After a busy FilMart in March, at which Hong Kong’s film industry leaders promised to lobby for greater access to mainland audiences, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam was able, only a month later, to announce that the lobbying had succeeded. But the past months of political protests in Hong Kong have increasingly impacted the film business.
Back in April, fees and conditions attached to mainland-Hong Kong co-productions were waived, as part of a five-point plan to treat the Special Administrative Area’s once mighty film industry as welcome in the mainland, where the local industry has grown big and arrogant, but not yet mature.
Dropping the rules that required all mainland-Hong Kong co-productions to have mainland stories, and other regulations that put ceilings on the number of Hong Kong crew on each production, seemed set to help Hong Kong filmmakers tell their own stories and yet still to be able to attract mainland Chinese backing.
Only two days earlier, “Project Gutenberg,” a Hong Kong thriller starring local icon Chow Yun-fat, dominated the HK Film Awards had pointed to exactly that model. The film appeared to be right kind of co-production: intelligent and audience-pleasing, obviously steeped in Hong Kong crime thriller traditions, but without compromise. And it had attracted significant cross-border finance from Bona Film Group that was then amply repaid by a $183 million box office outcome in mainland theaters.
In the past year there have been other triumphs for Hong Kong movies, including “Still Human,” a Hong Kong parallel to “The Intouchables,” and “Tracey,” a promising first feature by Jun Li in which a man makes a full female transition.
At the commercial level, “Line Walker 2” “P Storm” and “White Storm 2” have delivered — and arguably improved on — successful franchise extensions with good box office at home and in the mainland.
Top Hong Kong directors have been at work on both sides of the border. After “Operation Red Sea,” Dante Lam is preparing to dominate the 2020 Chinese New Year with “The Rescue.” Andrew Lau produced the $220 million-grossing hit “The Bravest,” and directed upcoming action drama “The Chinese Pilot.” Tsui Hark earned $89 million last year with “Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings” while Peter Chan is directing and producing a biopic of iconic mainland tennis star Li Na.
They appear to have benefited from the ability to produce their movies at one remove from the increasingly oppressive mainland censorship regime, and also have completed films that fill the releasing gap created by the abrupt mainland production slowdown that followed last year’s Fan Bingbing tax scandal.
Other industry insiders suggest that Chinese audiences have also rediscovered “old school” on-screen dynamism, of the kind that made Hong Kong a film export powerhouse from the 1970s to 1990s.
But the past three months of political infighting — where millions of people have taken to the street of Hong Kong to protest the reckless inertia of Lam’s government and push back against mainland interference in their way of life — have now encroached on every aspect of Hong Kong society.
Increasingly, members of the film industry are being forced to choose whether they are in the pro-Beijing camp or on a more independent course, which carries the risk of being ostracized by mainland producers, distributors and regulators.
Taking any stance is fraught with danger. By simply endorsing a Beijing-loyal message about the Hong Kong Police, Crystal Liu Yifei, star of the upcoming “Mulan,” has caused an outcry in Hong Kong. The loss of Hong Kong box office is unlikely to significantly diminish the film’s prospects, but in one tweet Liu has turned Disney’s most expensive movie of all time into a poisonous political football.
Anthony Wong, the award-winning star of “Still Human,” has said that job offers are scarce since he expressed pro-democracy sentiments. Singer-actress Denise Ho has surely torpedoed her movie career by becoming a prominent spokesman for the pro-democracy movement.
With tear gas now in almost daily use on Hong Kong streets, and the Chinese army massed in Shenzhen (ironically, part of the Greater Bay Area, with which politicians would have Hong Kong economically unite) other folk have visibly moved to the sidelines.
Companies including Media Asia and Universe have followed the example of mainland firms, and distanced themselves from this year’s Golden Horse Awards, after mainland regulators ordered a boycott of the Taiwan-based kudos fest. Films that have reportedly withdrawn their applications include “The White Storm 2,” “Line Walker 2” and Wong Jing’s “Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch.”
Mainland media has pointed out that Hong Kong businesses, in many sectors, have profited from having had privileged access to the booming China economy, and been able to treat it as their domestic market. With that, they argue, comes a requirement to follow China’s rules.
Given the choice, many Hong Kong filmmakers seem unwilling to give up their recently rediscovered opportunity.