissions arriving mysteriously with no return address are a bit unusual, even for the Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Fest – an event with its fringe street creds solidly in order – says Haruna Honcoop, a Czech-Japanese filmmaker, who was planning a special section on Hong Kong docs this year – that is, until the fest had to be reformatted overnight thanks to COVID-19 shutdowns.

Still, Honcoop managed to get into the program three docs revealing particular perspectives – including the one slipped over the transom, “Red Taxi,” a short that would be illegal to screen in Hong Kong or anywhere on mainland China.

Another doc chronicling the escalating tensions in the former British colony, where residents have been facing down brutal riot police in their demonstrations for civil rights, is Zhou Bing’s “Hong Kong Moments.” With slick production values and official support from the Chinese state, this German co-production is nevertheless powerful in its profiles of protesters, says Honcoop, whose most recent feature, “Built to Last,” focuses on remarkable communist-era architecture.

A third Hong Kong doc at Ji.hlava, Elysa Wendi’s “Stay If You Can/Go If You Must,” is an unconventional montage of images and sounds showing the contribution of artists to the freedom movement.

Honcoop’s interview with Variety follows:

How did you manage to find underground docs such as “Red Taxi” for Ji.hlava and how dangerous would it be if the director’s name was known?

It’s an anonymous director who couldn’t reveal his identity for security reasons because it’s really, really tough in Hong Kong these days.

When the guy or girl or collective – we don’t know – sent the film, it just said, “For security reasons I’m not revealing my identity.” We don’t know who the filmmaker is. It’s interesting because the director talked to taxi drivers on both sides – with taxi drivers in Hong Kong and in Shenzhen, which is the border city with Hong Kong in China.

Can you tell me anything about the filmmaker or filmmakers from “Red Taxi” itself?

I think it was made by someone from Hong Kong. It’s very powerful because it’s quite authentic, not like “Hong Kong Moments,” which is really manipulated and the selection of characters is a bit questionable. In “Hong Kong Moments” obviously the director is Chinese so he wanted to do an “objective” film but he can’t because he still needs to collaborate with the Chinese government – otherwise he would be dead. His career would be destroyed.

How do you find out about films like “Red Taxi”? I understand they are being screened in secret in Hong Kong but are unknown outside the city.

They sent it, luckily. I was working on the films that were submitted through the submission form and I was in touch with the independent producer Peter Yam who is currently producing a documentary called “Blue Island” and he recommended to me a bunch of other films but unfortunately Ji.hlava couldn’t make the whole section we planned originally because of the online format change.

But you were still determined to still get a selection of docs on Hong Kong into the program, I see.

I approached them in the summer and said, “Guys, no one knows anything about Hong Kong – let’s do something in order to support these guys. Because no one gives a sh-t about Hong Kong and we should know more.”

And you’ve also encountered many of these films in your PhD research at Prague’s storied FAMU film school on recent Chinese independent documentary cinema?

Yes, I’ve been talking with them for years to do some section on Chinese docs and it’s never happened. Films like “One Says No” by Dayong Zhao, about a man fighting to save his home from the corrupt state construction boom, which is at Ji.hlava this year.

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