Hong Kong’s Once-Thriving Film Industry Faces a Rocky Reboot Amidst Closer Ties With China

Where the Wind Blows Hong Kong
Courtesy of Shaw Organization

In the world of Asian cinema, Hong Kong has cultivated a reputation for punching above its weight. Once producing 300 films a year, the small territory hatched global martial arts superstars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen. It nurtured the visions of auteur Wong Kar Wai and put itself on the map with compelling crime thrillers like “Infernal Affairs” — remade by Martin Scorsese as Oscar winner “The Departed” — and Johnnie To’s “Election.”

These days, however, the Hong Kong cinema scene is getting a disturbing reboot. Beijing’s increasing political control, especially the draconian National Security Law that curtails freedom of expression, passed last June, has accelerated the mounting challenges.

“The NSL feels like the beginning of the end. Internationally, and even regionally, Hong Kong as a film hub is now in danger,” says San Diego State University professor Brian Hu, whose research has centered on FilMart and other film markets in Asia.

The territory returned to Chinese control in 1997 after more than a century of British colonial rule and has remained an important global financial and arts center that serves as a nexus between China and the Western world. In film, the territory also positioned itself as a back door into China thanks to its landmark 2003 CEPA co-production agreement.

Hu says those in Hong Kong used to be able to say, “‘Look, we have legal transparency. We speak your financial language, and English, and we know how to navigate China’s censorship system. At the same time, you can speak freely in front of us — we are that cosmopolitan cousin to China.’ Can they really claim that anymore?”

Fear of Beijing’s political wrath and the powerful pull of China’s huge economy are dominant forces eroding Hong Kong’s edge. The territory’s prospects for new film work are even more daunting.

These days, a classic like “Infernal Affairs” would likely not be greenlit. Financiers wouldn’t take a risk on a mainland co-production about a triad mole embedding in the police force, veteran film producer Tenky Tin recently told public broadcaster RTHK.

Nonetheless, some independently funded projects on sensitive topics are still pushing forward.

Oscar-nominated “Do Not Split” from Norway’s Anders Hammer isn’t the only documentary about the recent political protests. At least five other feature-length Hong Kong-made docs are in progress, even though their chances of being shown in the territory’s cinemas are now moot.

In March, the sold-out theatrical premiere of protest documentary “Inside the Red Brick Wall” was yanked following pressure on venues from pro-China media outlets. Days later, big-budget Hong Kong-mainland co-production “Where the Wind Blows” was pulled from its spot as gala opener at the Hong Kong International Film Festival for “technical reasons” — a euphemism for Chinese state censorship.

The growth of the enormous Chinese market has created opportunities, but also gelded and blinded Hong Kong’s media companies. Many local filmmakers are able to shoot relatively successful low-budget first features, often with the help of funds from the Hong Kong government, but can’t scale up unless they decide to play for the Chinese market.

“Filmmaking was treated merely as a moneymaking machine for quick profits. There was no initiative to groom young filmmakers, or film audiences,” says Wong Fei-pang, one of five directors contributing to the ominously prescient omnibus film “Ten Years.” Made in 2015, it envisioned a terrifying future for 2025 Hong Kong under Beijing’s strict rule, with many scenes that already echo uncomfortably with 2021 realities.

“Ten Years” co-director Jevons Au has joined the growing ranks of filmmakers so concerned for their safety in the new Hong Kong that they’ve relocated to Canada, Japan or Taiwan. Others in self-exile include multi-hyphenate Chapman To and directors Norris Wong and Wong Jing-po.

Wong Fei-pang urges his fellow filmmakers to persevere. “We may be scared, or dislike the place, but Hong Kong has never had such an urgent need for creatives — not just one but a whole generation of them,” he says.