It’s only been a couple of years since B.O. grosses in movie-crazy Hong Kong matched those of the vastly underdeveloped mainland Chinese market, even though the population of the Special Administrative Region is less than 1% of that across the border in the rest of the People’s Republic.

Artistically, technically and in terms of international impact, Hong Kong cinema has always been light years ahead of the mainland during its century-long history, except in the very early days when Shanghai led the field.

No one doubts Hong Kong’s obvious strengths — its abundance of creative talent, strong technical skills, a wide distribution network in Asia and wide-scale protection of intellectual property. Another core driver is CEPA, the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement, which gives Hong Kong enhanced terms when dealing with the Chinese mainland market.

But recent years have seen a sea change in the fortunes of the two regions, with China making strong advances in B.O. grosses as investors build more hardtops, and Hong Kong’s biz finding itself unable to tear its attention away from the lure of a 1.3-billion strong market.

Just as China has imprinted its own characteristics on Western capitalism, what’s emerged in the entertainment business is Chinese cinema — with Hong Kong sensibilities. Hong Kong has been, after all, part of China since 1997.

China produced 426 films last year, and production has been increasing by 15% every year — and is forecast to rise even more. Hong Kong players view it as more of an expansion across the border.

China is central to Hong Kong’s future development. At the Hong Kong Intl. Film and TV Market (Filmart) in March, some 95% of respondents in a survey of exhibitors said co-

productions would continue as a hot trend, and 59% of the respondents said the Chinese mainland would be the market of greatest potential for the overall entertainment industry.

Local helmer Peter Chan unveiled a three-year slate of 15 films with a total budget of $73 million for his Cinema Popular joint venture with Chinese filmmaker Huang Jianxin, kicking off with “Bodyguards and Assassins,” featuring Donnie Yen, Leon Lai, Wang Xueqi and Nicholas Tse, and helmed by Teddy Chan.

These are big numbers, the expansion is welcome, and Chan is bullish on the prospects for Hong Kong cinema as cooperation with the mainland increases. However, was that a wistful air when he spoke of how this greater integration is changing the themes of Hong Kong cinema?

“We are making films that have Chinese audiences more in mind. It’s very difficult not to be completely China-centric. You see Hong Kong films using subject matter that wouldn’t work outside China or in a Hong Kong setting. Hong Kong is a very city-centric culture,” he says.

This has led to a new historical dimension for Hong Kong filmmakers, with the big themes that go with that kind of pic, such as ambition, power and betrayal.

“These themes are harder to convince investors in Hong Kong about. Then again, you wouldn’t make a Triad gangster movie in China,” he says.

Daniel Yu and Tang Xiru have set up First Cuts Features, a production company in Beijing to develop and produce six projects by rising Asian filmmakers.

Four helmers — Wu Ershan, Qu Jiangtao, Yan An and Fang Yaxi — have all signed on to the project, which is an extension of the First Cuts project launched in 2005 under Andy Lau’s Focus Group.

Hong Kong also is getting into distribution and will be building the cinemas that mainlanders visit. Mei Ah and its sibling production company Big Media have unveiled a major strategy that includes building more theaters in China.

So the future looks bright for the Hong Kong biz. It’s just that it will probably be spoken in Mandarin instead of the popular local Cantonese.