Hong Kong invades China

Question: Which celeb caused a frenzy here at last month’s preem of Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Farewell to My Concubine”?

Not hunky Zhang Fengyi, a mainland star for the past decade, or Chen Kaige, the film’s distinguished director and an arthouse fave.

The visage that sent the crowd wild actually belonged to diminutive, angelic Leslie Cheung, a 36-year-old Hong Kong mega-pop star-turned-actor, who took the best part of 30 minutes and 45 bodyguards just to make it from the limo to the theater’s lobby.

China is movie-mad, and nowhere’s madder than Shanghai, pre-war cradle of the country’s film biz. As this traffic-choked, neon-blazing city of 13 million reinvents itself yet again on the back of massive cross-border investment, the worship of all things foreign is enough to make a Beijing-based cadre as nervous as a duck in Peking.

Economic indicators are not the only thing overheating here, as Shanghai makes its 100-yard dash to recover its pre-communist crown as China’s business/fun city. Joint-venture hotels and stores are rapidly changing the skyline; at ground level, karaoke and “KTV” vidbars, plus swank semiprivate eateries, compete for locals’ pockets. Now Hong Kong media coin is moving in as well.

Non-mainland product

Perceived wisdom is that China is taking over Hong Kong in 1997. But as any Chinese knows, it’s not the paperwork that counts: On every level, Hong Kong is exporting its lifestyle, ethics and bottom-line mentality back into the country whose swing to communism helped to fuel the colony with talent in the first place.

Now, Hong Kong — the Hollywood of East Asia — is gobbling up China’s movie business just as it’s dominated most other quota-free markets in the region.

In the golden Shanghai of the 1930s, you’d have a problem finding a mainland movie among the mass of U.S. product. Sixty years on, there’s still a problem. But now, as elsewhere in the country, you hit an almost solid wall of Hong Kong/Taiwan product, breached by the occasional mainland, Western or Japanese title.

With little money to buy hot U.S. product, China Film Export & Import Corp.’s American offerings tend to be a couple years old, and make up only a fraction of the 50 or so foreign movies legally allowed under the official quota of one foreign film to every three locals. No U.S. distrib has an office here.

“Spiritual pollution”– catch phrase for naughty foreign habits like sex, nudity, homosexuality and other moral taboos — is regularly revived by the Boys in Beijing as an excuse for banning or cutting titles. What the scissor-happy Film Bureau can’t get its nervous fingers on are the mass of movies screened in videotheques and off laserdiscs flooding in across the border from Hong Kong. There’s not even a conversion problem; both territories share the PAL system.

Hong Kong’s second beachhead is production. In a reverse takeover that’s ironic commentary on 1997 — when the British colony reverts to Chinese control — location-starved Hong Kong producers, faced with a craze for costume actioners back home, are turning China into one big backlot.

That’s just fine for the mainland industry, at a time when studios are being nudged into a go-it-alone policy. The magic word “co-production” is guaranteed to bring a smile to any mainland exec’s face these days.

A studio conquered

Shanghai’s historic film complex, with five soundstages, China’s only Dolby mixer and even processing labs, has stopped churning out pictures no one wanted to see and become a service industry for Hong Kong or Taiwan co-prods.

Of the 15 to 20 pix on the studio’s slate this year, only about five will be fully funded locally. Even those will be financed by business and commercial interests, not by the studio itself.

Smell the rivalry

Talking with personnel, and strolling the lot, you can almost smell the rivalry with the country’s other major studios. Far enough from Beijing to plow its own furrow, but lacking the proximity to Hong Kong that’s boosted Canton’s industry, Shanghai has everything to play for and history on its side.

For the average money-wise Shanghainese, those are fair enough stakes — so long as the Boys Up North don’t change the rules again.

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