Hong Kong has long been a place where East and West rub along, mostly, but not always, combining to good effect. Now, 16 years after the former British colony became one of China’s Special Administrative Regions, the friction is different.
To the consternation of Beijing and the SAR’s government, there has been growing pushback from a chunk of the Hong Kong population that blames Chinese influence for spiraling property prices and endless delays to full democracy. Many feel their Hong Kong values are being diluted.
Hong Kong’s film industry, however, appears to be showing other well-established H.K. traits: flexibility, adaptability and compromise where it makes good business sense.
“There is a huge market opportunity in China; many companies from Hong Kong have moved to China. The 21st-century Hong Kong filmmaker will have to be versatile and international,” says Roger Garcia, executive director of the Hong Kong Film Festival Society.
“I expect Hong Kong filmmakers to survive by working in Hong Kong, China and Hollywood, on different kinds of films, not ones that necessarily try to be universal,” Garcia says.
Clearly, the “Golden Age” of H.K. film, when the tiny territory was producing upward of 300 films per year, has been confined to history. However, Hong Kong is still making 50 or more films per year, which is not bad for a population of 7 million. And many of its filmmakers are learning how to be both Hong Kongers and Chinese.
The Hong Kong cinema industry has been handed considerable privileges in China, including the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement that (among other things) allows H.K. firms to own majority stakes in Chinese film companies. There is also the more recent inter-government deal that allows H.K.’s movies largely unfettered access to the 100 million Cantonese residents of Guangdong province.
While there have been some stumbles resulting from different working practices, and missteps due to misunderstandings of different Chinese audience tastes, Hong Kong filmmakers have learned to work in the developing China industry. Many Hong Kong-China co-productions have been among China’s top films for most of the past 10 years.
Possibly the best example of such versatility is Pang Ho-cheung, a feisty H.K. screenwriter and director who relocated to Beijing, but has recently made typically local Hong Kong films including “Vulgaria.” His black comedy “SDU: Sex Duties Unit” has little chance of getting a mainland release, due to its language, crude sexuality and depiction of police corruption.
“H.K. films are doing quite well at the moment. These things are always cyclical. And now we may be in the up-cycle. There is far more variety than many people think,” says Winnie Tsang, who runs Hong Kong’s leading indie distributor Golden Scene, and recently enjoyed hit success with H.K. indie production “The Way We Dance.”
Tsang adds, “We can’t compete with the big CG films, but we do have people who speak for us. And Hong Kong has great talent, whether you are talking about Pang Ho-cheung, Johnnie To or Dante Lam.”