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Louise Wong as Anita Mui in a still from Anita, directed by the rising filmmaker Longman Leung just one of many excellent films made by emerging Hong Kong directors in the past few years.

Is Hong Kong cinema dead in an era of mainland China co-productions? No, an exciting new generation of local filmmakers says

  • Movies like Longman Leung’s Anita and Jimmy Wan’s Zero to Hero are winning over Hong Kong audiences in a way that hasn’t been seen in over a decade
  • Socially conscious films by young directors that tackle humanistic topics such as mental illness, poverty and old age are also finding considerable acclaim

Is there a hint of truth to the frequently whispered, though seemingly hyperbolic claim that Hong Kong cinema is dead?

After all, how do you explain the minimal fanfare when, in April 2021, actor turned director Derek Tsang Kwok-cheung made history as the first Hong Kong-born filmmaker to be in the running for a best international feature film Oscar, with few people in his hometown caring to cheer him on?
Of course, the muted local reception for Tsang’s film, Better Days, could be simply due to it having no realistic prospect of winning the prize. It could also be due to the awkward circumstances that saw the 2021 Oscars ceremony heavily censored on social media in mainland China and, for the first time since 1969, not broadcast on TV in Hong Kong.

It could also reflect the sense of indifference that a large section of Hong Kong viewers have been feeling towards co-production films made with mainland China as their target audience, as Better Days was. The perceived lack of concern for the city’s own culture and values in many top filmmakers’ works has been openly lamented for over a decade.

Hong Kong director Derek Tsang and mainland Chinese actress Zhou Dongyu on the set of Better Days. The film was nominated in the best international feature film category at the 2021 Oscars.
A China-set, Mandarin-speaking bullying drama with an all-mainland cast, Better Days, Tsang’s adaptation of a Chinese novel, grossed over US$200 million at the box office (mostly in mainland China) but hardly made a splash when it opened in cinemas in his home city in December 2019 – that is, before it was recognised by industry peers and dominated the Hong Kong Film Awards in May 2020, winning three of the top four categories and bagging a total of eight prizes.

The critical and commercial acclaim enjoyed by Better Days did serve to dispel two popular myths: that Hong Kong-China co-productions tend to be artistically compromised products, and that today’s local filmmaking talents pale next to their predecessors from Hong Kong cinema’s so-called Golden Age in the 1980s and ’90s.

Ranking every 2021 Hong Kong film, from worst to best

Ever since the 2003 Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) between China and Hong Kong opened a gigantic market for the city’s filmmakers, and rendered co-productions their best chance both to take part in mega-budget productions and to rake in billions in revenues, there have been concerns that Hong Kong’s most established filmmakers would all head north and stay there.

In some cases, that is precisely what happened. Pre-eminent directors such as Stephen Chow Sing-chi ( The New King of Comedy), John Woo Yu-sum ( Manhunt), Tsui Hark ( Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings) and Peter Chan Ho-sun ( Leap) have all gone after the massive capital offered by the mainland market and stopped making films catering primarily for Hong Kong audiences’ tastes.
Meanwhile, veteran filmmakers from Hong Kong are now responsible for many of the highest grossing mainland films ever made. These range from Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid (2016) and Raman Hui Shing-ngai’s two Monster Hunt films (2015, 2018), to patriotic blockbusters like Dante Lam Chiu-yin’s Operation Red Sea (2018), Andrew Lau Wai-keung’s The Captain (2019), and the two-part war epic The Battle at Lake Changjin (2021, 2022), co-directed by Dante Lam, Tsui Hark and mainland China’s Chen Kaige.
Director Stephen Chow (right) and actor Tenky Tin on the set of The New King of Comedy, which was released in China over the Lunar New Year period in 2019.

On the international stage, this fundamental shift in the attention of Hong Kong’s best known filmmakers, from shaping Hong Kong’s glorious cinema tradition – at one point famously described by film scholar David Bordwell as being “all too extravagant, too gratuitously wild” – to toeing the censorship line and serving China’s lucrative market, must have looked like one of the key factors behind Hong Kong cinema’s apparent decline in the same period.

Once a regular presence at major film awards in the not-too-distant past, Hong Kong films have of late been conspicuously absent from the main competition section of the world’s three most prestigious festivals: Cannes, Venice and Berlin.
Indeed, only one local film – art-house director Yonfan’s sexually charged animation No 7 Cherry Lane, the best screenplay winner at Venice 2019 – has been invited to compete for the main prizes at these festivals since Ann Hui On-wah’s A Simple Life and Johnnie To Kei-fung’s Life Without Principle did so at Venice back in 2011.
A still from No 7 Cherry Lane, the only Hong Kong film selected to premiere in the main competition section of the world’s three most prestigious festivals: Cannes, Venice and Berlin. The animated film, directed by Yonfan, won best screenplay at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival.

But all is not lost on the domestic front.

As some of the most experienced directors known for their extravagant commercial fare vacated their privileged positions in Hong Kong, a whole new generation of filmmakers has emerged to reinvigorate the industry with their smaller, yet notably more relatable, first films – even if they have yet to find household fame outside the city.

The surprise best picture win at the 2011 Hong Kong Film Awards for Gallants – a low-budget action-comedy co-directed by a pair of young directors ( Derek Kwok Tsz-kin and Clement Cheng Sze-kit) and paying homage to the city’s fabled martial arts film tradition of the 1970s – was arguably one of the earliest turning points.
A still from Gallants, a nostalgic action-comedy co-directed by Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng. The film, a surprise best picture winner at the 2011 Hong Kong Film Awards, ushered in a new era of local filmmaking.

Since then, directing debuts by fledging talents have become a fixture in the Hong Kong Film Awards’ best picture category.

Sunny Luk Kim-ching and Longman Leung Lok-man’s first directing effort, the star-studded police thriller Cold War, picked up nine prizes at the 2013 Hong Kong Film Awards, including best film and best director. Both had already spent two decades in the industry, as assistant director and art director, respectively.
And then, of course, there is Ten Years, the controversial best picture winner of 2016. Directed by five budding filmmakers, the low-budget omnibus feature pessimistically imagined the drastic changes that might happen to Hong Kong’s social and political fabrics 10 years into the future.
(From left) Port of Call director Philip Yung (best screenplay), Michael Ning (best supporting actor), Jessie Li (best actress), Elaine Jin (best supporting actress) and Aaron Kwok (best actor) hold their awards at the 2016 Hong Kong Film Awards. Photo: Edward Wong
While the film’s liberal stance ruffled a lot of feathers, its conceptual flair in blending social critique with dystopian speculative fiction has inspired filmmakers not just at home but also elsewhere. The Ten Years project has since spawned parallel versions in Japan, Thailand and Taiwan; one of the short films in the Japanese feature has even been expanded into an acclaimed full-length feature, Plan 75, which premiered at Cannes this May.
Port of Call, a true-crime drama written and directed by critic-turned-filmmaker Philip Yung Tsz-kwong, was another notable success at the 2016 Hong Kong Film Awards. Although it was denied a best picture win by Ten Years, Yung’s third feature had the distinct honour of being the only film in the awards’ long history to scoop all five of the acting prizes on offer.

Is Hong Kong at a dead end? Nihilistic films The Mobfathers, Trivisa and Robbery suggest it is

This ostensible changing of the guard proceeded in earnest when Trivisa, a politically sensitive crime drama produced by Milkyway Image veterans Johnnie To and Yau Nai-hoi and co-directed by three young local directors ( Frank Hui Hok-man, Jevons Au Man-kit and Vicky Wong Wai-kit), won best picture at the 2017 Hong Kong Film Awards. The domination of Better Days, Derek Tsang’s second solo directing effort, at the awards’ 2020 edition continued the trend.

This steady emergence of talents has been partly helped by several very successful initiatives intended to nurture a new generation of filmmakers. Short-film festivals such as the Fresh Wave International Short Film Festival, led by Johnnie To, and government funding programmes like the First Feature Film Initiative, have proved hugely influential in Hong Kong cinema’s latest developments.

Trivisa, a 1990s-set crime thriller that was banned in mainland China, was named the best picture at the 2017 Hong Kong Film Awards. The film was co-directed by three young filmmakers: (front row, from third left) Vicky Wong, Jevons Au and Frank Hui. Photo: Edward Wong

For the local crowd, the most encouraging aspect about this quiet transformation of the industry isn’t so much that emerging filmmakers have begun to take over from their far more established peers at important awards. Rather, it’s that they’re doing so with films that either look to preserve the Hong Kong identity that many hold dear, or take their potential in promoting social responsibility seriously. Occasionally, they do both at the same time.

In the past few years alone, audiences have seen acclaimed films by young directors tackle humanistic topics such as mental illness (2016’s Mad World, 2019’s Beyond the Dream); poverty (2019’s I’m Livin’ It, 2021’s Drifting); ethnic minority (2018’s Still Human, 2020’s Hand Rolled Cigarette); sexual minority (2018’s Tracey, 2019’s Suk Suk); women’s freedom (2017’s 29+1, 2019’s My Prince Edward); and old age (2016’s Happiness, 2021’s Time).
Cecilia Choi in a still from Beyond the Dream, a romantic psychodrama directed by Kiwi Chow. The film was one of several Hong Kong films to portray mental illness patients in recent years.

While many of these socially relevant films are either too thematically sensitive for mainland Chinese censors, or not entertaining enough for mainstream Chinese viewers, to make it into the market there, they have often been enthusiastically received by domestic audiences.

The social unrest and political uncertainties that have engulfed Hong Kong in recent years have also brought about renewed interest in – and occasionally fervent box office support for – all those sincerely conceived local films that indulge in their own local flavours, muse on the current state of Hong Kong’s realities and chime with prevalent sentiments of society at large.

It thus came only as a minor surprise when Longman Leung’s Anita, a biopic of Anita Mui Yim-fong that vividly evokes a time that many in Hong Kong are nostalgic for, took in more than HK$61 million (US$7.8 million) in less than two months of screening and became the highest grossing local film at the 2021 Hong Kong box office.
Director Longman Leung (right) and actress Louise Wong on the set of Anita. The Anita Mui biopic was the highest grossing local film at the 2021 Hong Kong box office.

More surprising still, perhaps, is the triumphs of another pair of underdog movies made by up-and-coming filmmakers in 2021.

Wholesome sports biopic Zero to Hero, which marked the solo directing debut of Jimmy Wan Chi-man (who co-directed several films with Derek Tsang in the early 2010s), vastly outperformed expectations to gross over HK$28 million. Inspirational boxing drama One Second Champion, the solo debut by Vampire Cleanup Department co-director Chiu Sin-hang, did likewise with almost HK$17 million.
So while Hong Kong cinema may appear as good as dead to international movie fans who still identify it with the outrageous action blockbusters of yesteryears and worship Jackie Chan or Stephen Chow as their cultural hero, it is presenting a completely different picture to those who live in the city and rejoice in actually seeing their way of life reflected on the big screen.
Director Jimmy Wan (right) with actors Louis Cheung (left) and Fung Ho-yeung on the set of Zero to Hero, a wholesome biopic about the early life of former Paralympic champion sprinter So Wa-wai.

The rising Hong Kong filmmakers today are already winning over their own audiences in a significant way that hasn’t been seen in over a decade. This may well be the best time yet for a socially conscious and intellectually curious Hong Kong film director to start their career.

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