What happened to the Hong Kong film industry?

For decades, Hong Kong was the third largest motion picture industry in the world (after Indian cinema and Hollywood) and the second largest exporter. Despite an industry crisis starting in the mid-1990s and Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in July 1997, Hong Kong film has retained much of its distinctive identity and continues to play a prominent part on the world cinema stage. In the West, Hong Kong’s vigorous pop cinema (especially Hong Kong action cinema) has long had a strong cult following, which is now arguably a part of the cultural mainstream, widely available and imitated.

Economically, the film industry together with the value added of cultural and creative industries represents 5 per cent of Hong Kong’s economy. A stat makes you go wow.

Another fact that really pique my interest was for decades, films were typically shot silent, with dialogue and all other sound dubbed afterwards. In the hectic and low-budget industry, this method was faster and more cost-efficient than recording live sound, particularly when using performers from different dialect regions; it also helped facilitate dubbing into other languages for the vital export market (for example, Standard Mandarin for mainland China and Taiwan). Many busy stars would not even record their own dialogue, but would be dubbed by a lesser-known performer. Movies often went into production without finished scripts, with scenes and dialogue concocted on the set; especially low-budget productions on tight schedules might even have actors mouth silently or simply count numbers, with actual dialogue created only in the editing process.

In the mid-90s, the Hong Kong film industry ate itself alive. In 1993, it had produced a record 238 films and its doyen director, John Woo, was about to dive, twin guns aflame, through Hollywood’s doors. Six years later, production had crashed to just 40 films a year and not even the local triad gangs could prevent their own films from being pirated: there were bootlegs VCDs on sale everywhere of Casino, a gangster pic about and financed by the notorious Macau hoodlum, “Broken Tooth” Koi.

What went wrong? It was partly the first wave of digital piracy and partly the Asian economic crash of 1997, but it was also what Wellington Fung – then producer about town, now the secretary-general of the Hong Kong Film Development Council – describes as a “natural cycle”.

So the golden age – when Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark seemed to effortlessly knock off miracles of motion, and the great action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping was calling the shots – is history. But the Cantonese industry has been staging a quiet comeback, and a delegation is in the UK for Hong Kong Film Week to tell us about it: they’re following up last night’s premiere of crime thriller Overheard 2 with screenings of recent fare every night this week. Annual output, encouraged by a new film fund, increased to about 50 films in the mid-noughties, with the rate climbing in the last couple of years to around 70.

Maybe the Hong Kong film industry needs to be more grounded, more sanguine these days. It has to make tricky decisions about how to progress. About half of its annual 70 are co-productions with mainland Chinese partners; the other half are independent Hong Kong productions. The first could mean a bite of the juicy Mandarin orange, the huge Chinese film market everyone is eyeing up these days; the second, more flexibility to cut different versions (China-approved films can only exist in a single version) for different audiences, including one for the lucrative Cantonese-speaking market, comprising some 160-170 million, that exists in Hong Kong, Guangdong, Malaysia and beyond. Hong Kong producers have a big decision to make before they take a single step.

Maybe Hollywood could use some of that philosophical stance. You could argue that overproduction and declining quality are exactly what happened in LA when the DVD cash started flooding in the shops. Could the current sliding American cinema attendance be a precursor to a full, Hong Kong-style crash? It seems inconceivable, but maybe looking eastwards might be worthwhile insurance. Where Hong Kong once showed the world that performing a flying kick the length an entire room was possible, now it can analyse the virtues of a sensible recovery plan.

Check out my related post: Why are lesser women working in Asia?

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