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In search of that mainland market

China's presence increases in the filmmaking landscape

It has become next to impossible to discuss Hong Kong cinema without referring to mainland China’s growing presence in the territory’s filmmaking landscape. Increasingly, there is evidence of greater sophistication in the relationship between the long established and world-famous Hong Kong biz and the emerging giant that is Chinese cinema.

Since Hong Kong was returned to mainland China in 1997, the territory has benefited from the closer relationship with its northern neighbor. Hong Kong, for example, does not fall under rules restricting the number of foreign movies in China, and it also enjoys favorable regulations, such as the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement trade deal. This allows Hong Kong/mainland co-productions to be treated as mainland domestic productions for purposes of distribution.

The rise of mainland cinema has seen an exodus of Hong Kong helmers across the border and many of the territory’s biggest names — Peter Ho-sun Chan, Teddy Tak-sum Chan, Andrew Lau Wai-keung and Pang Ho-Cheung — have all made major films in China.

“The rule right now is that if you want to find your market, you have to look to the mainland,” says Chan.

At the same time, it’s becoming a lot more crowded north of the border – the Chinese New Year film market was the most crowded ever. There are experienced producers and inexperienced producers at work, and money is pouring into the industry.

“But the market place is too crowded, no matter how fast you build the screens in China,” says Chan.

The refocus on the greater China market has meant a change in the kind of films that Hong Kong directors are making. Hong Kong directors have to learn to live with censorship rules. This means no ghost stories and the cops all have to be good guys – some of Hong Kong’s finest movies have focused on the antics of hyperactive ghosts and corrupt officers of the law.

Instead you have a lot more movies set in the Warring States period, as it is easier to be politically neutral when dealing with a family drama set during a period of imperial turmoil than addressing contemporary social issues in a kitchen-sink drama set in Tin Shui Wai housing estate, such as Ann Hui’s “The Way We Are.”

“Lover’s Discourse” co-helmer Derek Tsang is currently in post for his second feature that was shot in Beijing near the end of 2010. It is a pure mainland Chinese production and also his first project north of the border.

“The China market is definitely a huge factor in Hong Kong cinema today. To put it bluntly, it is one of the main reason why a lot of filmmakers are still able to put out their work. I think every project have a trajectory of its own; it is all about positioning. This and this project can be tailor made for China market and others may only appeal to local Hong Kong audiences. The key is to be able to identify who the target audiences are for each of your projects, whether for China, Hong Kong or globally,” said Tsang.

Ricky Tse, head of distribution and sales at Media Asia, believes that China’s role will remain a major one but the character of that relationship is changing slightly. “In terms of quantity, it’s more co-production than before,” he explains. “The trend is that some film makers are producing the local movies rather than co-production.”

One of the biggest players in Hong Kong, Terence Chang, John Woo’s close friend and collaborator who worked on “Red Cliff” and “M:I2,” has a more international focus right now as he works on Woo’s “Flying Tigers” and John H. Lee’s “The Killer.” He believes that the mainland market is becoming more competitive, but still believes synergy with China offers opportunities for Hong Kong.

“Co-production with China is still the way to go for Hong Kong films. The Chinese market is still growing,” says Chang.

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