10 highlights from Hong Kong Asian Film Festival 2021 including Anita Mui biopic

Louise Wong and Louis Koo in a still from Anita, one of the top10 picks from the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

At a time when the future of the local film industry has never looked bleaker, this year’s Hong Kong Asian Film Festival has chosen to champion a number of emerging young voices, giving their work prestige spots as opening and closing films, as well as gala presentations.

Elsewhere, the festival highlights the very best new cinema from across the region, and collaborates with Japan’s Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in its efforts to provide a stage for increasingly diverse works and talents.

Below are our 10 highlights from the programme that you won’t want to miss.

1. Anita 

Easily the year’s most highly anticipated Hong Kong film is Longman Leung Lok-man’s biopic of Canto-pop diva Anita Mui Yim-fong, starring the largely unproven model-turned-actress Louise Wong as the “daughter of Hong Kong”.

Boasting a star-studded supporting cast that includes Louis Koo Tin-lok and Lam Ka-tung, Anita traces the meteoric rise and tumultuous romances of one of the city’s most beloved pop culture icons, who died from cervical cancer in 2003, aged just 40.

The festival will also be honouring Mui’s impressive onscreen legacy, with screenings of two of her best films, Kawashima Yoshiko (1990) and Midnight Fly (2001).

2. Madalena

One of two films selected to open this year’s festival – the other being Twelve Days – is Our Seventeen director Emily Chan Nga-lei’s Macau-set romance, starring Chrissie Chau Sau-na and Louis Cheung Kai-chung.

A chance encounter between an insomniac taxi driver and a hard-working single mother sees two lonely souls form an unlikely alliance that inevitably fosters romantic yearnings between them.

Shot almost entirely at night, and shining a spotlight on the lives of ordinary people in a city overshadowed by its high-stakes gaming industry, Madalena paints a markedly different picture of Macau than we are used to, while Chau has never been better.

Kaki Sham (left) and Hanna Chan in a still from Far Far Away. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

3. Far Far Away

Following his previous indie hits Dot 2 Dot and Napping Kid, Hong Kong writer-director Amos Why presents a sweet-natured coming-of-age story that showcases the geographical and cultural diversity of the city.

Kaki Sham plays an IT geek who unwittingly becomes the object of affection for five different women scattered around Hong Kong.

As Why follows this young Lothario on his romantic escapades, the film becomes both an exciting travelogue and impassioned love letter to the city in all its wildly differing guises, as we head into remote corners where few Hong Kong films dare to venture.

4. Drive My Car

Winner of the best screenplay prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Drive My Car is the second film this year from Ryusuke Hamaguchi (following his Berlin Grand Prix winner Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy ), and cements his position as one of Japan’s most vital and critically lauded filmmakers.

Adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, the film charts the evolving relationship between a grieving theatre director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his new female driver (Toko Miura), who find common ground in their dealings with trauma and loss.

While hardly an all-out chuckle fest, the resulting odyssey is profoundly cathartic.

Undoubtedly one of the year’s most bizarre and challenging cinematic experiences, renowned Thai filmmaker and former Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul collaborates with actress Tilda Swinton for an audiovisual exploration like no other.

Swinton plays a Scottish expatriate woman living in Columbia who is visiting friends in Bogota when she is woken from her sleep by a strange resonant boom, seemingly uttered from the bowels of the Earth.

Her desire to identify and explain the experience sets her on a profound journey of discovery. Memoria was awarded the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

6. On the Job: The Missing 8

Part of this year’s festival is showcasing small-screen offerings on the big screen, and none of the highlighted television series is more deserving than Erik Matti’s long-anticipated continuation of his 2013 thriller On the Job.

The Missing 8 is an epic dissection of small-town politics in present-day Philippines, the endemic corruption that keeps criminals in power, and the complicated and dangerous role of the media.

John Arcilla was awarded the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at Venice last month for his brilliantly complex performance as a compromised radio host searching for redemption in this riveting three-and-a-half hour crime saga.

Choi Min-sik (right) and Park Hae-il in a still from Heaven: To the Land of Happiness. PHOTO: South China Morning Post 

7. Heaven: To the Land of Happiness

The opening film at this year’s Busan International Film Festival pairs Choi Min-sik and Park Hae-il in a crowd-pleasing crime caper that marks a return to form for veteran director Im Sang-soo.

Choi plays a terminally ill convict who flees from prison to see his daughter, teaming up with Park’s thief and heading off on the lam together.

Oscar winner Youn Yuh-jung also appears, in a scene-stealing turn, as a vengeful gang boss determined to track down the mismatched fugitives who have inadvertently hightailed it with a bag of her cash.

8. Character

Star of the moment Masaki Suda plays a mild-mannered comic book artist, who witnesses a brutal killing and turns the murderer responsible into the star of his latest work, in Akira Nagai’s deranged new thriller.

Shun Oguri co-stars as the detective on the trail of the serial killer, who comes gunning for Suda after his bloodthirsty new creation becomes a runaway success.

Packed with unpredictable twists and turns, Character is a sure-fire hit which sees two of Japan’s hottest leading men square off in the ultimate battle of wits.

Kim Tae-ri in a still from Little Forest, directed by Yim Soon-rye. PHOTO: South China Morning Post 

9. Director in focus: Yim Soon-rye

In South Korea there are precious few female directors, and none with as fascinating and eclectic a filmography as 60-year-old Yim.

From the tragicomic tale of a struggling lounge band in Waikiki Brothers to the charming self-sufficiency of Kim Tae-ri ’s city girl in Little Forest, Yim’s work champions humanity in all its forms.

Both aforementioned films will be screening, as well as tense journalistic thriller The Whistleblower and real-life sports drama Forever the Moment, as well as Yim’s debut short Promenade in the Rain, and her 2001 documentary Keeping the Vision Alive, championing fellow female voices in Korean cinema.

A still from Osama. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

10. Afghan Cinema

As the return to Taliban rule in Afghanistan looks to set the country and its culture back by decades, the festival takes the opportunity to champion some of the great films and artistic voices that emerged onto the world stage in the past 20 years.

From Siddiq Barmak’s Osama , about the plight of women under the Taliban, to the brilliant A Letter to the President from female director Roya Sadat, this is a wonderful opportunity to acquaint yourself with Afghan cinema and the artists who emerged in the past two decades, at a moment when their future seems far from certain.

Hong Kong Asian Film Festival runs from Oct 27 to Nov 14 at various venues. For full programme details, visit hkaff.asia.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.