Friday, May 06, 2005

Hong Kong Movies: Demise or New Direction?

Many articles have been written in the last five years on the demise of the Hong Kong movie industry; the latest has been one in today's Taipei Times. The decline in production and in theater receipts is undeniable; the films produced have declined from a once-respectable 300 per year in the mid-1990s to just 64 in 2004. Where once new stars and heroes were discovered by movie studios, the same aging veterans are being trotted out to rehash old themes. The chief reason cited for the huge fall-off in box-office receipts (from HK$1 billion in the mid-90s to HK$445 million last year) is piracy. An ironic paradox too, given that many films here are produced by triad groups, when other triad groups (and sometimes the same ones) are the ones responsible for pirating the movies.

The interesting thing about Hong Kong is that it was once, next to Hollywood, the second largest film industry in the world - and unsubsidized, at that. Directors, actors and producers alike all prided themselves on being able to work on razor thin budgets and lightning-fast film schedules, from initial conception to final editing all taking place within a single month. Hot actors and actresses would sometimes do 20 films a year, sometimes on up to 3 films at once and sleep in their cars, wearing themselves out in the process. But has the decline all just to do with piracy?

Let us face it - a lot of those films were done quickly, and many of them were entertaining; some of them even good. But the vast majority of the films produced were very substandard. There are always exceptions, but pick up most any Tsui Hark or Ringo Lam film today that they'd made 20-30 years ago and frankly, they are very dated. Going back even further, the Shaw Brothers' 'Movieland' studios made 40 films a year and created lots of stars. But frankly, I find all the movies I'd seen as a child from that era now unwatchable.

There is a process of integration of the Hong Kong and mainland movie markets at work; but also there are more and more films from abroad, not just from Hollywood, but crucially from markets like Korea. The average Korean movie made today for export is generally of better quality that the average Hong Kong film, and the directors are more creative with scripts and storylines, and here's the crux of the matter - they take chances. The cynical, risk-averse production studios of Hong Kong have largely refused to adapt to new challengers from abroad, and are paying the price for sacrificing quality in the relentless drive for efficiency.

Of course, the local film industry is also suffering from piracy - that is undeniable when a quick jaunt over the border will yield you your pick of any recent movie you'd care to watch for 10 RMB. But in an effort of trying to find new audiences, a few films (like Kung Fu Hustle) are doing extraordinarily well. Anyone who's seen that film will see that a proper budget was allocated for choreography, for good screen shots, for editing and post production - and the effort shows through. Hopefully, the directors and producers of Hong Kong will stop trying to reprise the latest gangster saga and find new themes to develop. It's actually laughable that the historic pirate Cheung Po-Tsai has not been properly cast in a recent movie in Hong Kong, and it is up to Hollywood to cast Chow in such a film, completely out of the original context.

It's time for the local film industry to stop whinging and to evolve - to strive to become better. Hollywood, it is true, has learned a great deal from Hong Kong - but it is time Hong Kong learns from Hollywood. Not just in terms of Matrix-like action shots, but in terms of having cohesive plots and interesting storylines. We raise the issue of creativity in Hong Kong on our Tsim Sha Tsui walk - and we laud directors like Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan or Ann Hui that have made critically acclaimed movies within existing genres (as Ackbar Abbas, defender of the local industry, points out). However, by and large that is MIA here in Hong Kong.

Stefan, who's sitting next to me at the moment, points out also that many films export the enigma of Hong Kong identity - not quite Chinese with a capital C, not quite Cosmopolitan given their very Cantonese identity. We discuss the positive aspects of this in our TST walk - that to us is the chief attraction of watching local movies. (given that many films are pretty average!) But at their worst, many very local films parody both Westerners and mainlanders and at heart, are very xenophobic. Local film-makers will have to stamp that out if they want to share their product with the rest of the world...

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