Hong Kong’s vibrant local film sector returns to its pulpy roots

HONG KONG -- At last year's Filmart, the annual Hong Kong-based confab dedicated to the art and commerce of the Asian film sector, it was hard to get through a conversation without hearing the words "traditional market" -- code for "markets other than China." Everyone from local directors to studio heads echoed the same refrain: The time had come to reclaim the traditional Southeast Asian region where Hong Kong genre films once ruled the boxoffice.

Now it seems their complaints have been heard: For the past 12 months, local studios have been more willing to greenlight and finance Hong Kong productions that traffic in genres that would normally get the thumbs-down from Chinese authorities.

This marks the reversal of a recent trend. Hong Kong productions went down throughout the past decade, reaching an all-time low of a little more than 50 in 2008, while helmers, stars and studios increasingly have looked northward for co-productions with China.

The migration to China was understandable given the potential of its vast, as-yet-untapped market, but with its strict content guidelines, the remorselessly pulpy Hong Kong films that thrilled local audiences for years and inspired cult followings in the West slowly began to disappear.

At last, they may be back.

Indeed, bullet-ridden gangster flicks, bloody horror films and low-budget romances that might prove tricky when it comes to obtaining permits from the Chinese authorities have been enjoying a revival.

The famed one-time film giant Shaw Brothers tested the waters for its return to filmmaking with last year's locally made spinoff "Turning Point," which promptly became the highest-grossing Chinese-language film last summer, taking in more than HK$16 million. And, in addition to the usual mega-budget co-produced epics, major Hong Kong studios such as Media Asia, Emperor Motion Pictures and Universe Films are unveiling a number of similar low-budget genre pics for Hong Kong and the traditional Southeast Asian markets.

"It's only natural to crave green vegetables if we have steak and shark's fin soup every single day," says Peter Lam, the producer and Media Asia mogul whose studio is releasing a host of traditional Hong Kong genre fare like "Once a Gangster," the HK$15 million mobster parody directed by Felix Chong and produced by Alan Mak; and "Love in a Puff," the HK$12 million love story from director Pang Ho-Cheung ("Isabella") -- both small-scale offerings intended for the local and traditional markets.

"Child's Eye"

The titles reveal Media Asia's newfound emphasis on diversity, which contrasts with the studio's upcoming slate of mega-budget co-productions, such as the $17.6 million martial arts epic "The Legend of Chen Zhen" from director Andrew Lau ("Infernal Affairs") and the $12 million wuxia thriller "Jianyu Jianghu," produced by John Woo, directed by Su Chao-Bin ("Silk") and headlined by Michelle Yeoh.

"We have faith in the audiences in Asia to appreciate good films," Lam says. "We want to provide diversity for different audiences, not just in Hong Kong, but for the sizable Southeast Asia market."

The traditional Southeast Asian market is also the target of the upcoming thriller "Child's Eye" from directing twins Oxide and Danny Pang. The first horror film shot in stereoscopic 3D in the region, the film (a co-production between Universe Films and Golden Harvest) cost a little less than HK$40 million ($5 million), and its subject matter makes entry into China unlikely. Nevertheless, Universe is confident that the promise of the Pang Brothers' over-the-top style in 3D will prove a big enough attraction to audiences across the region. In terms of presales, the strategy has worked: The film secured deals in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand at last year's Filmart before shooting commenced, making its relatively modest budget a safe investment.

If the film had cost more, chances are it wouldn't have been made. For adventurous Hong Kong directors, hoping to push the envelope on content, the revival of genre fare is more about economics than preserving a vanishing film culture.

"We wouldn't pass over the Chinese audience if we were making a big-budget film," says Alvin Lam, COO Universe, whose December Hong Kong/China co-production release "Storm Warriors" collected more than 80 million yuan ($11.7 million) in China and HK$15 million ($1.9 million) in Hong Kong. "The Chinese gross for 'Storm Warriors' was encouraging. Co-production as a trend is inevitable -- what we call Greater China films. As for local productions, it really depends on the subject matter and the script. If a project deserves to be made and can be made within a certain budget, it doesn't necessarily have to be catered to the Chinese market."

Universe has one such project on its slate, the HK$80 million ($10.3 million) sci-fi thriller "City Under Siege," co-produced with China's Enlight Pictures and Sil-Metropole and scheduled for late summer. Emperor also has its own lineup of big and small scale upcoming releases for 2010, which, besides the 200 million yuan ($29.3 million) mega co-production "Shaolin," also includes the HK$150 million ($19.3 million) dark comedy "Let the Bullets Fly" written and directed by Chinese auteur Jiang Wen ("The Sun Also Rises") who stars alongside Chow Yun-Fat.

The feast or famine approach is not without a downside, however -- at least according to veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Eric Tsang, who began his career during the golden age of Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s and now serves as unofficial consultant to Mona Fong, deputy chair and managing director of Shaw Brothers, for which Tsang produced and co-directed the recent Chinese New Year hit "72 Tenants of Prosperity."

"What we are lacking nowadays are the medium-budget films, which frankly are a gamble to make," he says. Tsang should know: As one of the first Hong Kong filmmakers to relocate to the motherland in the early 2000s, he returned to Hong Kong when he saw the need to give a hand to the industry he spent more than half of his adult life in. "During the '80s, when Hong Kong cinema was at the top of its form in terms of boxoffice and diversity, most of the films were of medium budget," he says. "When the budgets of the films become so polarized as they are today, it is not healthy."

This trend, Tsang reckons, is a result of the transitional period the Hong Kong film industry has been going through for the past decade, a process that has been undoubtedly long and arduous but has given Hong Kong filmmakers time to figure out how to unlock the mammoth Chinese market while keeping the distinct flavors of Hong Kong cinema alive.

Going forward, however, Tsang believes it will be crucial for the Hong Film sector to nurture a new generation of filmmakers who can make the kind of midsized Hong Kong productions that put the industry on the map, but don't have to be watered down for the Chinese market.

"It has taken us a long time to find the Chinese market, which has diluted our strength and manpower," he says. "But the decoding of the Chinese market is now almost complete. For a film by Hong Kong directors to be successful in China, it has a set of codes that are not much different from the formula Hollywood blockbusters follow. Medium-size productions with the Hong Kong touch that can find audiences in Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and China are the lifeblood of the Hong Kong film industry, and we need new talents to do that."