With an eye on China, Hong Kong biz looks robust in the year of the rabbit

Hong Kong’s film biz retains its independent spirit as it heads into the year of the rabbit, with filmmakers producing strong local movies but increasingly looking to the booming Chinese market with big budget historical and chopsocky epics that are winning new fans in mainland China.

“Hong Kong cinema today pretty much reflects on our city as a whole in terms of our competitiveness in the Asia region,” says Derek Tsang, a young helmer who co-directed, with Jimmy Wan, the contemporary drama “Lover’s Discourse.”

Tsang explains, “On the one hand, we cannot deny the fact that the golden days are long gone. No longer are we producing a lot of films, and the different regions around us are much less eager to buy our films. The numbers of pure Hong Kong film productions are dropping year after year, and the local box office numbers aren’t exactly encouraging either. However, we have the huge China market right behind us that is growing tremendously year after year. I guess one can say that it is both a depressing and an exciting moment in Hong Kong cinema. It’s a bit schizophrenic.”

B.O. in Hong Kong rose 11% last year, and while the main driver behind this strong performance by the 3D toon “Toy Story 3″ and other Hollywood movies, local movies “IP Man 2″ and “72 Tenants of Prosperity” also put in a creditable performance.

Gross revenue rose from HK$1.17 billion ($177 million) in 2009 to $196 million in 2010, according to data from the Motion Picture Industry Association. Of this figure, “Ip Man 2″ brought in $5.59 million, while “72 Tenants of Prosperity” took in $4.4 million.

“For 2011, things will be better and better because the economy is good and films are getting better, not only Hollywood movies but also Hong Kong films and Chinese films. China is investing in Hong Kong films, and they are getting better and bigger B.O.,” says Brian Chung Wai-hung, MPIA’s chief executive.

Nansun Shi, who is a producer with Film Workshop, as well as Asian pic sales outfit Distribution Workshop and managing director of Irresistible Films, is also pleased with the relative health of the Hong Kong market. “A few Hong Kong low budget films have done well in 2010, mostly love stories. So more attempts in this area are likely this year. But many Hong Kong filmmakers are working in China nowadays, so, co-production films still the major trend forward,” says Shi.

There were 286 theatrical releases in 2010, including 54 local productions and 232 foreign movies during the year.

The problem the Hong Kong biz faces is growing new talent in the face of demands from the mainland Chinese industry. Mainland auds want mainland stars, and when there are so many co-productions, it’s difficult. A similar situation exists when it comes to helmers.

Most of these co-productions are big-budget movies and so the Hong Kong biz is focusing on smaller pics, often socially conscious movies that strike a chord with local auds, but also do well in other Southeast Asian markets.

On the other end of the scale, however, last year was the best yet for Hong Kong movies, with more than five or six terrific small-budget movies, all by relatively young directors, says Peter Ho-sun Chan, helmer of “The Warlords” and the forthcoming “Wu Xia,” as well as producer on “Bodyguards and Assassins” and “Mr and Mrs Incredible,” which makes its market debut at Berlin.

“There are always exceptions to the conventional wisdom and Hong Kong is really building on new talent. There are a whole lot of interesting movies in the $1 to $2 million category,” says Chan. “It’s a very interesting scenario that great young directors are coming out of Hong Kong. They’re great to see, it becomes a breeding ground for a new generation of directors

These are helmers whose job is not to please everyone but to make the movies they want to make.”

At the same time, it’s difficult for the new generation of directors to work, because of the problems they have putting films together. The Film Council can help, and will put up one-third of the budget, but raising the rest of the money can be difficult for a young filmmaker. “It’s hard to explain. The economic environment is not better. Most of these films are not even released in China,” says Chan.

Producer Lorna Tee, who has worked at Variety as business development manager in the Asian region, believes that Hong Kong auds are getting tired of big-budget films with less than spectacular 3D technology. She reckons that the focus in Hong Kong should be to nurture the next generation of movie stars for Asia, and to explore new routes. For example, the biz in Hong Kong should be to see if it is possible for Hong Kong and Asian cinema to find similar success with new technologies, such as internet video on demand (VOD) as seen in the United States, to compensate for the downturn in the DVD market.

She also believes there needs to be more government support, in Hong Kong and more broadly in Asia, for local filmmakers, and points to production incentives to encourage their country as a film hub in this region.

“Hong Kong filmmakers are quite fortunate that we can choose to make higher budget commercial projects in the mainland or shoot a more personal or edgier film in Hong Kong with lower budget yet free of state censorship,” says Tsang. “Hong Kong Filmmakers should take advantage of the fact that we can maneuver between both worlds.”

SPOTLIGHT: Pics about loan sharks, monks, tycoons and Bruce lee:

THE STOOL PIGEON
Director: Dante Lam
Producers: Albert Lee, Wang Zhonglei, Cheung Hong-tat
Actors: Nicholas Tse, Nick Cheung
Logline: Cast of “Beast Stalker” reunites for gritty cops-and-robbers tale in contemporary Hong Kong. Pic is showing in the Forum section.
Sales: Emperor Classic Film, Huayi Bros., Sil-Metropole Organization

LET THE BULLETS FLY
Director: Jiang Wen vProducers: Jian Wen, Ma Ke, Albert Lee, Barbie Tung, Albert Yeung
Actors: Ge You, Jiang Wen, Chow Yun-fat
Logline: Set in the chaotic years after the collapse of imperial rule, pic tells the story of a Robin Hood-like bandit who kidnaps a con man about to take up the mayorship he secured through bribes.
Sales: Emperor Motion Pictures

SHAOLIN
Director: Benny Chan
Producers: Albert Lee, Benny Chan, Shi Yongxin
Actors: Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Jackie Chan, Fan Bingbing, Wu Jing
Logline: Lau plays a local military ruler paranoid about being betrayed by an ally. He devises an assassination plot, only to be double-crossed by his second-in-command. He then seeks refuge in the Shaolin Temple and becomes a monk who repents his terrorizing ways.

WU XIA
Director: Peter Ho-Sun Chan
Producers: Peter Ho-Sun Chan, Jojo Hui
Actors: Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tang Wei, Jimmy Wang Yu
Logline: A sinful martial arts expert wants to start a new tranquil life, only to be hunted by a determined detective and his former master. Action designed by Donnie Yen.
Sales: We Distribution

MR. & MRS. INCREDIBLE
Director: Vincent Kok
Producer: Peter Ho-Sun Chan
Actors: Sandra Ng, Louis Koo
Logline: Action fantasy gives “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” the power of “The Incredibles.” Superhero couple come out of retirement to save the world when a villain threatens to destroy their peaceful new town.
Sales: We Distribution

DON’T GO BREAKING MY HEART
Director: Johnnie To
Producers: Wai Ka Fai, Johnnie To
Actors: Louis Koo, Daniel Wu, Gao Yuanyuan
Logline: A twist on the eternal triangle, where secret crush and unrequited love take on meanings of their own.
Sales: Media Asia

BRUCE LEE, MY BROTHER
Directors: Raymond Yip, Manfred Wong
Producer: Manfred Wong
Actors: Aarif Rahman, Tony Leung Ka- fai, Christy Chung, Jennifer Tse
Logline: A dr
amatic biopic of the martial arts legend Bruce Lee told by his younger brother, Robert.
Sales: Media Asia

LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN
Director: Andrew Lau
Producer: Gordon Chan
Actors: Donnie Yen, Shu Qi, Anthony Wong
Logline: A patriotic hero taken for dead for years suddenly reappears disguised as a wealthy entrepreneur to pull together an intricate plan of vigilante justice against the enemies of the people.

THE DRUNKARD
Director: Freddie Wong
Producer: Freddie Wong
Stars: John Chang, Irene Wan, Joman Chiang, Elena Kong, Katie Kwok, Wei Wei
Logline: In 1962 Hong Kong, Lau is a writer immigrated from Shanghai and now living in a city with no need for serious literature. He is forced to make a living writing popular martial-arts stories, and seeks the only escape through alcohol and women.
Sales: Media Asia

PUNISHED
Director: Law Wing Cheong
Producer: Johnnie To
Actors: Anthony Wong, Richie Jen, Janice Man
Logline: A tycoon whose daughter is found dead while being abducted has sworn to avenge her at all cost.

A BEAUTIFUL LIFE
Director: Andrew Lau
Producer: Andrew Lau
Actors: Liu Ye, Shu Qi
Logline: A young aggressive golddigger finds the definition of true love through a rigid policeman in his midlife crisis.
Sales: Media Asia

LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE
Director: Johnnie To
Producer: Johnnie To
Actors: Lau Ching Wan, Richie Jen, Denise Ho
Logline: Three ordinary people find their destinies entwined when a loan shark is assaulted after having withdrawn $10 million from the bank.
Sales: Media Asia

More from Berlin Daily Spotlight: Hong Kong Cinema
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