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Spring has arrived.
For the Hong Kong film industry, the harsh three-year-long winter of the COVID era — with multiplexes forced to close for extended periods, industry professionals losing their livelihoods, and an indifferent administration that didn’t deign to lift a finger to help this once-mighty cultural industry that put the auteurs from the tiny former colony into the annals of global cinematic history — has finally come to an end.
Despite cinemas reopening their doors only in April 2022, two Hong Kong-made films released in late 2022, Warriors of Future and Table for Six, have become the top-grossing local productions of all time, taking in $10.5 million and $10 million in Hong Kong, respectively. And a third, A Guilty Conscience, released this January, is now the highest-earning Hong Kong film ever, grossing $11 million in its first three weeks of release. Hongkongers have rediscovered their love for homegrown films that tell stories they can relate to, and all is suddenly looking well.
At this opportune time, Hong Kong Filmart is returning to an in-person format after three virtual editions, hoping to reclaim its position as the largest film market in Asia. Local superstars, legendary directors and glittering new productions will be presented at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre once again during Filmart, which runs March 13-16.
But what has rekindled the love affair between Hong Kong films and Hongkongers in a market that has been dominated by Hollywood imports for over two decades? In 2022, five homegrown releases managed to secure a spot on the year-end box office top 10, up against such stiff competition as Avatar: The Way of Water and Top Gun: Maverick. The icing on the cake is that Warriors of Future and A Guilty Conscience were helmed by first-time directors, Ng Yuen-fai and Jack Ng, respectively.
“Hong Kong films’ recent performance at the local box office is hugely encouraging,” multihyphenate Josie Ho, founder of 852 Films, tells THR. “Especially seeing that they are the work of first-time directors, who are introducing new viewpoints and storytelling techniques, that is a shot in the arm for the local film industry.”
“The Hong Kong audience’s support for local productions is at a high in recent history,” adds Mandy Lam, general manager of sales and acquisitions of Edko Films, the company behind top earners A Guilty Conscience and Table for Six. “As long as a local film gains word-of-mouth and becomes a topic of discussion, the audience is much more willing to go see it at the cinema than before.”
Some believe the Hong Kong audience had grown fatigued with Hollywood superhero fare.
“It’s probably because the foreign imports in recent years, especially the Hollywood superhero blockbusters, were mainly special effects-driven. There wasn’t too much variation, so the audience wants films that are narrative-driven,” says Jason Siu, general manager of production and project development of Emperor Motion Pictures, which reps the star-studded Once Upon a Time in Hong Kong with Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ Tony Leung and Under Current at Filmart 2023. “Meanwhile, local productions have raised the bar in scriptwriting, filming technique and production value,” he adds. “Coupled with the devoted fandoms of local idols, the public is paying more attention and supporting more native films.”
Adds Lam, “Apart from the obvious rise in quality, which the audience is aware of, they also appreciate the fact that these are stories they can relate to and have local relevance. Moreover, as streaming platforms proliferate, many people are already subscribing to Netflix or Disney+ at home, the range of foreign films and the variety of content they have access to without going to the cinema have significantly increased. Whereas comparatively, they can only see first-run Hong Kong films in theaters, which is another contributing factor to the boost in popularity of homegrown films.”
But a minuscule, albeit overpopulated, city cannot sustain a flourishing film industry on its own. “If Hong Kong cinema is to return to its heyday of the 1980s, what it needs is overseas markets,” Ho emphasizes. “Hong Kong films were huge in the 1980s because they sold very well overseas and were enormously popular in Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia, which earned it the moniker ‘Hollywood of the East.’ Thus, Hong Kong cinema must reclaim its overseas markets and extend its reach beyond Hong Kong. It would be best if it can break into the U.S. and European markets, but we should at least get back the Southeast Asian markets. Only when we have the overseas markets will we get more investors and more productions.” Ho’s Edge of the World, which will be presented to international buyers at Filmart 2023, has already lined up a wide release in Malaysia in March.
Propitiously, Hong Kong films are beginning to enjoy a revival not only locally, but in some traditional markets and even new markets as well. A Guilty Conscience is indicative of the trend, insiders say. A legal drama with nary a car chase or explosion, the film, starring Hong Kong comedian turned cultural icon Dayo Wong, is billed as Lunar New Year entertainment because of its release date. People of Chinese descent across Asia have the habit of ushering in the Chinese New Year with a trip to the cinema for some collective mirth. Although not at all cheery, this gripping tale of a lawyer’s redemption for causing an innocent client’s unjust imprisonment was accepted as a Lunar New Year offering across Southeast Asia and especially struck a chord in Malaysia, topping the Malaysian box office with a respectable take of over $1.85 million to date.
The courtroom thriller with Cantonese dialogue is also enjoying a theatrical run in 34 cinemas across the U.K., having raked in over $154,000 in three weeks so far. Hong Kong industry veterans say the uncommon U.K. launch was designed to tap into the Hong Kong diaspora surge since 2021, which has seen over 150,000 Hongkongers immigrate to the British Isles. “Distributors in the U.K. understand that there is a demand from the Hong Kong diaspora to continue their Lunar New Year moviegoing tradition, as well as simply a demand for Hong Kong films — so more of the established distributors are inclined to put Hong Kong titles in cinemas,” says Lam. The film has also been released theatrically in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all popular destinations for emigrating Hongkongers. True-crime drama The Sparring Partner, released in November 2022 in the U.K., was also part of this phenomenon.
The story-driven dramas that are spearheading the great revival of Hong Kong cinema are, ironically, a product of the pandemic. During the days of a marooned Hong Kong resulting from the stringent quarantine restrictions required by the government — seven to 21 days in quarantine for inbound travelers, a policy that was enforced for over two years — production budgets were under pressure. “The pandemic affected overseas shoots, and even local filming was often interrupted or suspended, especially at the height of infections,” Siu points out. “The schedules were extended, driving up the costs. Some of our productions had planned overseas shoots in Malaysia or Russia. But because we couldn’t go abroad, and the scripts couldn’t be changed either, we had to resort to using special effects to present or save the scenes, which naturally caused the budget to shoot up.”
But the legendary hustle of the Hong Kong film community has never been deterred by budgetary constraints or production challenges. “Hong Kong filmmakers are an adaptable bunch,” observes Lam. “While some of the projects might have been developed before the pandemic, filmmakers have also taken into account the restrictions and no overseas filming to focus on stories that could be told and could happen within Hong Kong.”
Some even had the gumption to invite foreign help to come to Hong Kong while the gates to the city were largely locked. For 852 Films’ English-language Mother Tongue, a Hong Kong film with a difference, producer and lead Ho invited director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) to the city to take the helm in 2021. The Figgis-directed thriller will make its debut at Filmart in March. Taking Hong Kong’s dialing code as its name, 852 Films’ stated mission is to produce English-language features from Hong Kong for the global audience, as well as Cantonese-language films with local flavor. “I will make films in Hong Kong as much as I can,” Ho says. Mother Tongue was made in Hong Kong, standing in for Los Angeles. “I want to give the filmmakers in Hong Kong as many working opportunities as I can. If a film is set in Hong Kong, of course, it will be shot here. But even if a film is set elsewhere, and not targeting a local audience, I’d also want to make it in Hong Kong if possible.”
So what comes next for the buzzing Hong Kong film scene? Emperor Motion Pictures has a couple of features that will be filmed outside of Hong Kong, including one set for production in Malaysia and another, Priceless Game, which will be shot in Japan. As the border between Hong Kong and China has also reopened, a Chinese-led production it is producing will film in Hong Kong.
Film companies should also benefit from the rousing support of the local audience in terms of investments.
Adds Ho, whose 852 Films is co-financing the black comedy Over My Dead Body with One Cool Film Production, which made Warriors of Future: “With local audiences’ support, local film companies should work together and collaborate more to share the risk. Only then will there be more room for different subject matters and creative possibilities.”
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