“CinemAsia can be a place for all people, stories and struggles”
As the 11th edition of CinemAsia is about to kick off, it’s time to meet our brand new Artistic Director: Maggie Lee. She found time in her busy schedule to talk about her professional background, her expectations of CinemAsia and her love for Asian cinema: “I want to show people in Holland and Europe that Asian film audiences have a very sophisticated taste.”
Words by Hugo Emmerzael
It’s a rainy late November afternoon when I met Maggie Lee for the first time. The Hong Kong-based film maverick has barely settled in Amsterdam to take over Lorna Tee’s responsibilities as CinemAsia’s new artistic director. There’s no time to acclimatize, for sight-seeing or for getting rid of her jetlag. The festival needs attending to: team members need to be met, funds need to be acquired and films need to be seen. Lee doesn’t seem fazed by any of this at all. She’s mostly looking forward to working with an enthusiastic and dedicated team to realize an unique film festival in service of Asian culture.
Lee is ready to steer CinemAsia in new directions. As a Artistic Director she feels like there’s “no point in doing the same thing.” She adds: “Why would you hire me if that’s the case? Asian cinema is changing so fast and the audience for Asian cinema is evolving with it. So we too need to grow with these developments. The international film festivals are changing. More Asian films are being selected, Asian directors are more active in submitting their films. We need to be responsive to this changing landscape.”
It helps that Lee is perfectly prepared to take on this challenge. As the Chief Asia film critic for trade magazine Variety she has been a go-to source for all the latest on Asian cinema. She put this expertise to use as a programmer for high-ranking film festivals in Tokyo and Vancouver. Now she brings her years of experience working as a film critic and film festival programmer to shake things up at CinemAsia. But first on her list: learning how to get around Amsterdam, her new hometown for some time to come.
Months fly by and the outlines of the 11th edition of CinemAsia are gradually taking shape. Just before the opening night I sit down with Lee again to reflect on her experience as the new Artistic Director, the upcoming festival, Asian films and what’s to come in future editions. “Okay, let’s put it this way,” Lee admits when I ask her how her last couple of months went by. “I personally think I could have done an even better program if I had more time.” Even if that’s the case, the program of this edition of CinemAsia is already incredible. With an exciting opening and closing film, a diverse competition, a special country focus on Indonesia and a spotlight on Hong Kong, Taiwan, Lee and her team managed to compile a festival program that showcases all the eccentricities of Asian cinema.
“I want to show people in Holland and Europe that Asian film audiences have very sophisticated taste,” Lee explains about her programming philosophy. This is highlighted by a combination of arthouse and blockbuster films in the CinemAsia competition that have stirred up their domestic markets. For every blockbuster sensation like Bad Genius (Nattawut Poonpiriya, Thailand) there’s an intimate, artistic film like The Seen and Unseen (Kamila Andini, Indonesia). These films showcase a new kind of Asian cinema that can be both artistic, experimental and youthful, while also being commercially viable. Lee adds: “ Films like 1987: When the Day Comes and A Taxi Driver aren’t only very entertaining, but also very serious films about South Korea’s historical fight for democracy. And some of them actually beat Hollywood box office records set by American superhero movies.”
To acknowledge the diversity of films in the CinemAsia program Lee added two new awards to the competition: one for Best Director and the other for Best Performer. “In that way we can honor both the daring, artistic auteur film and the more accessible, really well made productions that might get ignored in the film festival landscape.” As for the Best Performer award it was a no-brainer: “I think it’s important for Asian performers to get the attention they need to distinguish themselves for a new audience.” When I mention it’s nice that the award for Best Performer is non-gender specified Lee replies: “well, of course.”
That’s another thing about CinemAsia that Lee likes to keep developing: the focus on female filmmakers and LGBTQ-themed productions, something that filmmaker and CinemAsia founder Doris Yeung held close to heart when she started the film festival in 2003. “I think that Doris Yeung was ahead of her time when she established the festival,” Lee reflects on CinemAsia’s origins. “Of course there are multiple LGBTQ-festivals around the world, but CinemAsia is different because it focuses on the Asian LGBTQ-experience, which is very unique.” According to Lee, CinemAsia distinguishes itself because it’s a festival that embraces Asian LGBTQ-narratives without being an exclusively LGBTQ-themed festival: “there are all kinds of different people around the world, all kinds of different stories and struggles, and CinemAsia can be a place for all of them.”
That’s why Lee keeps expanding on the films she has programmed, the guests that are attending, the masterclasses that are being given – a first for CinemAsia! – and the countries that are being represented: she wants them all the be included, discussed, seen and savored. She also gladly shares with you all the films that are left unselected, the directors that will not be visiting and the programs that she still wishes to make. There’s just too much of Asian film culture to capture in one festival. Which is why Lee is looking forward to many more editions to come.
For the future editions of CinemAsia Lee would like to expand on the brand new masterclass and industry program of the festival. Her intention: to make more Dutch filmmakers with Asian or non-Asian backgrounds engaged with the festival. “I can also see more guests from Asia coming here after talking to their peers that have gone before them. I want to organize really fantastic location trips for them to show the possibilities of making films in Holland.” Because in the end CinemAsia functions as a bridge between Dutch, European and Asian cinema. Lee has tons of ideas left to make that function of the festival even more apparent.
But first, there’s the 11th edition of CinemAsia. And immediately after that? According to Lee it’s about time to properly explore the Netherlands herself: “I’m going to spend the next year travelling around Holland, building much closer relationships with the local film commissions and planning something really fun for all the filmmakers still to come.”