Like a good movie plot the Hong Kong film industry has its fair share of ups and downs.
Once hailed as the Oriental Hollywood, Hong Kong movies of old were constantly taking the audience by storm in the Greater China region, Southeast Asia, South Korea, Japan and even North America.
Tribute must be paid to some pioneering stars and filmmakers like Bruce Lee and Sir Run Run Shaw and his Shaw Brothers Studio.
In the 1980s, a vibrant generation of actors and actresses took center stage one after another as the Hong Kong film industry entered its peak period with annual economic outputs second only to that of Hollywood. Some of these stars are still among the most prominent entertainment icons today.
But the industry has been on the wane.
Local film production has dropped to just 40-50 movies a year, according to Legislative Councillor Ma Fung-kwok, who represents the sports, performing arts, culture and publication functional constituency. Ma is also the chairman of the Hong Kong Film Development Council (FDC).
Excluding movies jointly invested and produced by Hong Kong and mainland partners and those funded by the FDC, there are just around 20 movies wholly funded by private firms per year, Ma told ejinsight.com’s sister publication Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly.
Figures from Hong Kong Theatres Association show that among 310 movies shown in theaters last year, just 42 were local productions.
There are some reasons for the decline.
The major factor is the mushrooming of the filmmaking industry in mainland China, which has lured virtually all local directors, actors and actresses to flock northward to build a presence there. A falling number of locally made movies offer less opportunities for internship for younger aspiring actors.
Soaring rents also pushed many post production studios, which traditionally cluster in industrial buildings in Kwun Tong and Kwai Chung, to relocate on the mainland.
Hong Kong used to be a predominant hub in Asia for entertainment rookies and starlets from elsewhere when other places in the Chinese-speaking world were all entangled in social and political upheavals. Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh and Tang Wei, for example, all got their start in Hong Kong.
The city’s edge diminishes when Taiwan and mainland China give an impetus to their own film and cultural industries.
Local filmmakers also tend to tread the old path to lure younger audiences with kung fu, zombie or comedy offerings, but these old tricks fail to strike a chord in the face of the special visual effect bombardment by numerous Hollywood-style sci-fi flicks.
The Hong Kong government’s lukewarm support doesn’t help either.
The Commerce and Economic Development Bureau’s Film Services Office, for instance, is keener to woo Hollywood directors to shoot scenes in the city than help nurture local talents.
The solution? Step out of the local small circles and produce movies that suit the taste of the mainland and overseas Chinese audiences, according to Ma.
Ma made quite a controversial remark in July that local filmmakers should abandon their Hong Kong identity to further embrace the broader audience in the Greater China region. His outspokenness brought him a hail of criticism.
He told HKEJ Monthly that more than 400 movies could be produced a year in the 1980s and although more than half of them were not shown in local cinemas but exported to overseas markets, production firms made money thanks to the buoyant demand.
Back then all stakeholders were aware that focusing only on the local market with a population of seven million could not sustain the business.
New generation directors and producers must acknowledge the importance of the markets outside Hong Kong.
A few successful local productions like The Midnight After (那夜凌晨，我坐上了旺角開往大埔的紅VAN) and The Way We Dance (狂舞派) could only pull in an average box office of HK$50 million (US$6.45 million) since people outside Hong Kong cannot understand the slangs and metaphors in these movies.
The prevailing emphasis on Hong Kong-style discourse and the way to narrate a story would therefore need to be adjusted to make movies more easily appreciated by overseas audience.
Last year, the ninth supplement to the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement, the de facto free trade agreement between Hong Kong and mainland China, was signed and movies solely produced by Hong Kong firms can enter the mainland market without any quota restrictions after review and approval by the Chinese State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. These productions can be shown in mainland cinemas in Cantonese.
This much-awaited policy loosening can be a vital breakthrough for small firms and independent local producers.
It’s fair to say that Hong Kong cinema still retains much of its distinctive identity and continues to play a leading role on the world stage.
The elements of free speech, free market and an unparalleled talent pool that help put the territory on the world filmmaking map remain largely unchanged. The sensational cult following of Hong Kong movies is still there.
The show is not over but both audiences and stakeholders have been awaiting a new boom for a long time.
Vivian Xue from Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly contributed to the story.
Sounding off: Reality TV and the original music
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