Hong Kong Cinema in the 21st Century


Two years ago, Hong Kong marked the 10th anniversary of its reunification with China with the usual fanfare and fireworks, and perhaps some relief – if not satisfaction – that 10 years had indeed passed. In the run-up to 1997, sceptics predicted that Hong Kong  would collapse within five years of the takeover. In 2003, it appeared that prediction would come true when Hong Kong experienced the SARS outbreak. (The acronym, coined by the WHO, was widely seen in Hong Kong as a sardonic reflection on the status of Hong Kong as the Special Administrative Region – SAR – of China.)

Hong Kong had in fact undergone a series of crises right after the handover, beginning with the Asian financial crisis and continuing with the outbreaks of bird flu and SARS, and then political uncertainty over the failure to democratise and the heavy-handedness of the government in enacting an anti-subversion law (the so-called ‘Article 23’ of the Basic Law), which led half a million people to demonstrate on the streets in July 2003, causing the government to ultimately cancel the legislation.

For the Hong Kong film industry, the post-’97 years corresponded with a period of decline in production. From 148 films in 1999, just 50 were produced in 2006, the fewest since the Second World War. This downturn may have been an effect of the changeover from a liberal colonial regime to an authoritarian one that, according to some political economists, influenced Hong Kong’s overall economic performance for the worse. However, other factors such as video piracy, Hollywood pre-eminence and the competitive rise of regional industries all contributed to the downturn.

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Even if integration with China has diminished Hong Kong’s business reputation in terms of its own competitiveness, China also holds the key to the long-term recovery of Hong Kong cinema. Although the Chinese market remains largely underdeveloped in spite of its huge potential, it was not until 2004 that China gave into pressure from the film industry and lifted the quota on Hong Kong films as part of the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) designed to revitalise Hong Kong’s economy following the SARS crisis.

A new frontier

Through CEPA, China has effectively been opened up to the Hong Kong film industry, giving it preferential access to the huge mainland market. Under the agreement, Hong Kong films are considered domestic Chinese productions, provided as there is an equal number of Chinese talent involved in the production. However, restrictions such as censorship remain a stumbling block.

Hong Kong filmmakers are occasionally forced to cut scenes, which can result in a mainland release version and a Hong Kong release version of the same movie. For example, two of the most acclaimed recent films of Hong Kong cinema, Infernal Affairs (released in 2002, the original source of Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed) and Election (2005), have been forced to change their endings for the mainland. There are restrictions over certain genres, such as ghost story horror, which is banned on the mainland but enormously popular in Hong Kong itself.

In theory, a Hong Kong film without any mainland Chinese input can still be distributed in China through CEPA. However, in practice, the agreement has led to a major expansion of co-productions, particularly of historical epics and martial arts action films, as exemplified by Seven Swords (2005), The Promise (2005), Fearless (2006), The Banquet (2006, pictured left), Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), The Warlords (2007) and John Woo’s Red Cliff (released in two instalments, in 2008 and 2009).

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