The peaks and troughs of the Hong Kong cinema follow the script of reality, which in turn is written by the ebb and flow of the social and political climate. Following a booming decade, the city’s film industry reached its nadir in the 1960s.
Local productions staged a comeback in the 1970s and ushered in 20 years of buoyancy, culminating in a grand, exhilarating finale when Hong Kong was about to call time on its colonial era.
It could be said that the “Oriental Hollywood” has been on the wane since the 1997 handover of sovereignty.
Tides of vicissitudes
In its 1980s heyday, Hong Kong cinema was not limited to the tiny home market of six million people but also found ecstatic receptions among Chinese moviegoers in Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and other neighboring countries.
But that cult following began to abate in the 1990s with the rise of entertainment industries elsewhere across the region.
The good old days of Hong Kong cinema were largely underpinned by the four local chains, namely Shaw Brothers, Golden Harvest (嘉禾), D&B Films (德寶) and Cinema City (新藝城), which not only ran theaters but also operated studios that churned out more than a dozen productions each year, primarily of kung fu, comedy, crime, horror and even erotic genres that could guarantee hefty box office receipts.
Then dormancy took over, and this was due to several factors: D&B Films signed off in 1992, bringing down the industry’s total production by a third, and theater operators had to resort to price wars amid dwindling patronage. The lack of new cinemas in new towns and pressure from the “real estate hegemony” pushed the city’s film industry to the edge.
One telling indicator has been the headlong plunge in the number of movie theaters and seats: 119 cinemas with 120,000 seats in 1993 versus 47 cinemas with less than 40,000 seats in 2014. Today, you can’t even find a cinema in districts like Tai Po.
The bleak episodes of the post-handover years, which saw such calamities as the Asian Financial Crisis, the SARS pandemic, and the realty market meltdown, further scourged the city’s filmmaking sector.
In the wake of the industry-wide depression, the crème de la crème of the business abandoned their home turf and headed north to the mainland.
Still, the years between 1997 and 2003 saw glimmers of hope as scintillating directors and actors gave full display to their talent and creativity, even against all the odds.
During the period Hong Kong filmgoers were treated to a slew of top-line productions such as Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (春光乍洩) and In the Mood for Love (花樣年華), Stephen Chow’s King of Comedy (喜劇之王) and Kung Fu Hustle (功夫), the McDull (麥兜) cartoon series, and of course, the star-studded, critically-acclaimed Infernal Affairs (無間道) trilogy, hailed as a magnum opus among Hong Kong crime movies.
But that was all like a flash in the pan.
The Hong Kong cinema has become just like the many tragic roles it depicts: one who loses sight of purpose and identity, one who cannot master its own fate.
The go north bandwagon led to a brain drain and manpower shortage and subsequently a void in the local market, which was soon inundated by Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster imports.
Then what have these Hong Kong filmmakers achieved in the mainland, other than a surge of Hong Kong-mainland co-productions over the years?
Observers say these co-productions have become something that is neither fish nor fowl. With the temptation of easy money, film outfits produce potboilers that still gross staggering amounts in the box office in view of the massive market in the mainland.
Hong Kong’s free trade pact with the mainland, the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement, has further distorted the picture of such co-productions, with the mandatory provisions that no less than a third of the cast must be from the mainland and that the setting must have substantial relevance to the mainland.
Unsurprisingly these “hybrid” movies, even if done by a celebrated Hong Kong director, can never draw a full house back home as they have little resonance with local cinephiles.
Off the mainstream
Meanwhile, a new generation of filmmakers who chose to remain in Hong Kong imbued their movies with metaphors, dramatization and artistry that speak volumes about the profound bewilderment of identity that enveloped their beloved city in recent years.
Four movies that won the best picture award in the Hong Kong Film Awards since 2010 – Gallants (打擂台), A Simple Life (桃姐), Trivisa (樹大招風) and the dystopian futuristic work Ten Years which drew Beijing’s ire – are all wistful about the state of being in the pre-handover era, striking a deep chord in the disenchanted and disenfranchised local audience.
The new reality is that the slick, mass-appeal, top-grossing co-productions may be resented in the city, but local films that depict the true status quo in Hong Kong, though produced on shoestring budgets, can become sensational hits.
This article is an excerpt of two separate columns that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 24 and 26
Translation by Frank Chen with additional reporting
[Chinese version 1, 2 中文版]
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Why Oriental Hollywood is losing its glow and how to rekindle it