Instead of postcard-perfect pictures of Hong Kong, local directors are showing the city warts and all. And this frisson of reality is luring foreign filmmakers and visitors, says Clarence Tsui
MONTHS AGO, A trailer for Andrew Lau Wai-keung and Alan Mak Siu-fai's new film, Confession of Pain, did the rounds in local cinemas. Audiences settling into their seats with popcorn and soft drinks in hand were treated to the usual snippets of teasers - the film's leading men, Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Takeshi Kaneshiro sharing a drink, embracing their love interests, performing a few stunts to a poignant soundtrack.
But that isn't the clip's main attraction. Anchoring the heavily stylised sequences is Hong Kong's urban landscape - the skyline shaped by grey skyscrapers, the streets filled with muted revellers - cast in a gloomy light. At the centre of it all is a swirling aerial shot of the city at night, transforming Hong Kong into a warren of cold, labyrinthine streets bubbling with intrigue and menace.
This stifling sense of gloom permeates Confession of Pain. Filtered through dark hues, Hong Kong's cityscape mirrors the misdemeanours of the protagonists as seasoned cop Leung tries to stop private detective Kaneshiro from discovering the murder and mayhem he has unleashed on an adversary. Similar to Lau and Mak's Infernal Affairs trilogy, the sun hardly ever shines in this Hong Kong. In Confession of Pain, the city is nearly always cloaked in dark, soupy smog.
'When he first received the screenplay my cinematographer [Lai Yiu-fai] said we might have to spend some time to get all these shots of Hong Kong's skyline,' says Mak. 'I asked him why and he said, 'Well, we need to wait for clear, sunny days in order to picture Hong Kong at its most beautiful'. Then I told him he might have got it wrong, what I wanted was a city covered in dark cloud and smog.'
After all, Mak says, the film is about a city dwelling in hurt and misery - the movie's Chinese title literally translates as 'A Wounded City' - and it's supposed to offer a view of Hong Kong that's far from the picture-postcard vistas peddled by local tourism officials. That was why the crew took to the skies to capture downtown Hong Kong at night, Mak says, rather than presenting Hong Kong with conventional shots of the island's skyline as shot from over Victoria Harbour.
'The story in Confession of Pain begins in 2003 - and everyone knows very well what happened that year,' says Mak. 'It's when Sars wrought havoc in the city, and Hong Kong was really at its lowest ebb. Then the story moves to 2006, when we apparently see a city in rude health. All the numbers suggest everything's rosy - property prices are rising, the unemployment figures falling. But have we really recovered from those days of hurt? No, I don't think so.'
Such pessimism is adequately embodied in the imagery in Confession of Pain. As in Infernal Affairs, Mak and Lau offer Hong Kong from what the former describes as 'the people's perspective' - a view that's more akin to the settings through which everyday life is lived here.
One can easily argue that films such as Confession of Pain, Infernal Affairs or Johnnie To's PTU are heavily stylised affairs that, unlike the realist cinema that bloomed here in the late 1970s and early 80s, barely reflect the lives of the city's inhabitants.
How plausible is it to hear of a crime victim plotting to kill his lifelong foe while leading a parallel life as a high-ranking police officer and a loving husband of his adversary's daughter (as Leung's character does in Confession of Pain)?
The movie doesn't present a snapshot of how people live, but where they live today - a reinvention of how Hong Kong's landscape is seen by audiences locally and worldwide.
Fuelled by the global spread of capitalism, cities worldwide have become homogenised, characterised by the same retail outlets and eateries from Berlin to Bangkok. Meanwhile, a few aspects of a city's outlook tend now to be rendered as cultural landmarks, shaping completely how international audiences view a certain country. Authorities are very aware of how cities should demolish stereotypes and market them beyond the conventional landmarks that draw so many visitors from overseas.
Paris Je T'Aime is a good example: although a privately funded enterprise, the omnibus of five-minute short films on Parisian life (and love) from 18 directors of different nationalities couldn't work any better for French tourism authorities.
Each segment unveils Paris as a hotbed of diversity and vigour. Themes of urban decay and the predicaments of the social underclass may not make pretty viewing, but they give Paris the edge that its jaded image as a city of romance lacks.
What is now known as film tourism - where travellers visit cities because of what they've seen on screen - has obvious benefits. According to Dr John Ap, associate professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University's School of Hotel and Tourism Management, Hong Kong has 'not really capitalised on its potential' in this, although its film industry remains very vibrant. Beyond the usual hackneyed landmarks such as the harbourfront or bustling Central or Tsim Sha Tsui, well-known buildings in Hong Kong that are seen far and wide in cinemas across the world are not really marketed as attractions that could appeal to tourists who want to see something a little different.
'What we have is the Avenue of Stars, which is very prefabricated,' says Ap, who sees the attraction as 'a marketing gimmick'.
'It has no connection with movies or movie stars - the promenade there is rarely used when people are shooting the harbour,' he says.
As one of the speakers at the recent International Conference on the Impact of Movies and Television on Tourism - an event organised by the School of Hotel and Tourism Management - Ap believes Hong Kong's tourism authorities should 'add to the diversity' of how the city could be imagined and marketed overseas. Filmmakers could be encouraged to film in Hong Kong and shown what parts of the city they could use in their work.
According to figures provided by the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority (Tela), its Film Services Office (FSO) has received 614 requests from local and overseas film and production companies for assistance in 'facilitating their filming projects in Hong Kong'. The authority's spokeswoman says foreign film-makers have found Victoria Harbour, Central, the Tsing Ma Bridge and Hong Kong International Airport some of the most feasible locations for their projects.
'The FSO sees location filming in Hong Kong as an effective way to market Hong Kong as a cosmopolitan city to overseas markets,' she says.
'The appearance of Hong Kong's skyline and many of its magnificent features and landmarks on the international screen is a most highly effective form of free advertising. It is not uncommon for film viewers, who are impressed by the look and the lifestyle in a particular place as portrayed in a film, to come to see and experience the place themselves.'
The Hong Kong Tourism Board has done its part by publishing a Hong Kong Movie Odyssey Guide, which provides pointers to tourists about local streets and buildings made famous by Hong Kong films.
Then again, seemingly the non-descript streets and neighbourhoods that provided a more genuine taste of Hong Kong life - such as the dark, downtown alleyways in Fruit Chan Kuo's films, or the bustling public housing estates so vividly portrayed in Lee Kung-lok's remarkable My Mother is a Belly Dancer - are too far away from the tourist areas to register with the authorities.
The Tela spokeswoman says films such as Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love would attract viewers to the 'quiet streets in Central with pre-war buildings'.
This is all very well - except that Wong's film was actually shot in Bangkok because of the lack of suitable locations that could accurately reflect Hong Kong in the 1960s.
Confession of Pain opens today; Paris Je T'Aime is screening now