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The 1st Asian Film Awards: Art, Commerce, and Many Screaming Fans

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On March 20, 2007, the Asian Film Awards held its inaugural Awards Gala in Hong Kong. Organized by the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) and held in conjunction with the territory's third Entertainment Expo - the umbrella event name for the HKIFF, the Hong Kong International Film & TV Market (FILMART), and the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) - the Asian Film Awards (AFA) is certainly an unprecedented affair. While there are many homegrown awards honoring the best and brightest of Asia's individual film industries, the AFA is the first to throw every territory's products into one big free-for-all battle royale, each vying for recognition not as the best from their own territory, but the best in all of Asia. This is no small honor.

The Asian Film Awards came into being because, in the words of HKIFF Society chairman Wilfred Wong, "a celebration of Asian Cinema is long overdue." Once upon a time Asian Cinema was enjoyed mostly in small pockets in the West - a film festival here, a repertory theater there - but with modern media technologies easing access to cultural products around the world, interest in Asian Cinema has never been higher. International exposure of Asian Cinema has grown to unheard of proportions, with increased distribution, film festivals, and the power of the Internet fueling the charge. Nowadays, more people than ever before are watching Asian Cinema, and they hail from all corners of the globe.

The watershed moment may well be the recent Best Picture Academy Award bestowed upon The Departed, a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs. While remakes of Asian films like The Ring, Ju-On, and Il Mare have met with moderate success in recent years, The Departed received more attention and acclaim than any of its predecessors, and its remake status was widely reported all over the web. More remakes are heading west, including ones of Korean romantic comedy My Sassy Girl, Thai thriller Shutter, and possibly even the controversial Japanese film Battle Royale. Japan's Casshern and Dororo have been snapped up for North American distribution, while Hong Kong's Confession of Pain has already been picked up for remake by the same team behind The Departed. With attention comes commerce, and the West is knocking on Asian Cinema's door.

The selection of films populating the first Asian Film Awards certainly seems to be striking a Western chord. The nominees for Best Picture include a sumptuous Chinese costume epic (Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower), a Hong Kong heroic bloodshed actioner (Johnnie To's Exiled), a contemplative Japanese samurai film (Yamada Yoji's Love and Honor), an Indonesian/Austrian musical adaptation of an epic classic (Garin Nugroho's Opera Jawa), a socially conscious tale about modernization's displacing effects (Jia Zhangke's Still Life), and a monster movie from Korea (Bong Joon Ho's The Host). These certainly sound like Asian movies to the Western ear, as each seems to echo either previously accepted Asian film genres or culturally specific subjects and settings.

A criticism that could be levied is that the AFA is too commercial, favoring more popular, internationally recognized films instead of deserving local works that may be unknown to international audiences. That thought is understandable, especially considering that some nominees and films selected by the AFA were conspicuously not honored in their home territories. Still, that judgment may be too presumptuous; the AFA's jury consists of 17 industry-recognized individuals, including filmmakers, industry professionals, film festival directors and programmers, and local and international critics. The jury represents both local (i.e., Asian) and international perspectives, showing that Pan-Asian and international perspectives may not be much different. The same directors, actors, and films that appeal across Asia also appeal across the globe. Film is more than a global medium, it's a universal language.

The Asian Film Awards ceremony itself, however, struggled to find a universal language. A glitzy, wannabe glamorous affair, the inaugural edition of the AFA was hampered by numerous glitches and gaffes. With nominees and guests from across Asia and the globe in attendance, English became the default language for a night celebrating Asian Cinema. The show's Hong Kong location was an appropriate choice, considering the region's ability to support the English-language needs of the international attendees, but English created issues for many individuals at the show itself. The ceremony was intended to be held completely in English, and English-proficient hosts - including Taiwanese-American emcee David Wu and Hong Kong singer-actress Fiona Sit - were booked to make the evening run smoothly. However, not every presenter or attendee was able or willing to speak English, and the translators frequently missed their marks.

Language was not the only issue. The line-up of guests seemed to fluctuate from minute to minute, and many of Wu's ad-libbed jokes did not fly with a hard-to-please audience already hampered by varying proficiency in English. Seats were visibly empty, many celebrity presenters were no-shows, and some aspects of the show - Fiona Sit's scatterbrained hosting, rambunctious fans of superstars Andy Lau and Rain - were ill-fitting to an award show aimed at an international audience. Rain's fans, in particular, incessantly cheered at every mention or sight of their idol, at times muffling those on stage, and noticeably left en masse after Rain lost the Best Actor Award. For an awards show with international aspirations, the AFA has some work to do.

However, many of the inaugural show's problems can be chalked up to first-time jitters. What the AFA is attempting - breaking down national and political barriers to reward all of Asia's films and filmmakers - is admirable, and the show had its undeniable high points. Hong Kong singer Sandy Lam performed an inspiring medley of Asian Cinema theme songs - from Gwak Jae Yong's My Sassy Girl, Hayao Miyazaki's Laputa: Castle in the Sky, and Peter Chan's He's a Woman, She's a Man - in their original languages, no less. Three special awards were given out, one to film theorist David Bordwell, for "Excellence in Scholarship in Asian Cinema". One of Asian Cinema's longest-standing and most avid international supporters, Bordwell was presented the award by director Johnnie To.

Fifth Element director Luc Besson, a longtime fan and appropriator of Asian Cinema, presented the other special award to legendary Hong Kong actress Josephine Siao Fong Fong for "Outstanding Contribution to Asian Cinema". Revealing that the event marked her 60th birthday, a clearly moved Siao drew the evening's only standing ovation. Andy Lau also received a special award, the Nielsen Box Office Star of Asia Award, for his impressive run of box office hits and contributions to the industry as a producer, singer, and actor.

With only ten awards and thirty-three nominated films, spreading the wealth would seem to be difficult, but the AFA managed nonetheless. Only six films received more than two nominations: The Host (South Korea), Curse of the Golden Flower (China/Hong Kong), Still Life (China), Syndromes and a Century (Thailand/France/Austria), Memories of Matsuko (Japan), and The Go Master (China). The ten awards were split among seven films and seven countries, with only one film gaining multiple awards. Hong Kong's Tim Yip, Oscar winner for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, took home the Best Production Designer award for the Feng Xiaogang costume drama The Banquet. Thailand's Lee Chatametikool received the Best Editor award for director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century, while Indonesia's Rahayu Supanggah received the Best Composer award for the visionary musical Opera Jawa. The Best Screenwriter award went to Iranian filmmaker Mani Haghighi for Men at Work, an original comedy about three men trying to move a boulder for no apparent reason.

Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke received the Best Director Award for his acclaimed drama Still Life, besting Hong Kong's Johnnie To (Exiled), Taiwan's Tsai Ming Liang (I Don't Want to Sleep Alone), Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Syndromes and a Century), Iran's Jafar Panahi (Offside), and South Korea's Hong Sang Soo (Woman on the Beach). The Best Actress Award went to Japan's Miki Nakatani for her brave and brilliant work in the colorful and tragic melodrama Memories of Matsuko. Her competitors included Japan's Rie Miyazawa (Hana), Korea's Kim Hye Su (Tazza: The High Rollers) and Lim Soo Jung (I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK), and China's Gong Li (Curse of the Golden Flower) and Zhang Ziyi (The Banquet).

Best Actor was probably the tensest competition as it was the category with the highest number of nominees present. Hong Kong's Andy Lau (Battle of Wits), Taiwan's Chang Chen (The Go Master), and Korea's Rain (I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK) and Song Kang Ho (The Host) managed to attend the festivities, while Japan's Ken Watanabe (Memories of Tomorrow) and Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan (Don) were no-shows. Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Hana) and Hong Kong actress Michelle Yeoh presented the award amidst the clamor of Rain's and Andy Lau's vocal fanbases who clearly wanted their idols to win.

The award, however, went to Song Kang Ho, for his entertaining turn as the sloppy, sometimes pathetic hero of The Host. The award was one of four for director Bong Joon Ho's monster movie, which also won Best Visual Effects (given to U.S.-based effects house The Orphanage), Best Cinematographer (for Kim Hyung Goo), and finally Best Picture, marking it as arguably the most representative Asian film of 2006. Based on sheer global impact, the choice is hard to dispute. Not only did The Host break all box-office records in Korea, but it was a bonafide word-of-mouth hit, scoring with critics and audiences worldwide. Although the film possesses a sly wit and intelligence that satirically skewers many local topics, not to mention the U.S. itself, at its heart, The Host is a human story about family, courage, and survival. These themes are universal, and can strike a chord with anyone, anywhere. The film has already been picked up for a U.S. remake, and how Universal Pictures will handle the Hollywoodization of The Host is a story worth following.

The ultimate goal or identity of the AFA is still unclear. Is it meant to be international or local? The selection of films indicates a meeting of the two, and the diversity in winners seems to be a deliberate attempt to spread the wealth. The awards ceremony itself could use some work as it still feels painfully local, but these are just growing pains. In many ways the inaugural Asian Film Awards was successful because it rewarded the deserving without ignoring commercial or popular appeal. The awards presents an opportunity to bring Asian Cinema to a broader audience, be it across Asia or the world, and even if the goal is quality, commerce is undeniably a factor. Given the shrinking markets in some Asian territories, the AFA is in a strong position to bring new attention and funding to Asia's vibrant and innovative film industries. That can only be a good thing. Western filmmaking eyes are now looking east, and the Asian Film Awards is an acquisition eyeful.

Published April 2, 2007

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