Features | Society | East Asia

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.

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.

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.

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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).

With these films, funds are secured from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and stars, directors and technical personnel from all three Chinese-speaking territories are employed. The strategy also involves location shooting in China, making use of the country’s scenic resources. This ‘Pan-Chinese’ approach, which in some cases is also broadened into a ‘Pan-Asian’ method utilising Japanese, South Korean and other Asian stars (plus investments from these Asian territories), came into fashion following the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000 – well before CEPA was formulated.

This strategy has required a focus on blockbuster production values, as filmmakers look to penetrate foreign markets, particularly the United States, and try to match Crouching Tiger by winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Hong Kong identity lost?

Most of these pan-Chinese blockbusters have been criticised for their enormous budgets and their tendency to wallow in historical fantasy. Critics maintain that these films, which the Chinese call dapian (literally ‘big films’) have exerted a deleterious effect on originality and creativity. Another criticism is that the push towards the Chinse market has resulted in a loss of identity, a certain ‘Hong Kong quality’ or distinctiveness that had in fact attracted mainland audiences when Hong Kong cinema was at the height of its glory (while films from the mainland were traditionally never very popular with Hong Kong audiences, which remains true in the present day).

Hong Kong films now tend to be more Chinese, with audiences in both Hong Kong and China losing out in the process. On the other hand, the blockbusters are seen as a necessary production and marketing device in order to entice audiences back to local Chinese films, to provide them with the same kind of production values and standards that they have become used to with Hollywood films.

Chinese blockbusters can also be marketed worldwide, and in some instances, as with Crouching Tiger or Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002), bring prestige to both the Hong Kong and Chinese cinemas.

With Hong Kong cinema experiencing a severe downturn over the past decade, its survival strategies have been increasingly outwards-looking. Co-productions with China are expected to account for 55 per cent of production in the next few years, with pan-Asian projects also on the rise. Hong Kong talent has also been used in Hollywood in the shape of stars like Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat, directors such as John Woo and Wong Kar-wai, and action choreographers like Yuen Wo-ping.

While some view these transnational movements as a sad symptom of the decline of Hong Kong cinema in its own domestic market, they are essential to survival. In troubled economic times, Hong Kong cinema needs to secure a market against tough competition from Hollywood and other Asian film industries, particularly South Korea. It also needs to cultivate a new generation of talent, as well as better harness existing talent in films that are both commercial and cutting-edge.

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That’s not to say the industry can be written off. It remains capable of making world-class, commercial and competitive Chinese-language films, featuring popular and glamorous stars. Moreover, the challenges of the last few years have toughened it, and it can turn itself into an even more crucial player in the Asian region as a coordinating centre for the production of pan-Asian and pan-Chinese films.

By developing as a staging post for entry into the China market through co-productions and distribution opportunities, Hong Kong and its film industry share a positive future.