As rare as it is for an old fox of the entertainment industry to spill a secret during an interview, Eric Tsang Chi-wai is kind enough to let one slip. According to the veteran filmmaker, award-winning actor and popular TV show host, Shaw Brothers and TVB's latest Lunar New Year film, I Love Hong Kong 2013, is a contemporary Hong Kong version of the 1946 Hollywood blockbuster It's a Wonderful Life, a fantasy drama in which an angel shows a compassionate but frustrated businessman what life would have been like if he had never existed.
Whether you call it a "copy", "imitation" or "inspired by", Tsang believes it is essential to learn from good role models and develop something of your own from them. As a respected mentor of younger directors, including Pang Ho-cheung, Heiward Mak Hei-yan and Derek Kwok Tsz-kin, Tsang teaches them the same.
"I always tell them not to be afraid of taking elements from other films. That was what we did in the past. We love It's a Wonderful Life. It is a traditional, beautiful movie with a great backbone of a storyline. You will find I Love Hong Kong 2013 very similar to that film, but with contemporary and local elements."
I Love Hong Kong 2013 tells the story of two best friends, from the 1970s to present-day Hong Kong. The protagonists are played by TVB heartthrobs Bosco Wong Chung-chak and Michael Tse Tin-wah, and Tsang's best friends Alan Tam Wing-lun and Natalis Chan Pak-cheung, for respective eras.
As with the previous three I Love Hong Kong films, the 2013 movie revolves around family values, communication across generations, friendship and the collective memory of Hongkongers. Tsang, producer of all four movies, believes there is one golden rule in making what he calls a festive film: it must cater to everyone in the family.
"There are lots of folk who just go to the cinema once a year. The Lunar New Year is the only time of the year that parents will go to see a film with their children," he says. "So the 1970s backdrop is for the collective memory of the parents, and then we switch back to a contemporary setting with a cast that younger audience members can identify with."
Every year, Tsang meets his creative team and asks everyone the same question before deciding what to focus on for that year's Lunar New Year release: what do Hong Kong people need this year?
"This year it seems the world is grey and people are pessimistic," he says. "We survived the Mayan 'apocalypse' of 2012, but the [current] political and economic atmosphere makes one think we may need an angel to save Hong Kong. And so that's what we did."
In the latest film, Tsang plays an angel who shows the protagonists the importance of being rich at heart. Being socially conscious is another lesson he learnt when making Lunar New Year blockbusters in the 1980s.
"We were making expensive, festive blockbusters such as Aces Go Places and My Lucky Stars, with an all-star cast and filming overseas," he says. "But then lower-budget films like the It's a Mad Mad World series proved to be strong [box office] contenders too."
Starring Tsang, Lydia Sum Tin-ha and Bill Tung Biu, the series revolved around a grass-roots family and the adventures they had after winning the lottery, realistically depicting people's lives in the 1980s. Says Tsang: "That's when I realised it was important for a film to talk about the livelihoods of people, [so they] could relate to the films."
While these festive offerings were popular in the '80s and '90s, they were thin on the ground in the 2000s. But works such as Raymond Wong Pak-ming's All's Well, Ends Well 2009 and Tsang's 72 Tenants of Prosperity in 2010 brought back the tradition of festive fare.
It was a cinematic event five years ago that persuaded Tsang, an iconic figure in the local comedy scene, to start making festive funnies again. That year, Hong Kong saw Derek Yee Tung-sing's crime drama Protégé opening during the Lunar New Year period. It was the most successful of the local films at the box office, along with a Ronald Cheng Chung-kei comedy called It's a Wonderful Life.
"That's when I started to think: 'Come on! Hong Kong people need some laughs'," Tsang says. And 2013 will see more competition among local festive comedies, with old rival Raymond Wong's Hotel Deluxe and Stephen Chow Sing-chi's much anticipated Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons due to open on the same day as I Love Hong Kong 2013. Looking at his rivals this year, Tsang says: "Wong is an old friend and we more or less know what to expect from each other. As for Chow … I am looking forward to what he comes up with."
Another commitment he has made to the Hong Kong film industry is to offer help and opportunities to young talent. "Young directors are so creative and in tune with society, but I always have to remind them not to think like a big director breaking into the mainland market. Make films for the local market first. I dare to help you find an investor for any genre or story, as long as it can be made cheaply."
This influence of Tsang - who turns 60 in April - is not restricted to the Hong Kong entertainment industry. A member of the Guangzhou Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, he hopes to realise a "Hollywood studio city in the south of China". For him, the ideal location for this project is Nansha, a newly developed area in Guangdong province. It has the potential to become the counterpart to Zhejiang's Hengdian World Studios, where most mainland and Hong Kong films are shot these days.
Tsang sees the project as a good chance to push forward the entertainment and cultural industry of Hong Kong and Guangdong. But equally important, he says, is the convenience for the crew.
"The [extreme] weather in Hengdian is just annoying ... whether in summer or winter," he says. "How perfect would it be if we could finish a day's shooting, cross the river and go home for a good night's sleep?"
I Love HK 2013 opens on Thursday