HONG KONG — When Mabel Cheung, one of this city’s leading directors, shot her historical-political drama “The Soong Sisters” in China in the mid-1990s, the nature of the exchange for the co-production was simple: Beijing provided inexpensive manpower, and professionals from the British colony’s highly developed movie industry provided the expertise.
Hong Kong cinema, after all, had been enjoying a golden age for close to two decades — celebrated directors such as John Woo and Wong Kar-wai had helped the city’s filmmakers garner a global fan base. Raymond Chow’s studio Golden Harvest had created cultural icons including Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Tsui Hark. Hong Kong movies often successfully walked the line between commercial and art-house fare.
“[China] was open to Hong Kong directors and stars,” recalled Cheung, speaking at the chic industrial headquarters of the Hong Kong Film Directors’ Guild during the city’s international film festival, which wrapped up last week. “They really wanted to learn.”
Now, though, the dynamic has changed politically and economically: Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Local film productions have plummeted, from nearly 200 annually in the mid-1990s to about 50 today, as Hong Kong audiences have flocked to Hollywood blockbusters and the city’s filmmakers have increasingly aimed their fare at the mainland, a tactic that has turned off audiences at home.
The mainland is now the world’s second-largest movie market, behind the United States, with box office takings reaching $2.74 billion in 2012 and the country adding about 10 screens per day last year. It’s also become a key source of funding for bigger and bigger productions, both homegrown and foreign.
The role reversal has cast a cloud of uncertainty over the future of Hong Kong film. Directors, producers, stars and fans in this city of 7 million are wondering whether the unique sensibilities of Hong Kong film — including its use of Cantonese (rather than Mandarin), its freewheeling politics, and its populist edge — can be preserved as the mainland’s might grows.
“Now China is paying the bill, and they are boss,” Cheung said. “And now we are working for them.”
Film has become one battleground in a larger cultural conflict rooted in the “one country, two systems” structure that defines the political relationship between Hong Kong and China’s leaders in Beijing. Hong Kongers enjoy greater political and artistic freedoms than their mainland brethren, and have chafed recently at attempts by mainland authorities to assert greater control in areas such as education. Many residents of the former colony also blame an influx of mainlanders for a variety of problems in Hong Kong, including skyrocketing housing costs and a decline in public civility.
The tensions came to the fore cinematically in February, when Beijing-based journalist Jia Xuanning won the Hong Kong Arts Development Council’s inaugural critic’s prize for her scathing critique, “Gazing at the Anxiety of Hong Kong Film Through ‘Vulgaria.'”
A hit Hong Kong comedy directed by Pang Ho-Cheung, “Vulgaria” was one of the city’s top grossing non-Western films of 2012 and features local slang and dirty humor. The film also touches on topics such as pornography that would run afoul of censors in the mainland but are fine in Hong Kong, which does not have a film censorship program.
Jia’s essay criticized “Vulgaria,” saying it presented the “narrowness, opportunism and pretentiousness of Hong Kong society” while portraying mainlanders in a derogatory fashion. (In the movie, a mainland gangster pays for the production of a Hong Kong porn film.) Jia touched a nerve by saying bluntly that mainlanders had risen from being simply “[Hong Kong’s] poor relatives to today’s rich.”
The critique turned Pang into something of an emblem of artistic freedom and resistance to mainland cultural hegemony. Responding to Jia in an online post, Pang said: “Hong Kong spirit is embodied in freedom of speech.”
But some Hong Kong directors say financial realities are prompting more and more of the city’s filmmakers to make compromises to do business with the mainland. Hong Kong-made films are not subject to China’s film quota system, which allows just 34 foreign movies to screen in mainland cinemas a year. But Hong Kong films must pass muster with mainland censors to play in mainland cinemas, so some directors are changing their scripts to clear the bar.
Moreover, Hong Kong directors are also pursuing more co-productions with the mainland; this year, just 23 of the 52 films qualified to enter the Hong Kong Film Awards were 100% locally produced. The rest were Hong Kong-mainland co-productions, a status that brings other requirements beyond winning censors’ approval. For example, such co-productions must give at least a third of their leading roles to mainland actors.
Hong Kong director Ronny Yu premiered his new China-Hong Kong co-production, “Saving General Yang,” at his hometown’s recent festival. The historical epic based on the Song Dynasty warrior Yang clan was shot outside Beijing with dialogue in Mandarin. Yu says the mainland censors told him specifically: “You need to tone down all the blood and the killing.”
He said that abiding “by the rules” is a small cost for gaining access to China’s market. “If you don’t need [China’s] money, if you don’t need their market, you can do whatever you want,” he said. “Movie making always follows the money. You need a big market to supply that money. Hong Kong is such a small market — Hong Kong filmmakers want to make films, so where are you going to find the money? China.”
Mainland-based sequels to Hong Kong films are coming into vogue and finding success at the box office. For example, 2008’s “Painted Skin” — produced, directed and co-written by Hong Kong’s Gordon Chan Ka-seung — took $43.4 million at the Chinese box office. But the sequel “Painted Skin: The Resurrection” was made by a majority mainland team, and last year, it pulled in $113.4 million, becoming China’s second-highest grossing domestic release. (The highest-grossing Chinese film ever, the comedy “Lost in Thailand,” is also a mainland sequel to Hong Kong director Raymond Yip’s 2010 “Lost on Journey.”)
To be sure, there is still breadth and depth in Hong Kong’s filmmaking talent. Besides Pang and Wong Kar-Wai, producer-directors like Johnnie To (“Vengeance,” “Life Without Principle”) and Peter Chan (“The Warlords,” “Dragon”) continue to find box office and critical success at home and abroad. Andrew Lau, whose “Infernal Affairs” was remade by Martin Scorsese into “The Departed,” winning the American an Oscar, is now collaborating with Scorsese on “Revenge of the Green Dragons.” Scorsese will serve as executive producer on the film, which Lau is directing and plans to shoot in the U.S.
Still, some filmmakers have argued that Hong Kong’s government should do more to provide funding to local productions to preserve the independence of the city’s film culture, as the government of Taiwan has done. The Hong Kong Film Development Council has said it is looking at the possibility of supporting young talent and well-known directors.
Yet Hong Kong filmmakers are not the only ones changing their art in exchange for access to the mainland market; the Western productions “Looper” and the upcoming “Iron Man 3” both have special Chinese editions with extended China-oriented scenes. In other cases, such as “Red Dawn,” American films have been scrubbed of Chinese villains.
Roger Garcia, executive director of the Hong Kong film festival, says that the shift is part of a worldwide phenomenon. “In the 21st century, you need to be a global filmmaker if you want to survive,” explains Garcia. “The world is shrinking. The filmmaker who is successful is adaptable.”
For Cheung, reaching beyond Hong Kong’s borders is crucial. Her latest collaboration, “Beautiful 2013,” was commissioned jointly by Youku, China’s answer to YouTube, and the Hong Kong film festival. The movie consists of four short films by directors from the mainland, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong (Cheung’s piece). Despite working closely with the mainland, she says retaining Hong Kong’s distinct identity is key.
“We should widen our horizons since there is so much to offer in China, in terms of scenery, location, stories and actors. And money, of course. And market!” she says. But Hong Kong filmmakers must simultaneously “keep his or her style wherever they go.”
Cheung is hopeful about Hong Kong cinema, pointing out that some of her homebred peers are making local films aimed specifically at a Cantonese-speaking market and shunning much of the mass-produced mainland fare.
“You have to die before you can rise up again,” she muses, looking intently through her green-tinted spectacles. “Hong Kong has gone through the valley, and it has been very bad in the past few years. But it is going to rise up again. I still believe in the future for Hong Kong films.”