Politics and cinema at the Asian Film Awards

 

In 2013, Hong Kong actor Andy Lau gave a thumbs-up sign to the press in front of a backdrop sponsored by the E-Max Cineplex.  An exclamatory message from the sponsor, now called The [email protected], read, ‘See you in 2014!,’ in an eager nod to the Hong Kong venue hosting this year’s 8th Asian Film Awards (AFA).

It didn’t happen.

When reports surfaced that the AFA would no longer be held in Hong Kong, one wondered if the decision had to do with the city’s shutout in all but one award category last year.  The foundation of the Asian Film Awards Academy – a partnership between the Hong Kong, Busan and Tokyo International Film Festivals – only seemed to bolster the hope that collective film achievement, divorced from politics, was the way forward in a region that is now spoiled for cinematic choice.

This year, the safe, neutral Macau was selected as the host venue for the eighth edition: close enough for Hong Kongers such as jury member Donnie Yen to touch down the day of via helicopter, and figuratively far enough away in that Macanese film would not figure into the political picture.  Stalwart Korean actress Jeon Do-yeon was this year’s AFA ambassador, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien the latest Lifetime Achievement Award winner, and Hong Kong director Peter Chan the 2014 AFA Jury President.  While the City of Dreams certainly provided a more majestic backdrop to the outdoor red carpet proceedings, the in-person star wattage dropped considerably compared to 2013 in terms of quantity, to the point that presenters and attendees already in town for considerable Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) duties were summoned over.

When two of the most photographed attendees of the evening, who had no crossover appearances with the HKIFF, surprisingly showed, one suspected that this year’s awards were already a lock – and would make amends for Hong Kong’s near lack of accolades in 2013.  Indeed, Zhang Ziyi, Wong Kar-Wai and “The Grandmaster” took home half of the evening’s 14 awards between an uncomfortable parade of multilingual jokes, the force-feeding of Macanese specialty foods in a reference to the Academy Awards pizza incident, and highlights of the venue’s signature water show accidentally landing on some front-row spectators.  Although promoted by the AFA as a joint Hong Kong / Mainland China production, “The Grandmaster” leans entirely toward the former due to Wong’s status and the fact that it was Hong Kong that submitted it for Best Foreign Picture Oscar consideration.  (While it lost out as the sole Asian nominee in that category to Cambodian director Rithy Panh’s documentary “The Missing Picture,” it did garner two Oscar nominations in cinematography and costume design.)

The remaining AFA honors went to India (two awards), South Korea (two), Mainland China (two) and Singapore (one).  Notable shutouts included Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi picture “Snowpiercer” (which, like “The Grandmaster,” featured an international crew but also a diverse cast including Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer) and Japan (the only country of the three in the new AFA partnership to walk away empty-handed).

Whether future ceremonies can set aside politics to raise the profile of cinematic accomplishments in Asia remains to be seen, as the idea is noble in theory, but a bit tricky in practice.  When Wong took the stage at the end of the evening to accept the award for Best Film, the director spoke both in Mandarin and English of how one crew member – martial arts choreographer Ju Kun – could not be with them in person because he was a passenger on the ill-fated Malaysian Airlines MH370 flight.  During his speech, the onstage screens switched momentarily to Zhang sitting in the audience, with tears in her eyes as Wong stated, “I hope [that] the Malaysian government can try their best to address this issue by taking a more transparent attitude for us to better comprehend the process of their dealing and to let us know the truth.”

No Malaysian films were nominated, but the uneasy marriage continues.

2014 Asian Film Awards winners:

Best Film: THE GRANDMASTER

Best Director: WONG Kar-wai (THE GRANDMASTER)

Best Actor: Irrfan KHAN (THE LUNCHBOX)

Best Actress: ZHANG Zi Yi (THE GRANDMASTER)

Best Newcomer: JIANG Shuying (SO YOUNG)

Best Supporting Actor: HUANG Bo (NO MAN’S LAND)

Best Supporting Actress: YEO Yann Yann (ILO ILO)

Best Screenwriter: Ritesh BATRA (THE LUNCHBOX)

Best Production Designer: William CHANG Suk Ping, Alfred YAU Wai Ming (THE GRANDMASTER)

Best Costume Designer: William CHANG Suk Ping (THE GRANDMASTER)

Best Cinematographer: Philippe LE SOURD (THE GRANDMASTER)

Best Editor: SHIN Min-kyung (COLD EYES)

Best Composer: Nathaniel MECHALY, UMEBAYASHI Shigeru (THE GRANDMASTER)

Best Visual Effects: JUNG Sung-jin (MR. GO)

Video: 2014 Asian Film Awards ceremony highlights
video courtesy of the Asian Film Awards

Video: 2014 Asian Film Awards red carpet highlights
video courtesy of the Asian Film Awards