Ten years ago, Peter Chan Ho-sun produced Golden Chicken, a chronicle of the ebbs and flows in the life of a local sex worker before, during and after her prime years. Kam ('Gold' in Cantonese), played by Chan's real-life partner Sandra Ng Kwan-yu, is seen making good money in the greed-is-good 1980s, falling for false saviours in the 1990s, and ending up desperate and broke as the 21st century dawns.
Chan describes Golden Chicken, directed by his long-time collaborator Samson Chiu Leung-chun, as his 'last Hong Kong film'. On a geographical level, it might be a bit off the mark: he has produced a few Hong Kong-set movies since, like Chiu's 2006 family-friendly comedy McDull, the Alumni and Derek Yee Tung-sing's 2007 narco-thriller Protege. But what he means is that Golden Chicken was his ultimate attempt to channel his home city's spirit on screen - before moving to bigger things beyond.
'I've spent the past 15 years reinventing myself,' says Chan, seated in his spanking new office in Ngau Tau Kok, overlooking Victoria Harbour. 'Just like Kam, in fact. If you couldn't find room to be a 'fishball girl' [teenage escort], go and work in a night club. If that doesn't work, be a masseur, or a prostitute working by yourself in a flat. That's just like what we filmmakers have been forced to do: we worked in Hollywood, we came back, and then we did co-productions on the mainland.'
Indeed, Chan's post-handover career reads very much like a timeline of how Hongkongers struck out to survive those years. Having spent the run-up to the handover making his name with intimate, locally flavoured productions, Chan left Hong Kong in 1997 for the US to direct The Love Letter, an American romance drama produced by Steven Spielberg's studio Dreamworks; returning to Hong Kong, he collaborated with Thai and Korean producers and directors on 'pan-Asian' co-productions just as the two countries' film industries soared.
And in the wake of 2003's Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (Cepa), Chan's attention has turned to the mainland: boasting a cast of stars from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland, the 2005 musical drama Perhaps Love was his first mainland-Hong Kong co-production. The film was followed by The Warlords and Wu Xia; this year, Chan aims to finish two more contemporary films on the mainland, one a romantic comedy and the other a drama charting the country's changes from the 1990s to the present day.
This gradual northward shift is inevitable, Chan says, even if he admits he finds it difficult to reconcile the differences he encounters on the mainland. Despite having an office in Beijing and being a regular visitor to mainland cities for business meetings, Chan says he usually spends only 'about four or five days' every month there. 'And when I'm back in Hong Kong, I don't go to the Four Seasons Hotel any more,' he says, 'because that's where the rich mainlanders are - and they're the people I'd like to avoid, given how uneasy I am in dealing with authority.'
Born in Hong Kong, raised in Thailand and college-educated in the United States, Chan - who broke into the Hong Kong film industry as a line producer for Golden Harvest studios in the mid-1980s - says that at one point he grew very agitated about how things were shaping up in Hong Kong. It was only after making Golden Chicken and its sequel, released after the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic struck in 2003, that his idealism started evolving into pragmatism.
'I think a phase in our lives was over after the July 1 marches [against the Article 23 national security law in 2003],' he said.
'You have to move on. You take a deep breath and then continue to look for your objectives in life. That's why I've become so aggressive in finding different ways of developing my career, and it was then that I decided to go and make films on the mainland.'
When Chan made The Warlords in 2007, his detractors branded him a sell-out for making the kind of epic, high-budget action blockbuster that was becoming a surefire box office hit on the mainland, rather than sticking to his trademark 1990s middle-class romantic dramas, which thrived on their local cultural references, and the 'pan-Asian' horror films, which have remained a no-go area on the mainland.
Chan is not alone in attracting criticism for dabbling with co-productions: Johnnie To Kei-fung and Pang Ho-cheung, two directors considered quintessentially local because their forte was gangster films and outre comedies, have also been chastised for working with mainland stars or making sequels to Hong Kong-set dramas in Beijing.
The filmmakers' efforts were somehow vindicated, as the general consensus was that To provided an alternate take on how a mainlander survives in Hong Kong with Don't Go Breaking My Heart, and Pang retained his barbed (and sometimes racy) sense of humour with Love in the Buff, a sequel to Love in a Puff.
'We have to go back to the debate on what constitutes a 'Hong Kong movie',' Chan says. 'This means very different things in different eras. What people are thinking of these days are genre films from the 1980s, which has largely become the archetype of Hong Kong cinema. If you look at it like this, most films made in the 1960s couldn't fit the bill.
'The 1980s and '90s no longer exist,' he adds. 'If you think that a film could only claim to be local if it's set here, then I can't help it - maybe what you would have left would be the cops-and-robbers films.'
As recently as five years ago - when Hong Kong was celebrating the 10th anniversary of the handover - Hong Kong filmmakers were still considered by mainland financiers as valuable assets who could bring their expertise and experience to what was a nascent commercial cinema scene. Today, a new generation of more media-savvy filmmakers has emerged on the mainland, and Chinese producers are reaching out to work with their American counterparts, who can now bring their own state-of-the-art skills from Hollywood.
Chan said there's a distinct possibility of Hongkongers being squeezed out of the picture. 'They once borrowed our talents in catering, hotel management, textile manufacturing and, of course, filmmaking - just as they later did with the Taiwanese or the Americans,' he says. 'They know how to work with the best - but when you're bled dry of your skills, you're over. Whether we can sustain our own standing in the mainland market will not be down to Cepa. It will be whether we can carve out our own niche and stick with it.'
Chan says Hong Kong cinema couldn't sustain itself without resources from across the border - and that stretches all the way from financing at the top to audiences at the end of the chain. 'I was at the Hong Kong Film Awards ceremony [in April] and I discovered that the stargazers flocking to the entrance were mostly mainland tourists,' he says. 'So without them, there would have been no one there! Our very livelihood depends on them, and the mainland market where they are from.
'Look at it this way - compared to Beijing, the capital, Hong Kong could easily be seen as just this small town in the distant south. That we could have had so many people actually going to the capital and calling the shots for so long, we could say we've achieved a lot.'