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Hong Kong Filmmakers Torn Between Local Freedom and the Mainland’s Money

Hong Kong cinema will become further polarized by the political crisis brought on by the struggle between an urge for independence and the temptation to give in to Beijing’s control for the sake of financial and political stability.

While a new generation of young filmmakers emerging in the wake of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement are focusing on telling Hong Kong stories despite the fear they might attract a smaller audience, a number of the city’s filmmakers opt for the lucrative mainland market even if they have to make concessions on the creative front.

“Every generation has a group of young people who are conscious of social issues,” says Wellington Fung, secretary-general of the Hong Kong Film Development Council. “Creative young people must have feelings for the environment they live in. There is nothing wrong with that. But, these young filmmakers will eventually have to face a choice of whether to remain independent or become part of the mainstream and make commercial films. It’s their choice.”

Hong Kong was a British colony until the city’s sovereignty was handed over to the People’s Republic of China in 1997 under the principle of “one country, two systems.” But after nearly two decades, Beijing’s increasing control over the city’s affairs has dented this principle, causing some citizens to protest. In the past five years, discontent has escalated in the city.

The political upheaval may have offered creative inspiration and set the stage for the rise of young Hong Kong filmmakers. Following the dystopian “Ten Years,” which depicts the city’s future as Beijing exerts its influence, the documentary “Yellowing,” a visual record of the Umbrella Movement, was released this year. The film’s producer, Vincent Chui, says even though the documentary won a nomination at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Awards, it’s still uncertain any commercial theater will be willing to show it.

For filmmakers such as Jevons Au, one of the helmers of “Ten Years” and crime thriller “Trivisa,” which was nominated for best film at Golden Horse, telling Hong Kong stories was a priority.

But for Hong Kong producer Saville Chan, film financing is an issue. He says co-producing a film with mainland studios will require filmmakers to adapt to a set of rules and mainland censorship. There have been successful examples, such as police-thriller “Cold War 2”, which succeeded at the box offices in Hong Kong and the mainland.

“Many investors want a big market to assure their investment return, and China can offer that,” says Chan.

Fung says many young filmmakers were given the opportunity partly because of the Hong Kong Film Development Council’s funding schemes for local projects, which have been in place for nearly a decade. He remains optimistic.

“Before the opening up of the mainland market, I was pessimistic, but now I’m hopeful,” says Fung. “Politics aside, there’s a huge audience there. The young filmmakers are still evolving. The most important thing is to have young talent that can inherit the heritage of Hong Kong cinema.”

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