Hong Kong Cinema Survives Where Survival Is Success

SAR’s industry is holding steady despite challenges

Hong Kong Movie Industry Holding Steady

Some 51 Hong Kong films were made in 2014, up nearly 20% from the previous year. By that measure Hong Kong’s cinema industry has been on the upswing.

But in reality, the status quo is more or less the same as, say, five years ago: H.K. cinema is alive but not kicking particularly hard.

Veteran filmmaker Herman Yau, who has released four films over the past two years,, including the psychological thriller “Sara” currently showing at the cinema, says: “On a scale of 10, I’d give a five for the state of health of the industry. It was more or less the same a few years ago.”

On the positive side: a number of prominent industry figures, including directors Wong Kar Wai Variety style CQ and Ringo Lam, are working on projects. The iconic director Wong Kar Wai will be the producer of a new comedy-drama featuring Tony Leung. Celebrated director Ringo Lam will soon release a big-budget Cantonese noir after a seven-year hiatus from Hong Kong. Veteran actress Carrie Ng has recently taken the director’s chair for the first time.

But when it comes to an industry that has been in decline for over a decade, it takes more than a few figures and a few new productions to establish that positive change has taken place.

There is a new crop of directors: Lau Ho-leung (“Two Thumbs Up”), Sunny Luk and Longman Leung (“Cold War”; pictured) and David Lee Kwong-yiu (the newly released “Insanity”). “There are more opportunities for first-time directors today than during the 1980s, partly because veteran directors are expensive and there’s no guarantee their films can sell well,” Yau says. Besides, there are always filmmakers who want to make a difference.

But the Hong Kong-China co-production model constrains content. Ghost, sex and political-themed films are censored in China, so H.K. films in those genres struggle to get mainland finance and won’t get a China release.

Despite pressure on the exhibition sector, HK still enjoys a high level of cinema attendance. Box office takings of the biggest local blockbusters is satisfactory though not brilliant. “Unbeatable” in 2013 grossed HK$41 million (US$5.29 million) and “Golden Chicken 3” in 2014 took US$5.68 million. This is a far cry from the 1980s action comedy “Aces Go Places,” which would be the highest grossing Hong Kong production ever, with a revenue of an equivalent of US29.7 million, if adjusted for inflation. Cast wise, the industry continues to rely on a few bankable stars like Louis Koo and Simon Yam, though Ivana Wong was a welcome new discovery in “Golden Chicken 3.”

However, According to Yau, the large number of Chinese movies that don’t get a mainland releases means some investors are happy to allocate some money to smaller Hong Kong productions. “Investors like the idea of investing in both big- and small-budget films,” he says. “There will always be local productions.”