"Back then, there was no such thing as a film industry," Albert Chu reminisces. The local filmmakers often endearingly dub Chu as the godfather of Macau's film industry. His 1996 documentary, "Ah Ming's Macau" was exceptionally memorable and hard-hitting. In the film, viewers followed Chu on his worrying search for Macau's own identity—a topic that reigned in the zeitgeist of the late '90s.
The film came before Macau's 1999 transfer of sovereignty from Portugal to China. Moving from a colony to another, it seems that Macau had to morph itself to fit another city's identity. The locals struggled to find their own voice and place. "At that point in time, we were a few years away from the reconciliation. It was inevitable that our films touched on this subject matter. The topic of Macau's identity was naturally included," Chu continues.
For the next few years Chu and his handful of filmmaker peers—also the first generation of Macau's filmmakers—continued to produce films. The subject of identity never left them. Soon enough, the film community started to transform drastically.
Prior to the 1999 merger with China, Macau's Cultural Centre was established. "The centre held annual film contests, which groomed numerous filmmakers." Three years later, Macau saw another landmark socio-political event. "In 2002, Macau opened its doors to casinos. The economy grew rapidly afterwards. In a bid to steer society away from the gambling sector, the Macau government rigorously promoted cultural activities, which also helped the film sector gain traction."
The events in 1999 and 2002 formed a division of time, separating the first and second generations of Macanese filmmakers. As Chu observed, "the filmmakers are especially young. They are on average no more than 30 years old."
These young filmmakers include Cheong Kin Man, Lou Ka Choi, Tracy Choi, and Hong Heng Fai, names that have been making waves at local and global film festivals. In the hands of these second-generation filmmakers, the decade-old question of Macau's identity and recognition of the film community became even more urgent.
On his 2008 first film titled "Macau Water Fountains", Cheong Kin Man debated the preservation of Macau's heritage sites and their indelible contribution to the city's identity. "It was a documentary somehow critical to Macau's heritage protection at that time. By coincidence, maybe, right after the film was submitted in 2008 to the government-run Macau International Film and Video Festival, the heritage site discussed in the film started to be restored."
Later in 2015, Cheong released another film, "A Useless Fiction". In the 31-minute film, Cheong's narration in Cantonese overlapped interviews and texts in Portuguese—arguably a hark back to Macau's history and identity as a Portuguese colony. "What was most relatable to Macau was the question of identity in the film," Cheong muses.
The subject of Macau's changing identity is not merely confined to documentaries but animations and cartoon films. In 25-year-old Lou Ka Choi's 2016 short film, "The Leno" for instance, she came up with an imaginary rodent called "Lenos". These rodents are natives of the land but have adapted to the urbanisation and influx of city dwellers. The pollution that came along with gentrification eventually took a toll on the Lenos' health and life cycles. The urban rodents migrated out of the city in search of a healthier lifestyle, much like what they had before urbanisation took place. "Some scholars believe this act of migration shows the Lenos' desire for a change in their living areas," Lou wrote in her short film.
Lou's film was nominated the best animation in the annual Macau International Film and Video Festival, and won the animation title in the Hollywood International Moving Pictures Film Festival, both in 2016. It was Lou's comical take on how the rapidly urbanising Macau has turned away her own citizens
Lou Ka Choi
The 25-year-old animator Lou Ka Choi.
"I think films are a huge force of influence. In the midst of entertainment, they allow viewers to take home some thoughts, some daily elements that they might not have experienced, conjure some memories that they have forgotten, or some things they haven't noticed," Luo adds. "I think films can change society and its culture."
While Lou's animations serve to call out Macau's societal issues, other young filmmakers are actively attempting to change to societal values of Macau.
Speaking to the 29-year-old Tracy Choi, she highlighted two of her films that trace the silence surrounding the LGBT community's presence in Macau, namely her 2012 short documentary titled "I'm Here" and another 2017 film titled "Sisterhood".
"LGBT issues are always invisible in Macau's society. No one tries to talk about it. The English title called "I'm Here" actually means that we want to tell people that we are here and want them to notice that. If no one talks about it, it will never have a chance to get any rights."
It seems that Choi is hoping to propel the LGBT community into the viewers' minds, generating conversation and acceptance. "I think through films, people will easily come to accept the concepts of many issues because the audiences will sympathise with the characters and try to understand [them]." When that day arrives, the LGBT community will grow to be a facet of Macau's identity.
Another salient facet of Macau's identity is the virtual society. In Hong Heng Fai's 2016 short film "Crash", he explored the social workings of a virtual Macau on Facebook. "In some of my previous short films, I focussed on some of these daily occurrences, including... the social media networks' impacts on self-worth and ego."
To him, it's a natural response to his own use of social media. "In using Facebook, I felt that the kind of addictive behaviour of my own was very superficial," Hong explains. He then played up his own doubts about the consumption of social media in his film. "Crash" was later nominated in 2016's instalment of the Taipei Golden Horse Awards.
Hong Heng Fai
Hong Heng Fai, the director behind the 2016 short film, "Crash".
On his film's influence on the Macanese public, Hong thinks it's a gradual change. "Such influence is not immediate. Maybe it's a sort of invisible change in moral values. But at the end of it is a fundamental change in the culture's structure."
To the above filmmakers, there was one thought in common—the film industry in Macau does not exist, at least not yet. The topics explored by local filmmakers are still very existential in nature. Likewise, the existence of the local film community remains a debatable question.
"In the case of Macau's film industry, we are still questioning, "Why Macau's films?" In the shadows of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan's film industries, what are the characteristics of Macau's films—that we are still searching for an answer. In other words, Macau is still searching for its own place," Albert Chu concludes.
Yet, the younger generation of filmmakers are optimistic. To them, Macau's film industry will organically find its independence soon. Lou Ka Choi challenges, "I think that films come from people. Where there are people, there will be films."
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