Johnnie To pays cinematic tribute to Hong Kong

( dpa )- Like old Hong Kong, the art of pickpocketing is slowing dying with acclaimed Hong Kong director Johnnie To using the story of a gang of small-time pickpockets to capture the changes underway in his city.

In To's Sparrow (Man Jeuk) the gang of pickpockets, also known in Hong Kong as "sparrows", find themselves enchanted by a beautiful but mysterious woman who as the film unfolds turns out to have uncomfortable links to a gangster boss.

But To's film, which stars Hong Kong's Simon Yam and Taiwan's Kelly Lin, is also a homage to the rapidly changing restless and multi-layered city of Hong Kong, which takes centre stage in the film.

"Over the last ten years Hong Kong has undergone a lot of change with the government also tearing down a lot of buildings," said To at a press conference marking the film's screening Monday at the Berlin Film Festival.

"I wanted to capture a lot of old Hong Kong," said To with his movie the second Chinese-language film to be selected by Berlinale organizers for the this year's main competition.

To tell his story also uses a very wide range of music that is inspired by both western and Asian cultures with the film taking four years to make.

"For someone who grew up in this city, it is mixture of east and west which is what I wanted to convey in this movie," To told the press conference.

To also takes his audience on a sweep through Hong Kong's back alleys and old buildings to shed new light on the city and its sources of energy.

But with a filmmaking career spanning 25 years, To's life as a director also charts the recent turbulent history of Hong Kong cinema.

After a string of commercial successes in the 1980's at the height of the Hong film industry boom when the city was dubbed the Hollywood of the east, To has turned to more personal dramas for the movies he has made over the last decade or more.

But then in more recent years, Hong Kong cinema has battled to regain the status it once occupied on the global filmmaking map.

In particular, the Hong Kong film business has faced tough competition from across Asia, including other new burgeoning filmmaking nations such as Thailand and South Korea.

Along with one of Hong Kong's other great directors, Wong Kai-Wai, To has been recognized by the world's leading film festivals, including Berlin as well as Cannes and Venice.

This includes To's The Mission in 1999, Election in 2005 and Exiled in 2006 as well as Wong's Happy Together in 1997.

Wong's latest movie, My Blueberry Nights, which was set in the US, opened last year's Cannes Film Festival.

Now, however, in their fifties, Wong and To are starting to look like almost symbols of the last vestiges of an industry that is struggling to regain a sense of momentum with a large number of Hong Kong's talented directors have decamped to China and little sign of a new younger generation of filmmakers emerging.

As little as eight years ago, the Hong Kong film industry churned out 200-plus movies annually. These days the number is closer to 50 and 60 with the film business still having not successfully bounced back from the Asian financial crisis more than a decade ago.

Some film critics say the risk is that the intense competition in the Asian movie business and the continuing search for something new, not to mention keeping costs down, means that filmmaking in Hong Kong might never recover and could be simply eclipsed in the coming years.

But despite expressing concerns about Beijing often heavy-handed censorship movie practices, To is somewhat upbeat about Hong Kong's filmmaking prospects.

"In the future Hong Kong cinema will gradually form part of mainland Chinese filmmaking," he said.

"That to me represents the greatest hope of Hong Kong cinema as it will help to spur new directions, he said."

"But as Hong Kong becomes more part of Chinese cinema, I hope that Hong Kong filmmakers will continue to make films that are integral to the local culture," he said with Hong Kong still having managed to escape the heavy hand of Beijing's censors.

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