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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