China co-productions breathe life into Hong Kong film


PIPELINE: HK-China co-productions
IN FOCUS: Chen profiles Peking opera legend

During its heyday in the '90s, the Hong Kong film sector could do no wrong.

John Woo's slow-motion pyrotechnics and Wong Kar-wai's moody atmospherics packed in record audiences as "Hong Kong cinema" became short-hand for a vibrant, take-no-prisoners style of filmmaking.

By the new millennium, however, boxoffice was down, Woo and Wong had defected to Hollywood and local players were left to wonder where all the momentum went.

Now, after years of trying to recapture the magic, international dealmakers descending on this month's Hong Kong Filmart will discover a local industry that is pursuing increasingly successful growth strategies -- while also grappling with the challenge of maintaining its unique Hong Kong identity.

That's because at the core of almost every hope of revival is China, where the film industry's annual boxoffice gross has grown by 25% each year since 2003 and where boxoffice grosses in the past three months hit a record 789 million yuan ($111 million), according to China's state-owned news agency Xinhua.

Only Chinese co-productions can be freely released in China, where foreign film quotas still rule, censorship is a given and authorities keep a tight reign on anything they feel might negatively impact its stability.

Yet despite early fears after the 1997 handover that China's strict censorship rules would annihilate Hong Kong's film sector, access to the 1.3-billion-population mainland market via China-Hong Kong co-productions and a willingness of local filmmakers to work within the mainland's guidelines have proven a boon to the island territory of 7 million people. Recent co-productions attracting big-name directors to large-scale features include Peter Chan's war epic "The Warlords," Taiwanese singer-actor Jay Chou's romantic drama "Secret" and Benny Chan's edgy cop thriller "Invisible Target."

"The Chinese market is so lucrative, films' boxoffice pass the 100 million yuan mark ($14 million) easily," says John Chong, deputy chairman and CEO of Media Asia Entertainment Group, one of Asia's largest studios and distributors of Chinese-language films.

Indeed, leading filmmakers say that without China's recent emergence as an economic powerhouse, Hong Kong cinema would have remained mired in a downturn. With the co-productions, the local film business could be well on its way to reclaiming its former glory.

"Chinese co-production is the trend and the logical development of the Hong Kong film industry," says Chong, whose Media Asia will co-produce eight films with mainland Chinese investors this year, including the two-part literary epic "Water Margin" from Johnnie To and Andrew Lau ("Infernal Affairs") and "Assassins" from Pou-Soi Cheang. "We hope to strike co-production deals for every film we produce."

The annual quota of imported films in China is around 20, but under the CEPA (Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement between Hong Kong and the Mainland) agreement, Hong Kong-mainland co-productions fall outside strict quotas. CEPA rules on what constitutes a co-production also have been loosened over the years. For example, CEPA III, implemented in January 2006, lifts the previous requirement that a film's story has to take place in China.

Last year, 34 of the 60 Hong Kong films released in Hong Kong were co-productions with China, according to the government-operated Hong Kong Film Services Office. This year, at least five China-Hong Kong productions have already bowed, including director-star Stephen Chow's "CJ7," the Billy Chung Siu-Hung crime drama "Hong Kong Bronx" and the basketball comedy "Kung Fu Dunk." Both "CJ7" and "Kung Fu Dunk," which opened over Chinese New Year in early February, easily passed the 100 million yuan mark in China.

Some say Hong Kong filmmakers have now honed their knowledge of the mainland Chinese film industry to a fine art -- and turned their political and cultural proximity into a thriving business in the process.

"Hong Kong filmmakers are some of the most practical I know in my working life," says Daniel Yun, CEO of Singapore's MediaCorp. Raintree Pictures, which co-produced last year's popular crime film "Protege," starring Andy Lau. "They have made it their business to get under the skin of the system, to know it like no one else knows it."

Siuming Tsui, head of Sundream Motion Pictures, a production-distribution subsidiary of Hong Kong conglomerate Wharf (Holdings), says the company has either co-produced or co-financed seven films with China in the past three years, including this year's "The Champions" as well as Cao Baoping's "The Equation of Love and Death" and To's "Linger," both from 2007.

"The culture is familiar," Tsui says, "and it is easier for Hong Kong filmmakers to tailor-make scripts for both the Hong Kong and China markets rather than to enter into Western countries."

Notwithstanding the boxoffice upside of co-productions, the unique "one country, two systems" political logic means topics perfectly acceptable in Hong Kong -- gambling, drugs, religion, politics and sex -- are not allowed in China. And some within the Hong Kong industry worry that such a close relationship with the mainland could end up diluting their notoriously edgy film culture.

"Hong Kong filmmakers' strengths are action and drama involving all these subjects," Tsui says. "So we cannot bring our strength to mainland China."

Some of this clash has been tempered by the mainland's dependence on Hong Kong directors' commercial eye in making films that work outside the region. As such, the Chinese government appears willing to tolerate -- and even cultivate -- a symbiotic relationship with the creative forces in its territory's film sector.

"It's a happy marriage between China and its will to conquer the world of movies," Raintree's Yun says. "Hong Kong's expertise in commercial and market-driven films are the ideal marriage certificate."

Charley Cheuk, executive director of production shingle Big Media Group, concurs: "The Hong Kong film industry is more commercial than the one in China, in terms of the projects, the business operation and the astuteness to breed directors, actors and producers of great commercial value."

Big Media Group, the production arm and former subsidiary of Hong Kong studio Mei-Ah, which recently sold a 21% stake of the company to Chinese investor Brandon Wen, is one of the biggest proponents of medium-scale Chinese co-productions.

It says that one-third of its slate of 12-15 films for 2008 will be co-productions, including Jingle Ma's period action-romance "The Butterfly Lovers" and Ching Siu-tung's fantasy "Tu Lan Duo."

A year ago, the group announced an aggressive five-year plan to make 100 films, but the number of co-productions is yet to be determined.

As the scale of Hong Kong-China co-productions grows, projects are increasingly attracted by China's lower labor costs. While this might appear to be a boon to cost-conscious producers, it is not great news for Hong Kong's multimillion-dollar facilities, like the newly completed, $180 million Shaw Studios soundstages.

The 1 million-square-foot studio compound features five soundstages, a full-service color lab and digital imaging facility, plus sound and picture editing suites. But few local film crews have used the new soundstages, says Lloyd Chao, director of business development and marketing at Shaw Studios.

"We can give them favorable rates, but we can't force them to shoot their films here," Chao says.

Apart from "Lust, Caution" director Ang Lee, who rented a soundstage for two months to shoot interior scenes, the facilities so far have been used predominantly by foreign Hollywood productions, including the Josh Hartnett thriller "I Come With the Rain" from Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran and the Summit Entertainment thriller "Push" starring Dakota Fanning.

Chao believes that while increased co-productions might not be benefiting the local film infrastructure now, the overall upswing in the industry is a cause for optimism. "It takes time for local productions to get into the habit of renting soundstages in Hong Kong," he says.

Another leg of Hong Kong's revival strategy is grooming the next generation of local filmmakers. Shu Kei, a veteran Hong Kong director and film critic -- as well as the dean of the school of film and television of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts -- says young filmmakers are being encouraged to broaden their ambitions northward.

"Local directors' careers are not limited to Hong Kong nowadays," says Shu, who co-directed "Coffee or Tea," the closing film of this year's Hong Kong International Film Fesitval, with APA student Mandrew Kwan. "Young filmmakers should expand their vision to China and other parts of Asia."

The industry is fully behind this broader Asian film vision, and there is a widely held belief that Hong Kong's relationship with China is part of a bigger film story, one that will drive growth of all Asian films. Producers point out that if a film is successful in China and Japan, it can reach the $100 million plateau expected of a Hollywood blockbuster without stepping foot in North America.

"I don't look at co-producing Hong Kong films as such," Yun says. "I look at making Asian films that appeal to markets outside of China as well."

But Big Media's Cheuk echoes Media Asia's Chong in warning that Hong Kong filmmakers preoccupied with commerce risk losing sight of their unique creative visions.

"Co-productions should not be made only to help Hong Kong filmmakers achieve higher economic gain," he says. "They should also play a part to advance and enrich the local film industry."