HONG KONG — The state of screenwriting for Hong Kong films is in crisis, according to several film biz studies. But studies aside, it’s unclear how the biz plans to address the biggest complaint among industryites of late: the poor quality of feature scripts.
Audiences primarily raised on cool martial arts movies became more sophisticated after seeing an influx of slick, big-budget Hollywood product. They wanted better stories and dialogue to go with the onscreen tricks.
In response, the Hong Kong Screenwriters Guild in 2000 set up a two-year, $615,450 fund with government money, in hopes of churning out high-quality scripts and finding new talent. Successful applicants, mostly amateur screenwriters, had their outlines turned into scripts with the guidance of professionals. The guild tried to sell the polished scripts to film companies, but to no avail: Not one of the 40 scripts found a buyer; at best, reps expressed interest in potentially talented scribes.
The complaints continued. In a survey conducted last year by ACNielsen, 65% of buyers who attended Filmart, Hong Kong’s international film and TV market, said they still need to see better scripts.
Screenwriters agree that modern auds are much more discerning. “In the old days, watching movies was the most important thing for citizens and they would watch anything,” says Matt Chow, who recently penned the critically acclaimed Hong Kong portion of “Three” and “Golden Chicken.”
“Now, people are picky. If it’s a comedy, they want to laugh and laugh. If it’s a tragedy, they want to cry and cry. They want more drama. So you see, it’s not easy to satisfy.”
New producers have tried to claim that their films would be different, that they would spend more time on the scripts. But the time and effort wasn’t obvious, and the results weren’t necessarily better.
The writer’s role in H.K. has become incrementally more important to the local biz. Writers are, for the most part, required to be on-set to tailor lines at a moment’s notice. That’s different from years past, where directors would ask anyone on-set whether lines worked or not and revisions were made on the fly. As a result, often there would be no writer credit at all, or a group of people would be credited.
Screenwriting can be a tough grind. In the 1980s, Chow was penning five scripts annually. With fewer movies being made, he wrote just two last year. He usually is given a deadline of one to four months to write, with more time for new drafts; last year’s “Golden Chicken” demanded eight months — and eight drafts. Chow laughs at the memory, because it was his first draft that was shot.
Felix Chong, co-writer with Alan Mak on “Infernal Affairs,” isn’t sure he’s figured out what the audience likes, although he and Mak took the screenplay prize at April’s Hong Kong Film Awards. He guesses “Infernal Affairs” was appealing because it was less of a cop movie — which local audiences are used to — and more of a gangster flick. “There’s only maybe 30 seconds of gun scenes, and everything else is concentrated on the dramatic elements,” he says.
While trying to tailor scripts to increasingly fickle audiences, screenwriters are keeping an eye on a potentially bleak development: the growing number of Hong Kong co-productions with China. Local screenwriters usually are hired for such projects, but they fear that knowing the language soon may not be enough; their lack of mainland colloquialisms or slang mean that in the future, they may be rejected in favor of native speakers.
Still, some writers believe the complaining could pay off. “It is perfect timing for the scriptwriter,” says Ivy Ho, who penned the lauded “July Rhapsody” and “Comrades, Almost a Love Story.” “Nothing is taken for granted anymore, especially writers.”