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Handover Hangover: Hong Kong’s Film Industry Faces an Uncertain Future

Twenty years after the transfer of Hong Kong from Britain to China, trouble looms

When China took over Hong Kong’s sovereignty from Britain in 1997, the former British colony was promised “50 years unchanged” under the framework of “one country, two systems.”

Twenty years on, a lot has changed, including Hong Kong cinema.

At the turn of the 20th anniversary of the handover, Hong Kong cinema is at a crossroad. Filmmakers are facing questions concerning the future of the city’s film industry, which was once known to the world as “Hollywood East.”

“We must think about how Hong Kong cinema should position itself in order to find our way to the future,” says Wong Chun, the 28-year-old director of Hong Kong drama “Mad World,” which won the new director prize at last year’s Golden Horse Film awards in Taiwan and Hong Kong Film Awards this year. “What is our strength, as compared to films from other Asian countries? It’s time to reflect on this.”

The unification with China has brought about dramatic changes to Hong Kong cinema both in terms of storytelling and financing over the past 20 years. While some of Hong Kong’s best films had been produced during this period, such as Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” (2000), Stephen Chow’s “Shaolin Soccer” (2001), Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s “Infernal Affairs” (2002) and Johnnie To’s “Election” (2005), the changing dynamics of the city’s political situation and economy as well as its relations with mainland China gave rise to opportunities as well as problems.

The Hong Kong film industry saw a decline in the 1990s due to rampant piracy and the loss of regional markets. The situation worsened during the first five years after Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China as the city was hit by Asian Financial Crisis that began in 1997 and the SARS epidemic. Hong Kong’s economy plunged to a new low. In 2004, fewer than 70 films were made, compared to some 200 a year in early 1990s.

“Making co-productions means you are required to submit your scripts for the censorship board’s scrutiny. Your creativity is under control.”
Freddie Wong

In light of the economic crisis, the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement was enacted between Hong Kong and mainland China. Under this framework, Hong Kong films were exempted from the import quota in mainland China, and films co-produced by Hong Kong and mainland companies could be distributed as domestic movies on the mainland.

This opened up the fast-growing mainland market to many Hong Kong filmmakers and appeared to rescue the film industry from further demise. The number of co-productions went up by nearly threefold over the following decade from just 10 in 2004. Some of the city’s top directors including Tsui Hark and Peter Chan Ho-sun went across the border.

Hong Kong filmmakers did well in mainland China. Of the top 50 highest-grossing films in China in a list compiled by Entgroup’s China Boxoffice, 15 were helmed by Hong Kong directors, compared to 12 by their mainland counterparts.

“The top directors eyed on the money and didn’t mind playing along the mainland system,” says Hong Kong film critic and filmmaker Freddie Wong. “Making co-productions means you are required to submit your scripts for the censorship board’s scrutiny. Your creativity is under control.”

The number of Hong Kong films might have stabilized at around 55 to 61 throughout the second decade of the HKSAR, but the focus on the mainland market meant Hong Kong films began to lose the local audience who found co-production films culturally irrelevant. “Compared to the old days, Hong Kong films are much less diversified,” Wong Chun says.

In the hope of boosting local productions and new directors, the Hong Kong government established the Film Development Fund in 2007. The Fresh Wave Intl. Short Film Competition founded by To in 2005 also became an important platform for young talent.

But at the same time, Hong Kong audiences’ aversion to co-productions intensified amid the growing political tension between Hong Kong and the mainland. Filmmakers such as Fruit Chan and Pang Ho-cheung saw the vast gap. Their 2014 films, Chan’s sci-fi thriller “The Midnight After” and Pang’s drama “Aberdeen,” attempted to bring Hong Kong cinema back to telling local stories.

The 79-day pro-democracy Occupy protests — also called the Umbrella Movement — erupted a few months after Chan and Pang released their films.

The political awakening gave rise to a “fresh wave” of Hong Kong cinema, says Wong. Films released in the post-Umbrella era focused on local stories carrying socio-political messages rather than just entertainment. Among them are dystopian film “Ten Years” (2015), crime thriller “Trivisa” (2016) and Wong Chun’s “Mad World” (2016), which brought bipolar disorder to the spotlight.

“We focus on the social aspect of cinema,” says Chun. “Film is becoming a channel of expression in a repressed and desperate society. For us, getting more people to listen to our stories is more important than anything else. We have some of the best heritage in filmmaking. Now instead of focusing on mainland China, we need to tell stories to a global audience.”

(Pictured above: Crime thriller “Trivisa,” which is among the wave of films with social messages released after Hong Kong’s Umbrella movement.)

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