Two years ago the Christmas stocking was so full of cinematic goodies that audiences were spoilt for choice. It is hard to say whether it is the losing battle against the video pirates or just that not many people seem in the mood for celebrating, but the number of 'Christmas' films this year seems paltry by comparison. While the season to be merry has traditionally been an important one in Hollywood, Hong Kong has often reserved its best for the Lunar New Year. International releases with Oscar potential are usually held over by local distributors until near Academy Award time in March. So we could be sobbing over Susan Sarandon bravely facing cancer and trying not to look like a total wretch compared with her ex-husband's new love, Julia Roberts, in Stepmom. Or we could be sniffling and smiling at Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan falling in love all over again in You've Got Mail. But we won't. They are only opening in the US. Despite 16 films opening there in the last two weeks of 1998, Hong Kong is only getting one of them in the same period. The Prince Of Egypt (Edko circuit) looks to have a clear path to the box office promised land. DreamWorks' animated epic is also the only attraction opening in Hong Kong for the festive season which has some biblical connection. Based on the Book of Exodus in which Moses leads his people out of Egypt, the 'mature audience' animation is a serious challenge to Disney. There are no singing teapots, no dancing candelabras and no talking animals, but Prince Of Egypt boasts a vocal cast that includes Val Kilmer (Moses, God), Ralph Fiennes (Ramses), Michelle Pfeiffer (Tzipporah) and Sandra Bullock (Miriam) - not to mention three soundtracks, which include the first Mariah Carey-Whitney Houston collaboration. While not everyone may be immediate converts of DreamWorks' vision of animation for adults, there is little denying that Prince Of Egypt is so visually stunning - watch for the hieroglyphics dream and the parting of the Red Sea - that it is easy to forget you are not watching a live action film. Still, Prince Of Egypt is likely to face some competition from the Disney/Pixar computer-generated animation, A Bug's Life (Intercontinental circuit), only in its second week and which will no doubt last through the Christmas holidays. Local film-makers have only two 'big' movies to show this year, with Wong Jing's The Conman 1999 (Newport circuit) going head-to-head with Golden Harvest's Hot War (Gala circuit). The Conman is the third of the series that started as the box-office breaking Chow Yun-fat vehicles God Of Gamblers (1989) and God Of Gamblers Return (1994). It stars heart-throb Andy Lau Tak-wah as Ah King, heir to Ko Chun (Chow Yun-fat, who does not appear in this sequel). It features yet another tale of vengeance and soul-searching - and of course, gambling. King's attempt to avenge his sidekick's death lands him in prison for five years and when he is finally freed, everything he has known before has changed and he is forced to question whether he should 'retire' from gambling. Lau can be charming, but he is not Chow, unfortunately. Hot War (Gala circuit), while not exactly possessing a goodwill-to-all-men theme, features the latest catchword in Hong Kong films: special effects. The story outline sounds complicated and improbable - but, hey, this is a Hong Kong film. Three childhood friends - Blue (Kelly Chen Wai-lum), Tango (Ekin Cheng) and CS (Jordan Chan Siu-chun) - somehow end up in the CIA as research scientists battling terrorists from Europe to Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. Somewhere along the line, they have to deal with subliminal messages, encrypted satellite telephone conversations and a World Cup conspiracy. For Canto-film fans who want a little hot action served with special effects, cinematographer Jingle Ma's directing debut seems an obvious choice. Japanese film aficionados will also have Welcome Back, Mr McDonald (Broadway Cinematheque) to keep them smiling. The Koki Mitani outing - starring Masahiko Nishimura, Kyoka Suzuki and Toshiaki Karasawa - is a deliciously wild farce about a Japanese radio station producing a live drama. A prima donna actress asks for a small change in the script, leading to a chain of chaos, as the clock ticks down to airtime. Nishimura is the producer trying to please everyone and is outstanding trying to keep a formal demeanour while everything crumbles around him. There is also the German-language Bandit (Cine-Art) for art buffs. Four women in a prison break out and suddenly turn into overnight rock stars (Hong Kong obviously does not have a monopoly on far-fetched plots). The pretentious Bandit is an uneasy mix of comedy, earnest psychological drama and music-video editing that makes it all rather goofy and ludicrous. It stars Katja Riemann, Jasmin Tabatabai and Nicolette Krebitz and is directed by Katja von Garnier. These holidays we will not have the charms of Leonardo 'gasp, swoon' DiCaprio on a sinking ship, but we will have an adorably naive, confused and vulnerable Brad Pitt trying to learn about mortals in Meet Joe Black (Panasia circuit) - not exactly an auspicious subject to start a new year with. Pitt plays the Grim Reaper, who comes a-calling on upstanding businessman William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) and falls in love with Parrish's daughter, Susan (Claire Forlani). Meet Joe Black runs for three hours, but Pitt fans will probably not notice the time flying by. On a more, er, pleasant note will be Pleasantville (Edko circuit) which also features fancy film effects. Siblings David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) find themselves remote-controlled into a black-and-white television series called Pleasantville. Black-and-white residents are far from pleased when things start going technicolour. Although the plot is nothing to write home about, the mix of black-and-white and colour in the scenes is entertaining and cleverly done.