Sitting in an immaculately tailored suit behind an expansive desk in his spacious if sparsely decorated Tsim Sha Tsui office, Crucindo Hung Cho-sing looks more prosperous than militant. But the film distributor is being painted in some quarters as a political activist testing the limits of freedom of speech in the new Hong Kong with his latest project. He does not see it that way at all. Instead, Mr Hung, 56, views as a canny business move his purchase of the local distribution rights for Seven Years in Tibet - a Hollywood film which central government cadres have said 'viciously attacks China' and 'hurts the feelings of the Chinese people'. 'It's big budget, with good styling and good production, so I think it is commercial in Hong Kong,' says Mr Hung, who loyally sports a Tung Chee-hwa-style buzz-cut. And, perhaps surprisingly, he expects not barbs from Beijing but a quiet pat on the back. 'I think that by releasing it I'm doing [the central government] a favour,' he says, admiring a Seven Years in Tibet advertising poster hanging on the wall. 'They want to show 'one country, two systems' in Hong Kong, and the whole world is looking at what's happening to this picture here. I want everyone to know that in Hong Kong after July 1 everything is the same. 'I've been in the movie business 25 years, I know all the big producers and I go to all the film festivals. They were all asking me what would happen to the business after the handover, and my answer was always that nothing will change.' Mr Hung was born in Fujian province to a mainland mother and a Chinese-Filipino father who had returned to China to find a wife. He was raised mainly by his mother, while his father worked in Hong Kong and Manila, but when Mr Hung was 16 she left the mainland to be reunited with her husband here. Mr Hung stayed with an uncle. When he finished high school four years later, he applied for an exit visa, but it was 1963, more than two years on, before permission was granted and the then 21-year-old Mr Hung could join his parents in their Causeway Bay flat. After toiling at various low-grade office jobs with import-export companies, he slipped into the film business when an Indonesian friend's father asked for his help in buying Hong Kong and European films in the territory for release in the archipelago nation. Soon Mr Hung was distributing the movies in Hong Kong too. In the 1970s and early 1980s, says Mr Hung, European movies were more popular in Hong Kong than American ones. It was only 10 years ago that his company, Delon International Film Corporation, switched to distributing Hollywood blockbusters, buying the Hong Kong rights to up to 15 each year. Recent Delon films include Up Close and Personal and Leaving Las Vegas. Mr Hung now lives with his wife and their three children, all in their 20s, in North Point. The Hong Kong rights to a major American movie typically cost between $1.5 million and $2.3 million, and often include video rights as well. Box-office takings are typically split 50-50 with cinema operators. When Seven Years in Tibet opens in local cinemas in March or April, Mr Hung is confident 150,000 people will queue to see it, making it one of the top 10 hits in Hong Kong this year. He says the delay in releasing the movie is because of a clogged film schedule in the coming weeks rather than any reluctance on the part of cinema owners to show it. He plans to show the film to theatre operators next week, and given its potential box-office draw expects no problem persuading them to screen it. Starring Brad Pitt, Seven Years in Tibet follows the real-life exploits of Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian Nazi explorer. Harrer escaped from a World War II prison camp in India, sought refuge in neutral Tibet and eventually became the young Dalai Lama's private tutor in Lhasa. The movie, which was shot in Argentina, covers the invasion of Tibet by communist Chinese forces. The Dalai Lama's mother is played by the exiled leader's sister Jetsun Pema. Seven Years in Tibet was one of three Hollywood films made last year which were slammed by the Ministry of Radio, Film and Television as 'anti-China' - along with Disney's Kundun which depicts the life of the Dalai Lama, and Red Corner in which Tibet activist Richard Gere plays an American businessman framed for murder in Beijing. When local distributors appeared reluctant to buy any of the films last October, there were cries of self-censorship. But according to Mr Hung they were misplaced, at least in his case. He had been negotiating to buy the local rights for two years since seeing the script before shooting began - standard practice in the film-distribution business. He was only put off by the asking price of $2.7 million, which seemed steep in the current economic climate. After heavy bargaining, Mr Hung managed to reduce the price by more than half. Although he says he is contractually obliged not to reveal the figure, Mr Hung says that splitting takings with cinema owners and after buying $800,000 worth of advertising, he will break even at $5 million worth of ticket sales. Red Corner and Kundun also look likely to be screened in Hong Kong in the coming months by different distributors. Mr Hung has no personal business interests on the mainland. Even if he did, he says, he would still release Seven Years in Tibet here, confident there will be no repercussions. But as chairman of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Motion Picture Industry Association (MPIA), which groups 220 production, distribution and cinema firms, he has close links with the mainland authorities in a joint effort to stamp out film piracy. Mr Hung says he does not expect the co-operation to be endangered by the showings of Seven Years in Tibet. For the past three years Hong Kong-made films have only been accepted for release by the mainland authorities if they are certified by the MPIA, following a spate of incidents when criminals posing as film producers sold mainland rights to films they did not own. 'They trust the MPIA,' says Mr Hung. 'We know who really produced the movies.' The MPIA is also encouraging the Hong Kong Government to crack down on video-disc pirates here, pushing for a licensing system for disc factories, although Mr Hung believes much of the illicit manufacturing is now based beyond the SAR's reach in Macau. Each year, Mr Hung estimates, the local industry loses more than $100 million in profits to the pirates, creating a vicious circle crippling Hong Kong film-makers. 'With piracy, when the producers release pictures, they can't make good money. So they use a smaller budget for the next one, the quality goes down and they make even less money.' When Mr Hung took over the chairmanship of the MPIA six years ago, just 30 per cent of box-office takings were for foreign movies. Now it was more like 60 per cent. More than 240 films were made locally each year at the beginning of the decade, but in 1997 there were fewer than 100. The decline is something Mr Hung regrets, despite the fact that as a pragmatic businessman he only deals with American-made films. The interview was almost over, but there was one last question to ask. Many see Seven Years in Tibet as a pro-Dalai Lama film advocating independence for the province. What did Mr Hung think of that? 'Tibet is a Chinese place,' he says firmly. 'I saw the movie and my feeling was that [the producers] were not promoting Tibetan independence. If I felt they were, I would not buy the picture. This is very important.'