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City Weekend

Two prop men convicted for carrying fake money from Hong Kong best picture winner Trivisa – because it was too realistic

Sentencing of pair over more than 200,000 fake banknotes used in the award-winning film sparks anger as filmmakers union calls case an international joke that could doom industry

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 June, 2018, 12:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 June, 2018, 12:45pm

When the Hong Kong crime drama Trivisa hit the city’s big screens it bowled over audiences with its high-level production values and gritty realistic plot that was loosely based on three real-life gangsters.

Take this scene: it’s a rainy day in 1997, news footage plays in the background – with mentions of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the pledge of 50 years unchanged – as infamous armed robber Kwai Chung-hung sits in a living room plotting his latest heist.

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Kwai gets a phone call and takes out a stash of HK$1,000 banknotes wrapped in brown paper bags. Sprawled out of his bed are a host of fake IDs, including a counterfeit Canadian passport.

Everything looks so authentic, it’s as though it might be found in a police evidence room. Unfortunately for one member of the film’s production crew and another prop man, it eventually would be.

Cheung Wai-chuen and Law Yun-lam were found guilty on May 31 of possession of counterfeit cash that was used in the film, which took home five awards – including best picture – at the 36th Hong Kong Film Awards.

In a twist worthy of a Hollywood plot, the authenticity that had garnered the film so much acclaim was now the pair’s undoing.

The Eastern Court heard that in 2016, the year the film came out, Law borrowed 9,996 fake HK$1,000 banknotes from Cheung for a prank. Police found the money in Law’s car and later discovered some 200,000 more banknotes at Cheung’s props company.

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Since the notes were so close to the real McCoy, Eastern Court Magistrate Cheung Kit-yee said she believed they could be easily mistaken for authentic cash – despite the words “movie prop” in fine print across the bills. While the magistrate said she did not think the pair had planned to use the fake cash illegally, they had still committed a crime because others could have taken the paper props and tried to pass them off as real money.

The pair were sentenced to four months in prison, although this was suspended for two years sparing them jail time.

Still, the case sent shock waves through the film industry and cast the spotlight on local legislation surrounding movie props.

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The industry has been left reeling from last week’s sentencing, raising questions about what is off limits when it comes to recreating real-life props for films.
“So what are we supposed to do from now on? We can’t afford to use real money every time there’s a scene involving money,” said renowned producer and actor Tenky Tin Kai-man, whose credits include Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer.

The Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers called the sentence unprecedented in film industries around the world let alone Hong Kong. It said the case made Hong Kong an international laughing stock within the film industry and will eventually lead to the end of serious filmmaking in the city.

Tin, a former federation chairman, said many in the industry were unaware that there was a law requiring permission from the Monetary Authority to use fake money in films until last week’s case surfaced.

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“Let’s make it clear that we don’t like to break rules, we are by no means troublemakers. We do things according to the regulations, 100 per cent of the time. The problem is there are no standards for us to follow. If we are unaware of such a policy, how can you expect us to undergo the legal procedures?”

He stressed it was the job of filmmakers to make scenes look as real as possible. To achieve that, they are in a constant struggle to find the balance between what is real and what is fake.

“It would be an insult to the industry if we present a prop, let’s say a police officer’s uniform, that’s so fake it looks like a Halloween costume. That would be quite unacceptable.”

Real but not too real

According to the Monetary Authority, the city’s de facto central bank, it received 641 applications from 2007 to 2017, for the reproduction of Hong Kong currency notes, of which 546 were approved. It has received 34 applications so far this year, including three for the reproduction of cash that will be used as props.

The authority has a strict set of conditions that must be met before it approves an application. For example, the fake notes must be at least 20 per cent larger or smaller than real notes and must have the word “prop” prominently displayed at the centre of both sides of the bill.

“Due to the different reproduction conditions for each applicant, the [authority] will discuss with law enforcement agencies the conditions for each application. Generally speaking, [processing will be completed] in about two weeks,” the authority said.

But it was not so straightforward for associate production manager Monet Au Man-yi, who had her application rejected.

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“I made the application after props master Cheung Wai-chuen warned us of his conviction. I surely didn’t want to break any laws so I sought permission from the authority.”

She said she received a written response saying the authority “was not able to process my application at this time”, throwing her into a panic.

“So what am I going to do? I need to start shooting but I can’t because [the authority] won’t handle my application but everything is already set to go.”

Ma Fung-kwok, a lawmaker representing the Sports, Performing Arts, Culture and Publication sector, has called for change in regulations governing the use of prop money because they are too outdated.

For many in Hong Kong’s storied film industry, which has been host to famous films such as Enter the Dragon, The Dark Knight and T he World of Suzie Wong, they don’t have time to wait for legislation – demanding the rules be made clear now.

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“The rules remain ambiguous. The requirements for making props – whether it be money, counterfeit identity documents, fake handbags – all of the behind-the-scenes procedures for the use of such props and uniforms are usually just rumours. Often times, we don’t know what needs to be done, and what should be done, for us to be in the clear,” Tin said.


LIFE OF A PROPMAN

From street hawker stalls to fish balls on a stick – if it’s in a scene, Cheng Chak-wing will find a way to make a replica.

Having been in the prop industry for more than 30 years, the chairman of the Film Propsmen’s Guild of Hong Kong says there is nothing he cannot clone. More often than not, however, the problem is not having enough time.

“I was once told to replicate the whole of Ladies Market with only two days’ notice. It was for a scene set to take place in Mong Kok. My team and I worked for about 40 hours straight, scrambling all over the place,” Cheng recalled.

Cheng isn’t looking for recognition, he said, in fact it’s quite the opposite.

“If the items go unnoticed, it means I’ve done a good job,” he said. “While the characters and scripts make a movie, props can affect the outcome of how a scene plays out. The props allow the story to come alive, to become more realistic and that’s the ultimate goal.”

Cheng said he is willing to do whatever it takes to help make a scene real, even if that means coming up with millions of “dollars”.

“Times have change, we used to have to make the copies at mass printing houses which could take up to weeks for production. Now, we go to local printing shops to make them.”


THE HEYDAY OF THE HONG KONG FILM INDUSTRY

Kung fu by Bruce Lee, impressionistic visuals by Wong Kar-wai, goofy comedies by Stephen Chow Sing-chi, and gun-wielding thrillers by John Woo – all were hallmarks of Hong Kong’s golden era of film.

They emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, when the city churned out hundreds of Cantonese-language films every year. Only Hollywood and India’s Bollywood surpassed the local industry in productivity.

Hong Kong was also the second-largest exporter of films in the world.

At the time, when the city was still a British colony, it seemed nothing could go wrong: a city built on a vibrant free market, burgeoning middle class, and growing demand for entertainment.

And local films were screened in cinemas across Asia, in places such as Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

The boom shot to stardom Chow Yun-fat, Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and a long list of other artists.

However, during the 1990s, the industry fell on hard times. Ticket sales in the city dropped sharply as audiences turned to other sources for film. Regional audiences kept the box office alive for a few more years. But the struggle was most pronounced in 2003, when Hong Kong and other parts of Asia saw an outbreak of the deadly Severe acute respiratory syndrome, better known as Sars.

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The industry has never been able to regain its former glory, despite efforts by local filmmakers. The heyday is now a distant memory. Today the annual local output is down to about 60 films.

Critics have expressed doubt the industry will ever return to its 1980s peak in terms of productivity and scale.

Amid such challenges, opportunities in mainland China have been identified as the only chance for a resurgence given the rapidly developing film industry there. But that means cross-border co-productions, such as Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, are subjected to Beijing’s rules and preferences.