Hong Kong’s film industry struggling to regain the fame as China enters the limelight
One winter night in the German capital, Hong Kong film director Johnnie To Kei-fung led the cast and crew of his feature, Sparrow, a drama about the city’s pickpockets, as he strutted down the red carpet for the film’s premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival.
The highly spirited group was dressed to the nines and waved at fans and photographers lining up along the red carpet, taking interviews from press flown in from all over the world. At that moment, Hong Kong film was the centre of the universe.
It was 2008 – the last time a Hong Kong film was selected to compete for the Golden Bear, the top award at a festival that will celebrate its 66th anniversary on February 11.
Analysis of entries at the world’s top three film festivals – Berlin International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival and Venice Film Festival – revealed that Hong Kong films had little to no presence in recent years. There were no Hong Kong films among the nominations for best film announced this week in this year’s Asian Film Awards either.
Compared to the late 1990s to early 2000s when local films and filmmakers were in the global limelight, rubbing shoulders with masters from all over the world and even beating them at major awards in recognition of their artistic merits, Hong Kong cinema has certainly lost its charm.
“It’s true that not many films by a younger generation of filmmakers can make it to festival competitions at that level,” said director Adam Wong Sau-ping, a rising star after earning acclaim with small budget film The Way We Dance and recent hit She Remembers, He Forgets.
“We need to put our films back on the global stage,” he added. “Films that tell Hong Kong stories and carry our cultural characteristics deserve attention from around the world, just like Hong Kong cinema in the past.”
Industry players and critics noted that the fading global presence of Hong Kong cinema over the past decade mainly arose due to the rise of the mainland Chinese film market and the decline of the city’s film and television industries. The retreat happened despite government policies and public funding designed to salvage the situation.
They said that as the vast mainland Chinese film market proved lucrative, resources including talents and capital flowed north of the border. With fewer films being made locally and a shrinking local television industry, young filmmakers see scant training opportunities, making it harder to catch up with their predecessors like To.
Wellington Fung, secretary-general of the Hong Kong Film Development Council, conceded there was a “20-year gap” and that “our young talents have not reached that level yet”.
The gap was laid bare by the line-up of main competition entries at the top film festivals. The number of Hong Kong films was dire, and competition opportunities were only given to established directors.
Since 2007, To’s Sparrow was the only Hong Kong film to have competed for the top award at the Berlinale. Since 2006, To’s action thriller Vengeance (2009) and Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights (2007) were the only Hong Kong entries to compete for the Palme d’Or, the top honour at the Cannes Film Festival. Notably, Wong’s film boasted a stellar Western cast, including Norah Jones and Jude Law.
Hong Kong films performed better at the Venice Film Festival. To’s crime thriller Life Without Principle (2011) and Ann Hui’s drama A Simple Life (2011) were selected to compete for the festival’s Golden Lion in the same year, and Deanie Ip won best actress for her portrayal of a maidservant in Hui’s film.
Hong Kong director Tsui Hark’s costume thriller-drama Detective Dee and The Mystery of Phantom Flame competed in Venice in 2010, but it was considered a mainland Chinese production.
The previous year saw Cheang Pou-soi in the running with action thriller Accident (2009); Cheang, 44, was the only director from the younger generation. The rest were directors aged around 60 or older.
At these festivals, a handful of Hong Kong films were screened outside the main competition, which premieres new works by established directors such as To, Tsui, Wong and John Woo. Wong’s most recent work, kung fu epic The Grandmaster, was the curtain raiser for Berlinale in 2013.
Paradoxically, the number of films produced each year rose from 51 in 2007 – the year the Film Development Fund was launched – to 59 last year, according to figures from the Motion Picture Industry Association and Hong Kong Theatres Association. Box office receipts doubled from HK$1.1 billion in 2008 to nearly HK$2 billion last year.
Despite the upward trend, Hong Kong’s film industry was nowhere close to its 1990s heyday when nearly 300 films were made a year, earning the city the nickname “Hollywood East”.
Shu Kei, an award-winning filmmaker and chair of the school of film and television at the Academy for Performing Arts, said local films had fared poorly over the past decade. “The artistic standard is behind,” he said, contending that the current market did not allow young filmmakers to shine.
The rise of mainland China’s film market – now the world’s second largest after North America – had drawn investors to look north, Shu said. The city had thus failed to produce A-list stars that could succeed the likes of Chow Yun-fat, Tony Leung Chiu-wai or Maggie Cheung Man-yuk.
“When the industry was at its peak, it attracted a lot of investment because of quick investment return,” Shu said. “But when the return is not good, investors are not interested.”
Fung, an industry veteran, recalled his earlier days when he worked on lower budget films aiming at winning awards with a business goal.
“If a project did not carry high commercial value, we had to make sure we could sell the artistic achievements,” he explained. “Besides the mainstream market, there was also a niche market for art house cinema, but your project had to meet a certain criteria.”
After the inauguration of the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement in 2003, Hong Kong’s film industry entered an age of co-productions with mainland studios, as such films could be exempted from the mainland’s quota system and distributed all over the country like any other mainland productions.
But for Hong Kong films not co-produced with the mainland, they could only be deemed imported products, producer Winnie Tsang stated.
Fung noted that Hong Kong’s market of seven million people paled to the mainland’s market of 1.3 billion consumers. “Although the mainland market isn’t fully liberated and there is still censorship, why not explore this market?” he asked.
But as the mainland market became a cash cow, investors lost interest in the niche and even local market.
Wilfred Wong Ying-wai, chairman of the Asian Film Awards Academy and Hong Kong International Film Festival Society, said that as the number of co-productions increased, the local industry now faced a gap.
“Many filmmakers such as Tsui Hark have gone to make mainland films, and investors have gone too,” Wong said.
Some filmmakers were simply no longer interested in the local market.
“Hong Kong box office receipts are merely 1/25th of the mainland’s box office,” director Wong Jing said previously.
Wong was recently criticised by netizens for his remarks about the failure of Hong Kong’s young people to earn enough money to buy properties. Some called for a boycott of his Lunar New Year blockbuster From Vegas to Macau III, a Hong Kong-mainland co-production. Its sequel raked in one billion yuan in the mainland last year.
“I’m not worried [about the boycott] at all,” the open opponent of Occupy protests hit back. “People called for a boycott after Occupy protests but From Vegas to Macau II is still the most bankable Chinese language film,” he wrote in his Weibo account.
The Film Development Fund, launched in 2007, was meant to fill the gap. With an injection of HK$300 million of public money injected, it so far approved HK$91 million to match investments in 33 projects that won 96 awards locally and abroad, albeit few of the top awards at major film festivals. First-time directors helmed 17 of the films.
The Film Development Council also launched a First Film Initiative to support first-time filmmakers, and the council was to kick off a third instalment in March during Filmart. Last year a new grant scheme was launched to fund young filmmakers working on low-budget projects.
For two years running, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying stressed the importance of the city’s film industry in his policy address and pledged to include cinemas in land sale terms to boost the number of big screens in the city.
As a result, production figures grew. Fung said the number of “pure Hong Kong films” –projects that don’t involve mainland capital – went up from 16 in 2011 to 28 last year.
“What we can do is to offer young talents the opportunities,” Fung said. “How they will fare is beyond our control.”
Time and training were needed, but the city’s shrinking TV industry complicated matters. Scriptwriter and producer Saville Chan Sum-yiu made repeated calls for the city to attend to its TV industry, which used to be the training ground for many talents.
A considerable number of filmmakers like To and Wong Kar-wai who won plaudits at international film festivals were TVB alumni. But the broadcaster’s prolonged domination meant talents did not enjoy upward mobility, according to industry insiders.
Shu argued that using international film festivals as a benchmark to measure Hong Kong film’s artistic standards might not be most fair.
“Film festivals have become much more commercial and are after a star-studded line-up to draw media attention,” he said. “Some of the selections aren’t even up to artistic standard.”
But not all hope is lost. The recent success of low-budget independent film Ten Years, depicting a bleak vision of Hong Kong in 2025 under communist China, surpassed HK$5 million at the box office. Three of the directors on the project were Shu’s students.
“It proves that as long as a film resonates with the audience, people will still buy tickets,” he said. “The young generation has principle and are after artistic excellence. We must not lose hope.”
Five Hong Kong movies that won acclaim at the world’s top film festivals
Happy Together (1997) – Best director for Wong Kar-wai, Cannes Film Festival
Starring Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing and Tony Leung Chiu-wai as a gay couple suffering from an ailing relationship, the film follows their journey to Argentina and their hopes of a better life. The film earned raves internationally and director Wong Kar-wai won best director at the Cannes. He was the first Hong Kong filmmaker to claim the title at the world’s biggest film festival.
In the Mood for Love (2000) – Best actor for Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Cannes; Best non-European film, European Film Awards; Best foreign film, New York Film Critics Circle Awards
Also directed by Wong Kar-wai, the film stars Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk who find out about their spouses’ extra-marital affairs. Leung’s portrayal of a writer torn by unrequited love won him best actor at Cannes, making him the Hong Kong actor so honoured.
Centre Stage (1992) – Silver Bear for Best Actress for Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, Berlin International Film Festival
Directed by Stanley Kwan, the film was based on the true story of Ruan Lingyu, a 1930s star dubbed the “Chinese Garbo” who rose to fame at 16 but killed herself when she was 24. Cheung’s commanding portrayal of Ruan won her best actress at Berlin.
Summer Snow (1995) – Silver Bear for Best Actress for Josephine Siao, Berlin International Film Festival
Directed by Ann Hui, the film stars veteran actress Josephine Siao as a housewife faced with shouldering the responsibility of taking care of her father-in-law suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Siao’s finely calibrated performance won her best actress at Berlin.
A Simple Life (2011) – Best Actress for Deanie Ip, Venice Film Festival
Veteran actress Deanie Ip plays Sister Peach, a maid who dedicates her entire life to serving a family. The touching drama tells the story of Sister Peach’s last days and her relationship with the family’s young master played by Andy Lau Tak-wah. Ip won best actress at Venice. The film was another critically praised film from Ann Hui.