Macau? For a film festival? You mean gambling and shopping, right?
It isn’t hard to see where that sceptical reaction is coming from. Macau is best known for it glitzy casinos and its bewildering array of high-end branded stores. About 40,000 visitors arrive daily in the hope of winning a fortune: You can be ferried via a simulated canal from Gucci to Givenchy at the famous Venetian, spin the roulette wheel at the gold-gilded Galaxy Macau, gawp at grand lobby gizmos at the MGM and the Grand Lisboa. Everywhere you turn, there is a casino.
But this famed Las Vegas of the East played host in the second week of December to a very different event. The first edition of the International Film Festival and Awards Macau (IFFAM) was six days of carefully curated films, whose aim was to introduce Macau to good quality international cinema as well as to create a brand new film festival, which would add to the global line-up of events which manage to fuse the uniqueness of city and cinema. The most vital, pulsating film festivals cannot be divested from the city where they held — think Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Busan.
In that sense, Macau is a perfect spot. Its unique status as “special administrative region” makes it, at once, of the People’s Republic of China, and yet a little distant from it. Film festivals on the mainland (mainly in Beijing and Shanghai) have struggled in the past to become truly “international” because of several constraints, ending up as a large convention for local film-making talent.
Macau also has a great historical atmospheric vibe, a mix of the old and new. It was a Portuguese colony for over 300 years, so there are old churches nestled next to quaint temples dedicated to Chinese legends. You can do a walking tour of these touristy hot spots on a break from the movies, and tramp about on the very European cobbled streets dotted with tiny shops selling the famous local delicacies.
Trading the inside of a dark auditorium means getting away from all the stuff you can do outside, which includes the shocking ease with which you can change currency at your neighbourhood casino (it gives you the best rates), while you look around fascinated at the faces bent on the rows of the slot machines.
But the festival programme is impressive enough to grab your attention. The competition section has several intriguing features. Amongst those I managed to catch is Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire (a one-take film featuring foul-mouthed gangstas taking each other down in a rollicking Tarantino-meets-Ritchie dark comedy; not original but quite a lark), Shinobu Yaguchi’s Survival Family (a back-to-the-basics tale of a Japanese family struggling to live the way the pre-industrial people did), Shankar Raman’s Gurgaon (a sharp comment on suburbia and male entitlement and the corrosive power of money), and Tracy Choi’s Sisterhood (an intriguing look at female bonding which simpers and sobs but is also affecting), which wowed the jury headed by our very own desi-globe-trotter, Shekhar Kapoor.
There was also a solid bunch of critically well-received films, which have been showed elsewhere but make a nice best-of-the-fest package: Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, Fatih Akin’s Goodbye Berlin, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea, Pablo Larrain’s Neruda. The latter’s bio-pic of Jacqueline Kennedy, Jackie is here too. As the grief-struck widow of the slain US president, Natalie Portman, looks like a sure front-runner for an Oscar, but the film is a slog.
There’s also a section I liked the most, in which a dozen young East Asian filmmakers were asked to choose one film which they were most influenced by: Awara was one of the choices, and the faces of Raj Kapoor, Nargis and Prithviraj Kapoor were lit up in a re-mastered version of the film. Some locals had trooped in for it, and I did wonder how they would handle the heightened emotions of a B&W Bollywood melodrama. But several left because of a lack of Chinese subtitles. As far as melodrama goes, the gala screening of the shot-in-Macau 1986 classic, Immortal Story, was dripping in drama, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
For an invited delegate like me, a big problem was one of scattered venues, and too few press screenings: I missed several films because they clashed, or were too spread out.
Something to be tackled in the second edition? Because films and fun can be a potent combination.