10 Years Hong Kong Film
Courtesy of Golden Scene

Hong Kong doesn’t normally go in for politically themed movies. Its filmmakers are too pragmatic, focusing instead on genres like comedy and action. Besides, the local politics of a territory of only 7.5 million souls are too insular and insignificant for the outside world to care about.

So much for conventional wisdom.

Whether anyone beyond Greater China is watching is still moot, but indie feature “10 Years,” which depicts five views of the territory 10 years from now, has been hailed by some as the most important Hong Kong movie in a decade.

Following a low-key festival launch in October, “10 Years” has become a minor hit — with minimal distribution, it has clawed its way to a box office of HK$4.28 million (U.S. $504,491) as of Jan. 24 and attracted enough media attention that it has been swatted down by mainland Chinese tabloid the Global Times.

And whether the film’s future visions are bleak or not depends on which side of the political divide you stand. In one of its five segments, Hong Kong’s native Cantonese language has been replaced with China’s standard Mandarin, aka Putonghua. In another, the word “local” has become taboo.

The overwhelming financial power of the Chinese film industry — which was smaller than Hong Kong’s 20 years ago but is now expected to outgross North America’s in 2017 — is widely assumed to have become just too big for Hong Kong culture and influence to survive.

Just about every major Hong Kong filmmaker, from the previously disdained Wong Jing to Peter Chan, who was the flag carrier for a wave of 1990s pictures addressing middle-class Hong Kong’s angst about the 1997 handover of the territory to China, has by now made one or more films in China. And probably four-fifths of all movies considered Hong Kong titles are made with some involvement from mainland China. Partial mainland finance is considered normal in Hong Kong and sets the picture up for release north of the border.

But Hong Kong’s cinema industry has been written off so many times it would be dangerous to assume its imminent extinction.

The box office gives some clues. Hong Kong audience preferences put Hollywood first, ahead of local movies, and mainland China lower. Last year saw the number of Hong Kong films released rise from 52 to 59, and though market share slipped (from 22% to 19%), there was at least one Hong Kong film in the top 10, a better result than for any Chinese film.

Not for the first time was it a nostalgic picture. (“Echoes of the Rainbow,” which won a Crystal Bear in Berlin, was a smash in 2010.) “Little Big Master,” a fact-based drama about a kindergarten teacher trying to breach the vast social divide between Hong Kong’s haves and have-nots, earned a smashing $6 million at local theaters.

“Hong Kong is a powerful force in China even as China develops its own industry,” says Roger Garcia, executive director of the Hong Kong Intl. Film Festival. “Hong Kong cinema is now one of the facets of Chinese filmmaking, just as the growing involvement of Hollywood is now a part of Chinese filmmaking.”

Garcia points to director Tsui Hark, actor Donnie Yen and producer Bill Kong as examples of Hong Kong talent “filling the screens” in China. “Monster Hunt,” which last year became the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time, was directed by Hollywood-trained Hong Kong animator Raman Hui.

Others, who are not as sanguine as Garcia, include Hong Kong-based Australian producer Craig Addison of Dark Horse Films. A former Silicon Valley entrepreneur, he has stepped up from micro-budget movies to a slate of Hong Kong films for global audiences to be shot in English or in dual-language versions.

“China is developing its own actors,” Addison says. “I’m not worried for Donnie Yen, Chow Yun-fat or Jackie Chan, but Hong Kong’s next generation is under threat. I’m hoping they will be in my movies instead.”

One of his titles is called “2047.” That could be a gentle nudge at the Wong Karwai arthouse drama “2046.” But Addison says it is a reference to the year in which the “one country, two systems” guiding principle comes to an end and China’s rule over the city becomes absolute.

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