Hong Kong Filmmakers Eye China's Larger Audiences

It's time to exhale and pop that champagne cork as the Hong Kong film industry proclaims 2010 a good year for films.

Indeed, the performance of local productions has indicated the start of a resurgence in Hong Kong cinema amid the larger and irrevocable trend of China-Hong Kong co-productions. Cases in point include Shaw Brothers/TVB's Chinese New Year hit 72 Tenants of Prosperity, which raked in HK$34.4 million ($4.4 million), and Hong Kong's foreign-language film Oscar contender Echoes of the Rainbow, which created a citywide fervor in March and took in HK$23 million.

Audiences also have shown support for smaller, low-budget local productions that aimed at the domestic market, including director Barbara Wong's surprise hit The Break Up Club and Pang Ho-cheung's romance for smokers Love in a Puff, which did respectably at the box office through a gradual buildup of word-of-mouth, earning HK$10.3 million and HK$6.4 million, respectively.

Co-productions still reign among Chinese-language films, as the big-budgeted blockbuster Ip Man 2 showed with its HK$43.3 million box-office haul. The sequel almost overtook its main Easter-slot rival, the HK$44 million-grossing Alice in Wonderland (the Donnie Yen starrer grossed more than 200 million yuan, or $30 million, in China). The same is true for Feng Xiao-gong's epic Aftershock, which crossed the HK$10 million box-office threshold to become the highest-grossing Chinese-language film by a Chinese director in Hong Kong.

Nevertheless, with the exception of 72 Tenants, whose box-office triumph during the cutthroat Chinese New Year period was bolstered by round-the-clock promotional support from the one major television station in Hong Kong, the market has demonstrated its susceptibility to smaller films released outside of the peak season, creating a more diversified marketplace.

"We are seeing a great variety of films this year," says Wong, who credited the support from the Hong Kong Film Development Council for the boom. "With the [council] as one of the initial investors, projects with original subject matter or riskier prospects are able to get a kick-start. Then, it would be easier to look for investments from friends or find private equity."

Certainly, the government-subsidized Hong Kong Film Development Fund has been a reliable backer for local filmmakers interested in alternative storytelling; it has invested HK$43 million in 14 domestic productions since its 2007 launch. Several of the success stories at the local box office this year owed their beginnings to the fund, including veteran filmmakers Alex Law and Mable Cheung's award-winning Echoes of the Rainbow, the comedy La Comedie Humaine and Break Up Club.

In a way, the fund has assisted in creating an environment conducive to local filmmaking and for both new and experienced filmmakers, an alternative financing option for midrange and small-budget projects now more and more under the focus of studios.

Apart from such small to midrange films as Media Asia's Puff or Emperor Motion Picture's Ex, Shaw Brothers/TVB also has been headed in the midrange direction, with costume comedy The Jade and the Pearl, co-produced with Emperor - by director-producers Janet Chun and Chan Hing-ga, the team behind Comedie Humaine - and Perfect Wedding, the second film directed by Wong to be released this year.

Despite strong backing by the TVB promotional machine, Wedding has yet to live up to the numbers of Wong's Break Up Club. Even so, opportunities come in twos and threes.

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Therein lies the dilemma faced by the Hong Kong film industry: As soon as a filmmaker proves his or her worth, opportunity - or more frequently, China - beckons. For years, established local filmmakers including Tsui Hark, Peter Chan and Stanley Kwan have relocated to China. The handful of outstanding filmmakers that, against all odds, came of age during the industry downturn of the 2000s are following in their footsteps.

Director Patrick Kong is such a case. With a series of blatantly commercial urban love stories starring pop stars of the moment that capture the Hong Kong youth zeitgeist - accomplishing the rare feat of consecutive box-office successes of more than HK$10 million in 2006, 2007 and 2008 - Kong became the darling of the teen and early 20s demographic and the go-to guy for youth-oriented romance. That was one of the reasons the 31-year-old was invited by Eric Tsang to take care of the youth elements as co-director for 72 Tenants, which turned out to be the top-grossing film of Kong's career.

After that, it's only logical that China calls.

Kong is shooting Mr. and Mrs. Single - a project at once his forte and unfamiliar - an urban love story written, filmed and financed completely in China for Emperor Entertainment Group and Beijing Forbidden City Film Co. Since his 2004 debut, Kong has not taken charge in a co-production, and the 20 million yuan Single is no exception.

"A lot of the Hong Kong filmmakers would try their hands first in period dramas or action films when they started working in China, or at least co-productions," Kong says. "So to tell a Chinese urban story is a challenging opportunity for me. That doesn't mean I'm giving up the Hong Kong market, though."

Before leaving for Beijing, Kong finished filming his annual Hong Kong love story: Marriage With a Liar, a HK$7 million romance for Mega-Vision slated for Christmas.

"To tell the truth, the market for local films in Hong Kong has been shrinking; in order to get a higher budget and a bigger market, we have to go to China," Kong says. "This is the future of Chinese-language films; Hong Kong films are only regional cinema."

Whether given the chance to move or work in China, the enormous market potential of the motherland is coveted by the younger generation of filmmakers.

"Box office aside, all directors want their work to be seen by as many people as possible," says Wong, whose Hong Kong debut, the 2001 documentary feature Women's Private Parts, made her a member of the 2000s generation of filmmakers. "The bigger the market the better. China is the closest to Hong Kong, so to go there is a way to expand our audience."

Those who take the reins in Hong Kong-China co-productions are the norm, such as Derek Kwok, whose 2008 The Moss earned him a best new director statuette at the Hong Kong Film Awards. His output this year include April's nostalgia-filled martial arts feast Gallants, backed by Andy Lau's Focus Films, and September's Frozen for Media Asia, and he will helm Stephen Chow's upcoming remake of A Chinese Odyssey for Chow's Bingo Group and China Film Group.

Others also have moved northward, as in the case of Pang, who is putting on his producer's hat for his Chinese debut, a project titled 4+1, which stands for four shorts and one feature. The prolific director already has released two films he helmed this year - Love in a Puff and the slasher flick Dream Home, for Josie Ho's 852 - and Lover's Discourse, the directorial debut of Derek Tsang (son of Eric) and Jimmy Wan that Pang produced for Irresistible Films, is set for a December bow in Hong Kong.

Even newcomers are catching the Chinese wave, as attested by wunderkind Heiward Mak, who made her debut in 2008 with High Noon and followed up in June with Ex for Emperor Motion Pictures. The 26-year-old is developing a Hong Kong-China co-production about Hong Kong thirtysomethings working in China, to be filmed in the mainland next year.

"I won't rule out the possibility of moving to China at some point," Mak says. "The market is bigger in China, which translates as a higher budget and better quality. That is always attractive for a filmmaker. But I'm not aggressive; I take things one at a time."

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