The mainland has a long way to go before it catches up with its neighbor’s freewheeling film culture
Chinese films directed by Hong Kong filmmakers have been faring much better in the theatrical box office in China than films helmed by mainland talents. This is occurring despite a decade of strong growth in the mainland film market.
Many reasons lie behind this continued advantage of Hong Kong filmmakers. One of them, say industry veterans, is inadequate training in China for making genre films. Another cause is the way film academies in China teach their students.
“The mainland audience wants entertainment, but there aren’t enough filmmakers who are good at handling genre films,” says Peter Tsi, a Hong Kong-based producer who has worked on various film projects in mainland China.
“Most mainland film directors were trained at film academies,” he adds. “Their eyes are still set on so-called progressive filmmakers and film theorists such as Sergei Eisenstein and other Russian masters. They are much less interested in genre films, which are what audiences favor.”
China’s box office has been enjoying an annual growth of around 35% for a decade, pushing the country to become the world’s second-largest film market. However, 2016 saw a slowdown with just 3.7% growth, according to data from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television.
A survey of the top 50 highest-grossing films in China compiled by Entgroup’s China Boxoffice, movies helmed by Hong Kong filmmakers took up the top spots among Chinese films, rubbing shoulders with many Hollywood blockbusters.
Of the top 50, 15 were Chinese-language films directed by Hong Kong directors or co-produced with Hong Kong. Only 12 were China productions. The rest are either Hollywood blockbusters or foreign films co-produced with China.
Fantasy-comedy “The Mermaid” (2016), directed by Hong Kong’s Stephen Chow, and “Monster Hunt” (2015), also a fantasy and directed by Raman Hui from Hong Kong, took the top and second spots of the all-time highest-grossing films in China. “The Mermaid” raked in $494 million and was watched by more than 92 million people in theaters, while “Monster Hunt” grossed more than $340 million.
Chow’s 2013 offering “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons,” a fantasy-comedy loosely based on the Chinese literature classic “Journey to the West,” took in $182 million, the 14th-highest grossing film in China. Cheang Pou-soi’s “The Monkey King 2” (2016) and “The Monkey King” (2014), also an adaptation of “Journey to the West,” came at 16th with $174 million and 23rd with $152 million, respectively.
Crime action film “Operation Mekong” (2016), directed by Dante Lam, came in at 17th with $172 million. Gambling comedies “From Vegas to Macau III” (2016), directed by Andrew Lau and Wong Jing, and “From Vegas to Macau II” (2015), directed by Wong, took the 21st and 27th, while Tsui Hark’s “The Taking of the Tiger Mountain” (2014) occupied 32nd with $129 million.
Chinese production “Mojin: The Lost Legend” (2015) came fifth with $245 million at the box office, but it was directed by Taiwanese director Chen Kuo-fu. “Lost in Hong Kong” (2015) and “Lost in Thailand” (2012), both helmed by Xu Zheng, fared the best in the top 50 list. “Lost in Hong Kong” grossed $40 million and ranked 6th on the list, while “Lost in Thailand” came 13th with $185 million.
Professor Cheuk Pak-tong, a veteran filmmaker and former director of the Academy of Film at the Hong Kong Baptist University, says while mainland filmmakers have caught up with the technical aspects of filmmaking, but they lacked the storytelling skills for commercial films.
“Hong Kong filmmakers might not be able to make movies about local mainland stories, but mainland filmmakers still can’t make commercial films like those that Wong Jing and Stephen Chow do,” says Cheuk, who is setting up new film courses in Macau.
The mainland’s film schools are specialized schools, he adds, which could be the reason why mainland has yet to produce filmmakers who could top the box office.
He adds that more mainland film students realize the inadequacies of their training and come to study in Hong Kong, and that more than 90% of the postgraduate students at the Academy of Film come from mainland China.
“The most important training for filmmakers is to offer them an environment to be creative,” Cheuk concludes, “but the mainland system limits students’ way of thinking.”