IT BEGAN FEARLESS but ended with pain and a curse. How one wishes this is just meaningless wordplay based on the titles of local film productions that bookend 2006. Sadly, it is an effective summary of a distressing year for Hong Kong's film industry. There was scarcely a month when bad news didn't emerge, whether it was another underwhelming performance at the box office or a cinema shutting down. Economic indicators might suggest a city in rude health, but filmmakers, movie distributors and cinema operators didn't enjoy a big payday. Still, doomsayers weren't always right. The number of local productions didn't take a nosedive as expected, with 51 Hong Kong films hitting local cinemas in the past 12 months. But that's bright side; box office takings took a gigantic tumble this year. The high hopes generated by the year's first blockbuster, January's Fearless - which made more than HK$35 million - were quickly dashed as film after film stalled well below the HK$20 million mark. The only film to beat that figure was Benny Chan Muk-shing's Rob-B-Hood, starring Jackie Chan, which made HK$23 million. Many big-budget productions failed to live up to their hype, the most high profile being Feng Xiaogang's The Banquet, which made less money in Hong Kong than the much smaller production Men Suddenly in Black 2 when both were released in September. (Then again, Feng never saw Hong Kong as a major market for the film - which was ironic, given that the mainland- and Hong Kong-funded The Banquet is the city's official entry for best foreign film at the Academy Awards next year.) The same went for the two most promising films expected to cash in on the Lunar New Year and summer, usually the film calendar's most profitable periods. By failing to reach even the HK$10 million mark, The Shopaholics has probably ended Wai Ka-fai's Midas touch, even though it should easily have cashed in on the festive season during the Lunar New Year. And despite much hype prior to its release, Wilson Yip Wai-shun's summer release, Dragon Tiger Gate, failed to shine. Starring Donnie Yen Ji-dan and touted as a torchbearer for the revived martial arts genre, it limped home with takings of just HK$12 million. More damaging, however, was the critical flak meted out to bombastic productions such as the recently released Curse of the Golden Flower, produced by one of Hong Kong's most powerful film gurus, Bill Kong Chi-keung, and starring Chow Yun-fat. So, critically, it was up to the small-scale, independent productions to generate some good news - perhaps not in terms of massive financial returns, but in the shape of glowing reviews and international awards. And it's here that a former Canto-pop star almost saved the day. His starring role in Jacob Cheung Chi-leung's A Battle of Wits might not have set box offices alight - takings stood at HK$16 million at the end of last week - but Andy Lau Tak-wah's legacy for 2006 lies with the work he did behind the scenes. His Focus: First Cuts project produced six independent films by young directors from across the region, and all of them brought home critical garlands and the odd gong from film festivals worldwide. The stand-out success of the batch must be mainland director Ning Hao's HK$8-million budget Crazy Stone, which stole The Banquet's thunder when it opened on the mainland in summer. Lee Kung-lok's My Mother is a Belly Dancer, meanwhile, provided a remarkable example of how a good film could be made without the usual props of special effects and a stellar cast. The gritty story of a group of disenchanted housewives in a public housing estate managed to evoke more emotions - and favourable reviews - than probably all the CGI-aided productions combined. To talk of winners in such bleak times might seem churlish, but Alex Fong Lik-sun emerged from 2006 with a triumph of sorts. Having clocked up four leading roles this year - and a fifth part in the ensemble piece McDull, the Alumni - he is officially the busiest actor in town. Sadly, his feat highlights the problems rather than the merits of the local scene. Two of the films he starred in, Marriage With a Fool and Love@First Note, were fluffy excuses for Paco Wong Pak-ko to showcase his Gold Label pop artists. I'll Call You, Lam Tze-chung's directorial debut under the aegis of Lau's First Cuts project, was equally lightweight, and Dating a Vampire (written by Wong Jing and starring yet another Gold Label pop singer, Miki Yeung Oi-kan) was appalling. One has to look beyond the mainstream to discover those who came through the year with their reputations enhanced. Composer Peter Kam Pui-tat is among that small group after winning a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for his musical score on Edmond Pang Ho-cheung's plaintive Isabella. Patrick Tam Ka-ming, meanwhile, struck gold with After This Our Exile, winning two awards at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Despite such plaudits, local arthouse cinema took a battering this year, the biggest blow probably coming with the closure of Wan Chai's Cine-Art House, the bastion for independent, alternative fare since it opened in 1988. The cinema's sad demise concludes a miserable year for small theatres in Hong Kong. Four other small venues shut this year: Causeway Bay's New York, Silvercord in Tsim Sha Tsui, as well as Tuen Mun Cinema and Fanling Town Centre, the sole operator of its kind in the district. Not even the big chains were immune to the sharp downturn in box-office takings. AMC Festival Walk, newly acquired by Edko Films (the company which also runs the Broadway cinemas) was forced to cut its capacity and free up space for retail outlets - just like New York and Silvercord. With Broadway Cinematheque now the only venue willing to provide screen time for so-called specialist films, the future looks grim for distributors trying to screen off-kilter movies. Those that did make it to the cinemas sometimes suffer ignominious fates. Terrence Malick's The New World, for example, was given just a one-week run in a handful of cinemas before being quickly withdrawn - and the same happened to Oskar Roehler's The Elementary Articles, another one-week non-wonder, even if it managed to secure a best actor award at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Even Hollywood productions were vulnerable: films such as North Country and A Scanner Darkly simply went straight to DVD in Hong Kong, despite distributor Warner Bros securing the screening rights.