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Hong Kong Filmart: Does China Still Need the Island?

Hong Kong Skyline - H 2013
Gavin Hellier/Jai/Corbis
Hong Kong

As home-grown "Lost in Thailand" breaks box office records, the former colony is rethinking how to survive in a market it helped build.

This story first appeared in the March 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The days of China relying on the expertise of the Hong Kong film sector might be numbered. Exhibit A is the incredible success of Lost in Thailand. Made with a reported budget of only $4.8 million, actor Xu Zheng's directorial debut -- a no-frills odd-couple-on-the-road comedy -- went on to gross $202.4 million in China, making it the country's highest-grossing domestic release to date.

Despite the global media attention the film has drawn, though, much less has been said about the fact that Lost in Thailand is a sequel to Lost on Journey, a similarly themed 2010 release that largely was the brainchild of a creative team from Hong Kong: Raymond Yip Wai-man took the director's reins, Manfred Wong produced and co-wrote the screenplay, Chan Kwong-wing did the music, and Angie Lam did the editing. But none of those players was involved in the sequel. Apart from Xu's co-producers Abe Kwong Man-wai and Chan Chi-leung, its entire cast and crew were from the mainland -- a sign, perhaps, of how power finally has shifted in the relationship between filmmakers from the neighboring industries.

Lost in Thailand is not the first Chinese sequel to have dispensed with Hong Kong filmmakers who contributed to the success of a franchise's founding installment. In 2008, Hong Kong's Gordon Chan Ka-seung produced, directed and co-wrote a hit adaptation of the classic paranormal tale Painted Skin, which earned $43.4 million at the Chinese box office.

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But when Painted Skin: The Resurrection rolled out in 2012, Chan (who was involved in preproduction) already had left the project. Presided over by a creative and production team from the mainland (directed by Wuershan, written by Ran Ping and Ran Jia'nan and produced by Pang Hong, Wang Zhonglei and Beijing-based Taiwanese filmmaker Chen Kuo-fu), the second installment pulled in $113.4 million during a run that began in June, making it China's highest-grossing domestic release until Lost in Thailand came along.

All of which begs the question: Has China simply outgrown Hong Kong?

Chan tells THR it was "inevitable" that mainland filmmakers and producers would come to consider Hong Kong expertise expendable.

"Of course we've contributed a lot to the development of the commercial film industry in China, but we also have to understand how we are just guests in this big party," says Chan, who established himself as a commercially successful and versatile director-producer before heading to the mainland to work on Painted Skin and such similar period dramas as Mural (2011) and The Four (2012). "In the past, they needed our actors and our money, and nowadays they've got loads of cash and an army of high-profile A-listers. They don't even crave our co-productions like they did before."

Indeed, the joint Hong Kong/mainland projects that became very much the norm in those Chinese-speaking markets during the past decade appear to be history.

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Some Hong Kong directors still reign at the mainland box office. The latest films by Stephen Chow Sing-chi, Jackie Chan and Tsui Hark sit comfortably among China's 10 current highest-grossing domestic productions. But even though these are established filmmakers who have become brands themselves, their recent work appears to have lost the unique edge fans of Hong Kong cinema expect, leading some to wonder whether a distinctly Hong Kong sensibility can survive.

Chow's Feb. 10 release Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, which already has grossed $192.8 million in China, is expected to top Lost in Thailand's box-office record and become the actor-director's (and China's) biggest hit to date. In Hong Kong, however, the film has been a disappointment, generating $3.6 million during its three-week run in the city -- half the amount earned during comparable spans by his record-breakers Kung Fu Hustle and CJ7. The same goes for Chan's CZ12: Now ranked third all-time in mainland China with $140.6 million, the action comedy flopped in Hong Kong, earning only $900,000.

Li Cheuk-to, a veteran Hong Kong film critic and artistic director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, says the city's filmmakers still can find success in China without sacrificing their identities by doing what they know best: genre films. Citing Hong Kong helmer Johnnie To's latest crime thriller, Drug War, which was financed with Chinese money and set in Beijing, Li says it's the type of movie that could not have been made by a mainland filmmaker. "There are few directors in China who could do what To has perfected for so long," he says. "Genre specialists are still in demand."

But for how long? It was only a few years ago that mainland Chinese producers were skeptical of young local filmmakers handling big-budget stereoscopic blockbusters -- before directors like Painted Skin's Wuershan, 40, altered that perception for good.

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Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai says the time has come to move beyond outdated definitions of Chinese and Hong Kong cinema. "Films don't just belong to the mainland or Hong Kong," he says. "They belong to all Chinese and not just to a certain place at a certain time. It's a legacy that belongs to all of us."

Wong, who made his reputation with moody art house fare like 2000's In the Mood for Love, is living proof. He now is enjoying his biggest box-office hit in China with The Grandmaster, his first genre film.