Hong Kong cinema’s golden age is long dead, and it’s up to the city to decide the new normal.
This was the brutal truth conveyed by two prominent Hong Kong film critics at a seminar about the past two decades of post-handover Hong Kong cinema, organized by the Hong Kong International Film Festival.
Lam Kam-po covered the business side of history, pointing out that Hong Kong cinema was practically drawing its last breaths in the final years of the 1990s. Only two or three companies held up the entire Hong Kong film industry as the number of productions dropped to a new low.
However, things turned for the better in 2003, when the Chinese and Hong Kong governments signed the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement, which included a term that allowed Hong Kong co-productions to bypass foreign film quotas and enter the Chinese market as local films. This opened up the path for Hong Kong filmmakers to find work in China, whose commercial film industry was only in early stages of development at the time.
Despite co-productions giving Hong Kong directors a chance to work with budgets they’ve only dreamt of before, it hasn’t entirely helped the local film industry. To this day, local films make up only about 18-20% of total box office revenue in Hong Kong, despite a small uptick in local productions in 2016. Hong Kong audiences continue to complain that co-productions have diluted Hong Kong cinema due to filmmakers’ need to pass censorship and appease mainland Chinese audiences.
Meanwhile, Long Tin Shum took up the critical portion of the seminar, explaining that the Hong Kong cinema has evolved into a “cinema of the losers” in the past two decades.
Shum used several films from the festival’s Paradigm Shift post-handover retrospective as examples.
During the golden age in the 80’s and 90’s, Hong Kong films carried a “never lose” spirit, as evident in martial art films and stars of an older generation, represented by the likes of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. However, as political realities began to set in over the years, filmmakers seemed to be telling stories of people who are forced to admit defeat.
In Peter Chan’s The Warlords (投名狀), Jet Li’s character represented the typical Hong Konger working in mainland China – always adaptable to changing circumstances and refusing to go down by any means necessary. However, that shifted later in Derek Kwok and Clement Chang’s Gallants (打擂台), which presented characters who lose, but bask in the glory of having fought the good fight in the first place. In that sense, even defeat comes with a sense of hope.
Even that optimism has disappeared in recent years, as evident in Trivisa (樹大招風). The crime drama presents the downfall of three crime figures who were far past their glory days. Shum saw the characters as symbols for today’s Hong Kong – tragic heroes who would rather go down in a blaze of glory and lament that the past is better than the present rather than contemplate their own shortcomings.
Shum also brought up the point that the rise of the so-called “local market” – the idea of filmmakers making films purely for local Hong Kong audiences – didn’t happen until 2010. Lam added that Hong Kong has never been a film industry that could’ve been sustained purely through local box office due the city’s low population. Before the rise of the mainland China film market, Hong Kong films made a significant portion of their revenue from oversea markets like Taiwan and parts of southeast Asia.
Lam also pointed out Hong Kong made its way into the Chinese film market when it needed the production expertise and the funding of Hong Kong companies. Now that China has risen as a major filmmaking force that could sustain itself, Hong Kong film companies are gradually being left out of the equation, even as Hong Kong filmmakers continue to play an important part after years of growing pains in trying to adapt to making films in a new, unfamiliar environment.
Lam also implied that Hong Kong filmmakers are similar to British filmmakers who had no problem telling American stories in Hollywood, despite working out of their home environment.