By Gloria Mopotu

The late 1980s was the peak of Hong Kong film. Behind the behemoth of Hollywood and India’s Bollywood, tiny Hong Kong was the third biggest motion picture industry in the world.

It also had a great influence on the East Asian market. Film-goers flocked to theatres to see Hong Kong films such as A Better Tomorrow and A Chinese Ghost Story, in places like South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

A Chinese Ghost Story and A Better Tomorrow
A Chinese Ghost Story and A Better Tomorrow.

Director and producer Wong Jing was a distinctive figure of this era. His action-packed films such as God of Gamblers, starring Chow Yun-fat, played a prominent role in Hong Kong cinema. The 1980s was known as the golden era of Hong Kong cinema.

But since Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, the business of filmmaking in Hong Kong has increasingly turned towards the lucrative market across the border, and away from its own traditions.

China’s film market has become the second fastest growing film industry in the world. This massive market has had an irresistible pull upon Hong Kong filmmakers, whose film industry has suffered a drastic decline.

state theatre
The now defunct State Theatre.

By this period, Hong Kong filmmakers collaborated with China’s film market through the mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) to make co-production films aimed at Chinese audiences. Driven by the tastes of mainland filmgoers and the dictates of its film censorship, Hong Kong film is losing its creative lustre, say industry experts.

However several local film initiatives are trying to find new ways to foster local filmmaking and the results so far suggest there could still be a bright future for Hong Kong film.

hong kong cinema
A woman waits at a bus stop with a large billboard of Hong Kong movie star Chow Yun Fat. File photo: Goh Chai-hin/AFP.

In the early 1990s China had a new and rapidly developing cinema market, which everybody wanted to find a way into. Few investments were being made in the Hong Kong industry, and China’s market became the answer.

Peter Tsi, a veteran film producer and screenwriter, believes that Hong Kong filmmakers had to agree with China’s creative restrictions if they wanted to get in. “That was how the Hong Kong film industry started to decline,” says Tsi.

Before co-producing films with China, Hong Kong films had widespread influence. They premiered at the top film festivals such as the Cannes Film Festival, Venice Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival.

At the Cannes festival in 2004, the event organisers pushed the screening time to an hour later, just to wait for Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wei’s film 2046 to arrive. Festivalgoers were exhilarated to see a film that was expected to compete for the Palme d’Or award.

Hong Kong film expert and editor Kevin Ma blames the Hong Kong film industry for the obsession with what the Chinese market had to offer in co-productions. This had a great impact on the global influence and popularity of Hong Kong cinema.

The appearances of Hong Kong films at the three major festivals have decreased over the years. The last time a Hong Kong film entered the official film competition at the Cannes Film Festival was Johnnie To’s film Vengeance in 2009.

At the Berlin International Film festival, the last Hong Kong film to show was Johnnie To’s film Sparrow in 2008. And at the Venice Film Festival, A Simple Life was the last Hong Kong film in 2011.

According to Ma, this proved that Hong Kong cinema was losing its identity. Seeking to benefit from financing across the border, Hong Kong filmmakers turned away from local audiences, focusing on co-productions with Chinese partners instead.

This meant local Hong Kong audiences and tastes were cast aside for projects appealing to more generalised mainland audiences. “Because the Hong Kong cinema was obsessed with making money,” says Ma. “It lost its quality, which is evident by the lack of appearance in the three festivals.”

Hong Kong filmmakers deciding to make films under China’s censorship conditions — which exclude propagating crime, gambling or superstition — gave up their creative freedom and put Hong Kong cinema’s identity at stake. Ma blames the conforming to this censorship for the loss of their distinctive charm. “To them, money was more important than upholding artistic integrity,” says Ma.

South African blogger and editor Jeremy Goldkorn believes a film industry which used to be at the centre of the world has lost its identity. As long as China’s market remains open, Hong Kong filmmakers will continue to make films that appeal to Chinese audiences but drive the Hong Kong film industry downwards.

Avenue of Stars
The Avenue of Stars. Photo: GovHK.

“As long as there is money in China’s market, Hong Kong cinema will not return to the centre of the film stage anytime soon,” says Goldkorn.

The Hong Kong government has designed film competitions that aims to promote the development of film creations in Hong Kong by young local filmmakers.

Create Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Arts Development Council hope to inspire young filmmakers in Hong Kong to produce local films and encourage cinematic cultural exchanges.

Kevin Ma believes that this new movement helps the Hong Kong industry regrow its identity among young filmmakers, who are turning away from the commercial opportunities of the mainland Chinese market in order to make unrestricted films that pursue their own visions.

With Create Hong Kong launching the First Feature Film Initiative in 2013 and the Hong Kong Arts Development Council launching Fresh Wave in 2005, local filmmakers are offered opportunities to create films and sustain the industry.

First Feature Film Initiative
The Chairman of the Hong Kong Film Development Council, Ma Fung-kwok (right), pictured with the director of the winning film proposal of the Higher Education Institution Group, Chan Siu-kuen in January. Photo: GovHK.

This is made possible through grant allocations given to the winners of these competitions to make their local films.

As of 2016, Fresh Wave has become independent and operated as a non-profit organisation. Thomas Leung, a 27-year-old film production student at the Hong Kong School of Performing Arts, says that these film organisations are an indication that there is still hope for Hong Kong cinema, and they are many talented filmmakers in Hong Kong who just need a platform to showcase their talents.

“Collaborating with these organisations is a good way to build your reputation,” says Leung. “I plan to enter them myself after I graduate next year”.

Since the opening of these two competitions, winners have been responsible for making four feature films that are rooted in the local film identity of Hong Kong.

Chan Chi-fat’s Weeds on Fire, is a sports drama film about an underdog baseball team’s determination to become champions in the league. Mad World by director Chun Wong, tells a sombre story about a man struggling to recover from bipolar disorder.

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Trivisa is a crime thriller film directed by newcomers Frank Hui, Jevons Au and Vicky Wong, about three mobsters who come together to settle a final score. Finally, the film Ten Years, which was directed by Kwok Zune,Wong Fei-Pang, Jevons Au, Ng Ka-leung and Chow Kwun-Wai, gives the audience a taste of what Hong Kong will be like ten years from now.

All these feature films won several awards at the 2016 and 2017 Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Director for all four films. Meanwhile, the co-production film Cold War 2, with a big budget, won only one award.

Kevin Ma calls these film schemes a good thing for Hong Kong cinema as the Hong Kong film industry has begun to open its eyes and realise that although many experienced filmmakers in Hong Kong have gone into co-productions, it’s time to forget about the past and look to the future by encouraging the younger generation of filmmakers to make films without creative restrictions. “There’s nothing about mainland China’s censorship. This is a chance for local filmmakers to make what they want to make,” says Ma.

Heiward Mak, a 32-year-old film director and producer of Mad World, thinks that these film competitions are a good way to encourage young filmmakers. But better film education in schools, she says, is also an important way of ensuring potential young filmmakers learn to appreciate the industry.

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“New directors need to be educated about films,” says Mak. “This will enable them to be interested in films and good things can happen from there”.

On the other hand, some film experts in the Hong Kong film industry have argued that the industry is not losing its identity and that Hong Kong cinema is helping the mainland Chinese film industry through what Wellington Fung, Council Secretary General of the Hong Kong Film Development Council, says is a big opportunity for films within the Chinese market.

But where the film industry in Hong Kong is concerned, Fung agrees that the film industry in Hong Kong needs to be reconditioned and as a result, these film organisations were created to give local filmmakers the chance to preserve the Hong Kong film industry.

“We are changing the look of the mainland film industry,” says Fung. “But we have not forgotten about local Hong Kong films. That’s why we have something like the First Film Initiative and this is one thing that we are pleased about”.

“We are proud of the golden era,” says Mak. “But we have to encourage young filmmakers to write good scripts because at the end of the day that is what makes good films,” says Mak.

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.