Hong Kong Filmmakers Navigate Politics and Pandemic

Last month’s Udine festival of all things East Asian was the launch pad for “Making Waves — Navigators of Hong Kong Cinema,” a collection of 13 films that will travel to a dozen cities in Europe and Asia. Billed as an “extravaganza,” mixing old and new talent, the event is pegged to the 25th anniversary celebrations of the return of Hong Kong to China after 150 years of British colonial rule.

But it is no longer clear to everyone that Hong Kong cinema has the energy, willpower or finance to face down its larger demons. Its problems range from the long-term drift of Hong Kong talent into the mainland Chinese industry to censorship and marginalization.

Last year began with Hong Kong cinemas under pressure from pro-Beijing media to change their releases, and raids on private screenings. These were followed by an amended law that introduces film censorship according to national security concerns (such as terrorism, secession and subversion) and that threatens to accelerate the “mainlandization” of the Hong Kong film industry.

Hong Kong is not at that point yet — mainland film regulators have rules about superstition, gang activity, drugs and how all bad guys must be shown to have a comeuppance that do not yet apply in Hong Kong — but years of co-production between mainland Chinese firms and Hong Kong creators has minted a succession of films that are chiefly geared to mainland Chinese tastes.

Some co-productions have succeeded in straddling the two markets — including “Shock Wave 2” and Raging Fire” — but major Hong Kong directors such as Dante Lam, Tsui Hark, Peter Lam and Derek Kwok these days mostly work north of the Hong Kong border making films such as “The Battle at Lake Changjin” and “Leap” that conform to government-determined principles.

These titles are “much less in tune with Hong Kong moviegoers’ tastes, especially with the public ever more assertive on local identity and culture,” says Tim Youngs, Hong Kong programmer at Udine.

Several titles that may be of interest to Hong Kong audiences — a raft of pro-democracy documentaries, including “Revolution of Our Times,” “Inside the Red Brick Wall,” “May You Stay Forever Young” and “Blue Planet,” which have played at overseas festivals — are understood to be outside the law and are unlikely ever to be screened in Hong Kong.

Those filmmakers who still seek a Hong Kong theatrical release are facing tougher issues of shrinking budgets and irrelevance.

“Is there even a market for Hong Kong films?” asks Albert Lee, former studio head at Emperor Motion Pictures and now director of the Hong Kong Intl. Film Festival. “While the established filmmakers are not working in Hong Kong, young filmmakers are making movies that don’t travel at all. Where are the second films? Where is the career development? Many appear not to be looking outwards. Unlike Southeast Asia, we don’t have an Anthony Chen or a Jeremy Chua at the moment.”

Making matters worse, the city’s already weakened film industry was badly hit by COVID-related cinema closures in 2020 and 2021, and by the city government’s nearly hermetic border policies.
The number of local releases rebounded to 44 last year, up from 36 in 2020. But they lagged behind 2019, and theaters closed from early January to late April again this year.

Production volumes are harder to pinpoint, but the number of new offerings at Cannes by Hong Kong-based sales companies is small, reflecting wait-and-see policies by the major studios Edko, Emperor Motion Pictures and Media Asia.

Still, it would be premature to write off a city that has bounced back from past setbacks.

Hong Kong indie film highlights from the past 12 months include Jun Li’s “Drifting,” a drama about homelessness; Chan Kin-long’s low-budget drama “Hand Rolled Cigarette” and Chiu Sin-hang’s sports drama “One Second Champion.”

Even the filmic mainstream got a shot in the arm, with several members of the Canto-pop boy band sensation Mirror rapidly transitioning into film.

“Hong Kong filmmakers have proven their talent and versatility in the face of many commercial and technological challenges with their successfully made films, not only for Hong Kong and mainland China but for a global audience,” says Eddie Cheung special rep for Hong Kong Economic and Trade Affairs to the European Union, which spearheaded the Making Waves program.

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