Countries trade money, talent and know-how

It’s no accident that the first Hong Kong film, or at least the film that kickstarted the biz back in 1909, was “Stealing a Roast Duck,” a ribald pic that combined the territory’s love of comedy with the love of food.

Or at least that’s what the legend says.

Reputedly helmed by Liang Shaobo and produced by a Russian-American, Benjamin Brodsky, there is a debate about whether the film ever truly existed, which ties in with Hong Kong’s love of mystery.

Fast forward from stolen ducks to “Ip Man,” a biopic of Bruce Lee’s kung fu master, which scooped the best pic kudos the Hong Kong Film Awards last month, while local fave “The Way We Are,” a gritty, docu-style film set in a town in Hong Kong’s New Territories, won a whole host of awards, and you get a sense of the various worlds that have characterized Hong Kong film over the years.

These days, the big development in the biz is China, and the inflow of coin from across the border in mainland China to Hong Kong (which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997) is keeping Hong Kong’s biz busy.

Nansun Shi, whose titles include executive director of Film Workshop, chair of Distribution Workshop and managing director of Irresistible Films, believes the opening up of the market in China and the resultant boom in co-productions has been a milestone in the development of the biz in Hong Kong.

“The Hong Kong business has benefited overall but has also lost something. Closer ties with China means some Hong Kong films are getting much bigger in terms of scale. Also, many overseas films wanting to shoot in China would come through Hong Kong and use many Hong Kong crews,” she says. “The industry in China is also benefiting as the Hong Kong companies have more know-how, especially in the international arena.

“But Hong Kong films are losing the audience from its local market.”

Hong Kong cinema has benefited hugely from closer ties to the mainland, says Felice Bee, international sales chief of China’s Huayi Bros.

“It’s given them room to breathe, to make bigger films. It makes a huge difference in terms of scale. In (some) ways, there are benefits because you can consider making a $20 million film. There is more financing provided, more demand for films and more experience,” says Bee.

At the same time, closer ties with China have had a mixed impact. Rigorous censorship in China is a problem for filmmakers who want to have certain levels of artistic control. It means they often have to choose not to release on the mainland, which leaves them with less coin to play with.

“Hong Kong filmmakers have been juggling mainland censorship demands while trying to please audiences both in China and beyond. It’s a tricky approach, and when it hits trouble, we see China-safe films arriving in Hong Kong cinemas with muddled post-censorship narratives, cop-out endings or whole sections excised,” says Tim Youngs, the Hong Kong consultant for the Udine Far East Film Festival.

“Last year’s (hit) ‘CJ7′ was especially lacking a definable identity with its anonymous location and absence of identifiable Hong Kong comedy and co-stars.”

Hong Kong-born Raymond Phathanavirangoon, who has worked in the territory with Fortissimo Films and is a programmer for the Toronto Intl. Film Festival and Toronto’s Reel Asian Film Festival, says Hong Kong filmmakers will continue to make pics targeting the mainland Chinese market.

“Very few directors have the ability to become box office success on both sides, like Stephen Chow,” he says. “But there will also be a small number of stalwart filmmakers who either opt to go international, like Johnnie To, or make films for the local market without worrying about censorship, like the recent Ann Hui movies.”

However, co-production can also have benefits, as long as the Hong Kong filmmakers insist on keeping local elements in the fore. For instance, 2007′s “Mr. Cinema” and “Hooked on You,” both co-productions heavily focused on the Hong Kong experience, ensured popularity with the local auds, while other movies like “Connected” and “The Beast Stalker” last year likewise injected moments of local atmosphere and humor that satisfied Hong Kong viewers but also had appeal outside the territory.

Co-productions with Chinese backers won’t slow down anytime soon, but it will be interesting to see whether other international mainstream collaborations — such as To’s Cannes player “Vengeance” — become more common.

Hong Kong has produced some of the world’s great stars and directors — Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and John Woo are household names. The arrival of strong mainland Chinese thesps is providing challenges, especially for Hong Kong actresses — Zhou Xun and Xu Jinglei are giving local leading ladies a run for their money.

Co-productions invariably feature Hong Kong leading men paired with mainland Chinese actresses, while Taiwanese thesps like Kwai Lun-mei and Barbie Hsu are also popular choices for producers.

“Stars are stars, wherever they come from. There are still just a handful of internationally recognized Chinese stars. And in the international market, they don’t really care if you are from Hong Kong or China, just ‘Chinese’ stars,” says Shi.

She says it’s “perplexing” trying to figure out what kind of films Hong Kong will be making in coming years, but she does not believe the Hong Kong business in the local Cantonese language will disappear.

“There will always be Cantonese films — I hope so! — which may not (capture) the mainland market, but they are likely to get fewer. China will also learn very quickly, and there will be a new crop of savvier Chinese filmmakers or film professionals,” she says.

Whatever the changes in the market, a market will invariably remain for low-budget local pics based on youth idols, Hong Kong characters and social issues, like the recent films of Ann Hui, Pang Ho-cheung, Herman Yau, Ivy Ho and Patrick Kong.

“There’ll still be filmmakers who will continue to offer quality, locally focused Cantonese work — even if that’s with limited means and B-list or even amateur casts — while mainland Chinese filmmaking will continue to draw on Hong Kong talent on both sides of the cameras,” says Youngs.

Huayi’s Bee believes Hong Kong will continue to make the kind of films that it specializes in — action.

“It’s a special brand. Hong Kong has been able to act as an important role for foreign co-productions. And Hong Kong is always going to play a very important role in terms of China filmmaking,” says Bee.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more