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Golden Scene at 20: Diverse Past, Bright Future

Golden Scene, one of Asia’s most enduring independent film distributors, is known for its year-round billboards attached to bus shelters around Hong Kong, and also for the spot-on taste of founder Winnie Tsang.

Tsang started the company 20 years ago by snatching opportunity from adversity. Having risen from secretary to board member at the legendary Golden Harvest production to exhibition group, Tsang jumped in when the studio made a strategic decision to exit distribution.

She set up shop nearby in the Tsim Sha Tsui district and took with her a small staff. They handled distribution on behalf of Golden Harvest’s various labels and its sub-distribution relationship with UIP.
While benefitting from a steady supply of studio business, Tsang relished the freedom to make her own choices. “I could do anything, go anywhere, visit more festivals,” says Tsang. “I had less need to be commercial and instead could pick films that appealed to my own taste and those I thought could develop the Hong Kong audience.”

Mixing up U.S. indie titles with local Hong Kong movies, Golden Scene enjoyed early success with Japanese horror hit “The Ring.” It also pioneered the early 20th century wave of Asian diversity including Korean arthouse shocker “The Isle,” Thailand’s “The Iron Ladies” and “Dolls,” and “Nobody Knows” from Japan. Money flowed from the “Twilight” saga and “Rush Hour” franchises.

But Tsang says the most satisfying film she has handled was Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” Despite a plum Cannes berth it didn’t work in most territories. “We did Q&A sessions, we invited top critics, and really helped audiences to understand the movie. Our HK$3 million ($385,000) result was very gratifying,” says Tsang.

Tsang founded the company at a time of major upheaval for Hong Kong — and for Hong Kong cinema. The territory had returned to China in 1997, after 150 years of British colonial rule. Multiplexes were quickly replacing traditional cinemas, and at first they promised more choice and diversity, though that selection has narrowed in recent years. And in 2001, the private sector mainland Chinese industry was brought back to life through top-down reforms. Soon after, many Hong Kong filmmakers began to look across the border for their audience and their finance.

Those factors may have contributed to steadily declining performances by Hong Kong films in their home market, and increasing dominance by Hollywood. Tsang says that Hong Kong audiences still show little interest in films made for mainland Chinese films.

But, conscious that local films contribute to the overall health of the sector, Tsang plunged into production starting in 2007. “Hong Kong film was in poor condition. Many top directors no longer had a chance,” she says. Among her first productions was “Simply Actors,” co-directed by Patrick Leung and Chan Hing-ka and starring veteran stage actor Jim Chim. The delicious comedy takes the premise that undercover cops are losing their ability to stay underground because of their failing performance skills, and so they need to be sent to acting school. “It was a profitable, so I did more,” says Tsang, who also credits the leverage and financial support of the Film Development Council with keeping alive Hong Kong films’ distinct identity and local relevance.

As producer, Golden Scene has championed the careers of Chapman To, Stanley Kwan and Fruit Chan. As producer-distributor it has helped nurture Hong Kong’s new generation of filmmakers including Adam Wong (“The Way We Dance”), Steve Fat (“Weeds on Fire”) and Jevons Au (“Ten Years”). Tsang now leans heavily on talented nephew Felix Tsang in the production department.

Production has led to international sales, and Golden Scene shows up at Busan’s Asian Film Market with a slate bursting with titles that include Gala presentation “First Night Nerves,” the three new films in the “Ten Years” franchise, and the Anthony Wong-starring “Still Human.” Still, Tsang is open for new challenges. She says: “In Hong Kong it is difficult to find the right locations, but I’d really like to go into cinema operation next.”

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