AFM: How Hong Kong Localist Filmmakers Are Reclaiming Their Identity

Port of Call Still - h 2015
Courtesy of Hong Kong International Film Festival

Port of Call Still - h 2015

Driven by what they see as excessive Chinese influence on the local film industry, a new generation of directors is striking a chord with moviegoers through gritty, low-budget releases that focus on issues that hit closer to home.

As China continues to expand its influence on Hong Kong, localism has become a watchword in the city and has seeped into the film industry. The ideas that policies should serve local residents first has become so important that newly elected lawmakers even coined a slogan, "Hong Kong Is Not China," during recent political campaigns.

Within the movie business, local directors have embraced the issue — a controversial one — by meeting things head on in such titles as the low-budget, surprise hit Ten Years, which imagines what Hong Kong will look like after a decade of Chinese rule. (Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 after 155 years as a British colony.)

The charged political climate has given rise to an emerging mini-genre of films tackling the subject of localism. Hong Kong filmmakers like Philip Yung — the writer-director of the murder mystery Port of Call, which is representing Hong Kong as this year’s foreign-language Oscar submission — openly wrestle with how Hong Kong can retain its identity as China continues its explosive growth.

"Localist films are so called because their psychological makeup reflects certain elements: the interest of Hong Kong being a priority; the local mentality of the Hong Kong people; and in some cases, the identity of being a Hong Kong citizen, which overrides the identity of being Chinese,” says Yung.

Port of Call is one of the clearest examples of a localist film working within the framework of a genre movie. Revolving around the murder of a young Chinese immigrant by a disenfranchised Hong Kong man, the film presents an intimate view of the lives of Hong Kong people — be they immigrants or locals — and is especially striking in its sense of isolation and alienation, two feelings that Yung says pervade the territory. The movie was released in December to local acclaim and went on to capture seven Hong Kong Film Awards.

Similarly-themed features have existed before the localism label was ever invented. Films like Young and Dangerous (1996), the 1980s Police Story series starring Jackie Chan and much of the repertoire of director Johnnie To — including PTU (2003) and Life Without Principle (2011) — reflect the particular values of the Hong Kong people, their way of thinking and a culture largely removed from Chinese influence. These days, however, China-Hong Kong co-productions all too often see local filmmakers relinquish their identity as they try to serve two distinctly different markets.

"Many filmmakers have lost their way since Chinese-Hong Kong co-productions became the norm of the industry," says Yung. "Driven by instructions from investors, they tried to acclimatize to the mainland Chinese mentality and lost their Hong Kong values. But what the investors want and what the audience expects are very different things; they are even at odds with each other. This is what I think is the main problem of the Hong Kong film industry at the moment.”

Yung says he also is troubled by what he sees as “pseudo-localist films,” those that attempt to exploit local sentiments by adding token Hong Kong elements that otherwise have nothing to do with the localism movement.

"Pseudo-localist films contain elements of Hong Kong films, which the makers think they can capitalize on — the Hong Kong elements are consumable values,” says Yung. “These can be symbols and elements of past Hong Kong films, such as the 1990s-era gambling in [the recent Chinese release] From Vegas to Macau.

“I think these stem from commercial calculations, capitalizing on the successful formulas of previous Hong Kong films. They are akin to the eateries found in tourist areas that no local Hong Kong person would go to but exist solely for the benefit of tourists. The localist elements of these films are in form only, packaged to resemble a local film — but not in their content. They lack the observations of the lives of locals in Hong Kong.”

The effort to wrest the Hong Kong film industry from Chinese influence and control is now backed by the local government. In March 2013, Hong Kong politicians created the First Feature Film Initiative in an effort to support emerging talent, and it is beginning to bear fruit. Armed with HK$2 million ($257,000) apiece given to them by the initiative, directors Steve Chan and Wong Chun, both 27, made their marks with distinctive  lms that they proclaim are archetypical localist films.

"As a participant, I can say that after the Hong Kong government provided funding for my film, it posed no intervention whatsoever in the making of the film,” says Chun, director of Mad World, which revolves around a father and his bipolar son living in a sub-divided flat in Hong Kong (both the mood disorder and living conditions are social ills in the city). “They didn’t even know what we were doing until they saw the film.

"It is invaluable in that when you find a commercial investor, you have autonomous creative liberty," adds Chun. "Commercial investors would [normally] doubt how much money the film would make at the box office; they would second-guess the casting; they would be afraid that the audience would not be interested. Whereas from the government, we obtained total creative autonomy. Although the budget wasn’t large, we were utterly free in the making of this film. It provided an opportunity for us to reimagine what Hong Kong films can look like."

Smaller-budget films with lesser box-office potential are more likely to tell stories about the Hong Kong identity, says Chan, helmer of Weeds on Fire, a baseball film about teenagers growing up in public housing and learning to play the game. The film resonated with a younger generation of moviegoers and took double its production cost ($578,000) at the local box office during the summer.

"In the past 10 years, when co-productions became the main trend of the Hong Kong film industry, Hong Kong directors would try to make films that suited the taste of the Chinese audience and to a certain extent undercut their freedom of expression," says Chan. "But low-budget localist films that do not have that much of a box-office burden can speak more freely about the local climate, and the Hong Kong audience enjoys them more."

Adds Wong: “Films to me are not only stories, they are records of the facets of a city. The lack of space in Hong Kong and the high-pressure nature of the city are characteristics of Hong Kong. Citizens have to finish their tasks in a limited amount of time, and at the same time, we are depressed, lonely and empty. This is a bipolar city."


Hong Kong Hot List

Hong Kong cinema may be fighting to retain its identity, but these five titles demonstrate that the storied film sector that produced Bruce Lee and John Woo still has plenty of juice to entice international buyers.

Operation Mekong
Inspired by a true incident that occurred in 2011 in the waters of the drug-manufacturing region of the Golden Triangle — when 13 sailors from two Chinese commercial vessels were waylaid and then executed — Operation Mekong has grossed $140 million in China since its Sept. 30 bow. Repped by Distribution Workshop, the  lm is directed by Dante Lam (Beast Stalker) and stars Zhang Hanyu (The Taking of Tiger Mountain) and Eddie Peng (To the Fore).

God of War
Adapted from another true story, this historical war drama from Media Asia tells the story of a real-life Chinese general’s defeat of Japanese pirates along the Chinese coastline during the 16th century. Directed by Gordon Chan (Painted Skin), the action-packed drama stars Sammo Hung (The Bodyguard), and Vincent Zhao (Once Upon a Time in China) and is slated for release in 2017.

Love Off the Cuff
The third installment of director Pang Ho-cheung’s Love in a Puff series, the romantic comedy from Media Asia reunites Pang with stars Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue as lovers Cherie and Jimmy, where their relationship is put to the test by Jimmy’s childhood friend’s request for his help in her arti cial insemination. Now in preproduction, the film is set for next summer.

The Liquidator
The crime thriller from Edko Films revolves around the search for a serial killer who targets two men he blames for allowing bad guys to go free: a criminal psychologist and an evidence technician. Directed by Xu Jizhou (Rookie Agent Rouge), the actioner should find an audience in China thanks to star Deng Chao, last seen in director Stephen Chow’s blockbuster The Mermaid, the highest-grossing film of all time in China.

Cook Up a Storm
Set in the world of international cooking competitions, the movie centers on two chefs from different backgrounds — one is a Cantonese street-food cook, the other a French-trained Michelin-starred chef — who go head to head to find their common foe. The comedy from Emperor Motion Pictures is directed by Raymond Yip and stars Nicholas Tse (The Stool Pigeon), Ge You (Let the Bullets Fly) and Anthony Wong (Infernal Affairs).