Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Very Personal and Very Political: Experimental films and Videos in Hong Kong

This article “Very Personal and Very Political: Experimental Film and Video in Hong Kong” has been published in the book Asia Experimental Media Issue.
Publisher:   Common Life Books, Experimental Film and Video Festival in Seoul, South Korea
August, 2009
pp. 124 -129. 

(Written by Phoebe Ching Ying Man)

Instead of using the word “experimental” to describe and categorize films and videos, the term “independent” is frequently adopted in Hong Kong. When thinking about the differences, the former emphasizes on the experiments of form and the latter on the theme and spirit. The change of wordings could indicate the shift of focus.

However, when talking about experimental media works, we cannot ignore the form and the invention of technology. In 60s’, the artists in Hong Kong used 16mm film. In 70s’ they used super 8. In mid 80s’ digital video has became popular. In 90s’ World Wide Web has invented. Nowadays, YouTube, facebook and Twitter are part of many people’s lives. The art form of the young artists is not limited to video. There are VJ, interactive installation and other computer time based works. Throughout history, artists are sensitive to the use of tools, material, process and form. They play with the physical medium of the film and video, try to find the limitation and the possibilities of the form, question the medium and make multi-media and cross medium art works. With the cost of tools and materials is getting cheaper and cheaper nowadays, and with the popularity and free distribution channels, themes of the time based works are more diversified. The cost of trying new things out has become more affordable and as a result, the production of art gets closer to ones daily lives, and more liberal.

In societies with liberal atmosphere, it seems that every kind of styles and forms are allowed. In Hong Kong, there is no dominant style of experimental films and videos. However, we do have a well-grown film and TV industries. Melodramas, action movies, crime and gangster films are the mainstream. The public entries of film and video competition are mostly different kinds of gangster films and love stories. Some artists make short videos, aiming at entering the film industry. Commercial filmmaking industries is the mainstream. With such a background, power of rebounding created. There are two extremes of styles: very personal or very political.

Since there is almost no market for experimental films in Hong Kong and almost no audience, most of the video works are non-commercial. The themes are about personal lives or social issues. With the scholarly background, some artists’ works are more conceptual, using marginalized topics or styles. The others are using free styles, improvisation methods, no planning and non-decorative. Most of them show strong resistance of grand narratives of ideology. We have a rich creation of works which is about personal identities, with strong personal character and styles as well as showing the richness of personal lives. There is less nationalistic or historical concerns. It mirrored Hong Kong’s long history of colonial education, avoid touching on the past of the city and national awareness and identity of the Chinese citizens. Like for example, Hong Kong experimental film first started in the 60s’ with the College Cine Club. Although Cultural Revolution happened in China, the experimental films in 60s’ were more affected by the new waves of cinemas from Europe and the American underground movement. The style was not political indeed. This situation gradually changed after 1989 Tiananmen Massacre and 1997 Hong Kong handed over to China. Works done have been more related to the Hong Kong as a city and concern more about her relationship with China. The number of social documentaries has grown. Groups of artists are taking care of the minorities and social political issues. Artists even asked the minorities to shoot their own stories as a mean to fight against unreasonable government policies. There are organisations like Video Power (1989- ) and Visible Record (2008 -) concentrates on promoting documentaries.

The foundation of Hong Kong experimental film and video is not constructed by art movement. It is laid mainly by non-government organizations and enthusiastic individuals. In 60s’, the university’s College Cine Club (1966 – 1970) has generated a group of film art lovers, sharing western works and supporting each other to make films. Later, the Phoenix Cine Club (1976 – late80s) organized an annual independent short film festival. Members of Phoenix Cine Club, May Fung & Ellen Pau have joined the experimental theatre group Zuni Icosahedron, and they continue to promote video art. Ellen Pau founded Videotage (1986 -) which aimed at promoting video art and other extended form of time based art until now. The Hong Kong Arts Center have also promoted video arts and organized the Hong Kong Independent Short Film & Video Awards, which is still an annual event for the talented young artists to show their videos.

Local universities in Hong Kong are considered as another strong force to study and promote film and video art. The Department of Extramural Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Baptist University have started to offer (mid 70s -) film studies courses. And The School of Creative Media of City University of Hong Kong (1998 -) is the first media art school in Hong Kong. Recently, the development of campus TV in both secondary schools and primary schools has becoming popular, which to a certain extent can help Hong Kong students to understand skills and knowledge behind the production of video.

Channels of distribution for independent film makers are increasing. In the past, we have Hong Kong Arts Center and Hong Kong International Film Festival showed video art. In recent years, some commercial cinemas e.g. The Broadway Cinematheque, the Grand Cinema and the MCL Telford Cinema show alternative videos and films occasionally to attract different kinds of audience to go to movie theatre. These cinemas provide venue to some films groups like InD Blue, Ying E Chi to show film festivals like Hong Kong Asian Film Festival. Ying E Chi and Videotage also help sending artists work to overseas countries. Of course, artists can just simply upload their videos on their own web sites or YouTube.

Showing experimental films and videos on cable TV is common in some western countries. And in Hong Kong, such an issue has been discussed for a long period of time and no concrete development planning was resulted. Anyway, might be we do not need such an idea anymore, as we have Facebook and YouTube. Since access to the internet is so popular and ordinary people can be star. Many artists’ works are subversive and critical. And artists who are politically critical enough can attract more viewers, e.g. My Little Airport using MTV method to criticize the government and HKADC (Hong Kong Art Discovery Channel, same short form as a government statutory organisation Hong Kong Arts Development Council) has posted a lot of documentary of performance to criticize the Hong Kong Museum of Art. This development of an emerging political trend is also affected by the powerful mass media.

In fact, the existing free channels could not generate income to support video art production. Some video arts are funded by Hong Kong Arts Development Council (1996 - ). Selling DVD is also another source of income. Film group like Ying E Chi is helping artists to produce and distribute their works in form of DVD.

The road of development for experimental film and video is hard and long. In Hong Kong, the majority of people are stable consumers of mainstream commercial films and TV programs and a shift is not yet to come in the nearly future. The city is not open and diversified enough as a place for artists with an experimental heart and mind to run a prosperous business. On the bright side, the coming of West Kowloon Cultural District project can give everyone a hope. The allocation of financial and human resource and the mighty power of the internet could nurture a generation of new consumers. The future is optimistic.

i-GENERATIONs: independent, experimental and alternative creations from the 60s to now (program catalogue), May Fung curated, Hong Kong Film Archive, Hong Kong, September 2001.

INDIE - ISSUE NO 587 / 2001-10-11,
Artda, The History of the development of Hong Kong Independent Films,, 2008-11-10.

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