Hong Kong Filmmakers Choose Dissent Over Dough

Younger generation trading mainland cash for local relevancy

Amid the recent political turmoil in Hong Kong, which is in fear of an increasing control from China, a new generation of filmmakers is on the rise, putting Hong Kong-focused stories before market considerations.

Filmmakers in their 30s or early 40s, trained at film schools, say they wanted to tell stories that respond to the current sentiments in the city or from a Hong Kong perspective, unlike their predecessors who are focused on courting the vast Chinese market.

Making big bucks isn’t their first priority — a big change from previous trends in Hong Kong.

“We think about the story first, but industry veterans think about which genres sell before the story,” says Jevons Au, 35, who helmed one of the shorts in 2015’s Hong Kong Film Awards best picture winner “Ten Years” and one-third of the recently released crime thriller “Trivisa.” “I grew up here and I live here. I want to make films that tell local stories,” he says. “Many of us do not want to get into the restrictive co-production system at this point of our career. The costs of making a film are much lower these days and this made it easier to realize our ideas.”

Localism in Hong Kong cinema is rising in recent years after a decade-long domination of co-productions with mainland studios that feed the Chinese market instead of a local audience. Pang Ho-cheung’s comedy “Vulgaria” (2012) was branded as a film targeting at the local audience. In spring 2014, Fruit Chan’s satirical horror “The Midnight After,” which was full of political undertones, took more than HK$20 million ($2.5 million) in the box office.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong began to face massive protests against the political and educational systems as well as a growing anti-mainland sentiment, as travellers and money from the mainland led to the soaring property prices. That anger and frustration peaked in autumn 2014 with the 79-day Umbrella Movement, which saw young citizens protest against an election of the city’s leader controlled by Beijing.

Films in the post-Umbrella Movement era are more blatant about politics. “Ten Years” takes a dystopian view of the future; Herman Yau’s “Mobfathers” centers around the election of a triad leader; “Trivisa,” jointly directed by three young filmmakers, including Au, reflects Hong Kong’s faded glory through the tales of three infamous criminals.

While “Ten Years” caused political controversies, it also brought upon opportunities to experiment new ways of film distribution, says Winnie Tsang of Golden Scene, the film’s distributor. After theaters stopped showing the film, city-wide street screenings were held and it was released on Google Play and iTunes.

But some of these filmmakers argued that they were not being radical or advocating any political agenda.

Saville Chan, who produced and wrote “The Way We Dance” (2013) and “She Remembers, He Forgets,” says he would not resist big-budget co-productions, but stories are his first consideration. He says his films, comparatively apolitical, have been inspired by the city he inhabits. “Chaos in the society offers inspiration and motivates people to create,” Chan says. “Artists want to tell stories that capture the moment and sentiments of their times. This trend will continue in the foreseeable future of Hong Kong cinema.”

“Our generation cares about the society,” Au says. “We are just telling stories that reflect the reality of our society.”

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