Why Hong Kong Favors Historical Fare for Chinese Audiences

Cannes Film Festival

Based on a 16th century fantasy novel, the $60 million "Monkey King" plays at the Cannes Film Festival this year.

For the Hong Kong film sector, creating a future with the lucrative Chinese film industry lies in the past.

Historical epics, costume fantasies rooted in old Chinese legends, even dramas that take place in early modern China - the bigger the budget a film has, the more likely it will be set in some mystical past populated by ancient deities and imaginary creatures.

Take for example of the biggest Chinese-language film in Cannes this year: The $60 million The Monkey King, a new version of the classic and oft-told 16th century fantasy novel The Journey to the West in stereoscopic 3D from Hong Kong’s Filmko. With a starry cast including Donnie Yen, Chow Yun-fat and Aaron Kwok, the title character has popped up in adaptations in China, Japan, Hong Kong, and even Hollywood on screens small and big, plus in manga and animation form.

With a targeted release date in late 2012, the film is now a hot property that has attracted the attention of several Hollywood majors as well as Asian buyers.

Not only are the myths, folk lore, and legends the preferred vehicles for Chinese-language filmmakers in their travel to the past, the cinematic traditions made famous by Hong Kong cinema are also a rich well of inspiration. The title of the only Chinese-language film in this year’s Cannes official selection, Peter Chan’s Wu Xia, starring Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tang Wei and Jimmy Wang Yu, already tells us which world it is set in. The martial arts genre built the Shaw Brothers empire in the 1960s, and its popularity has endured.

For Chan, who has never touched on the genre before, the mythological world of martial arts presented him with a new challenge, and the China also question loomed large.

“When foreign directors go to Hollywood, they’d usually start by making action films or fantasies, because then they don’t have to engage in the American culture first hand and risk exposing their foreignness,” the Hong Kong-born Chan says. “It’s the same thing for us in China. There might be nuances that are subtle or hard to understand, where it could go wrong. So it’s easier for us Hong Kong filmmakers to make period films or fantasies; we can obscure the cultural differences.”

Still, the discrepancies might be glaringly noticeable for urbanites in major Chinese cities and in Hong Kong. “There’s a considerable difference in the background and lifestyle between the people living in Hong Kong and the big cities in China, their values might not be the same,” says Albert Lee, CEO of Hong Kong major Emperor Motion Pictures.  “So for a Hong Kong co-produced contemporary urban story, it might not be easy for the mainland Chinese audience to empathize. It’d take time to adapt.”

“The convergence of the Hong Kong and Chinese film industries is all about finding subject matter that has a commonality that will be understood and interesting to the various marketplace,” adds veteran producer Andre Morgan, whose latest, My Kingdom, produced with Hong Kong-based Celestial Pictures, is a rite-of-passage film set against the backdrop of the world of Peking opera in the 1930s. “If you do a movie that covers the period from 1949 to 1989, there’s very little commonality between the Chinese and Hong Kong experience. If you do a story in the 1920s to 1930s, it’s a shared history. So setting a film set in the 1930s broadens the appeal and also allows you to deal with issues that were relevant then and are still relevant today, where the solutions would be similar.”

The other issue, now a fact of life for relocated Hong Kong filmmakers and studios making co-productions with Chinese counterparts, is censorship. “The co-productions are made for the Chinese market, so they are subject to censorship before production. The big budgeted period or historical epics are more likely to be approved by the censors,” says Emperor’s Lee. “Any story involving figures in modern history has go through a vigorous censorship process, so there’s a degree of difficulty. But films set in the distant past are relatively easier to get approval, and they are more likely to be accepted by the audience in China. Therefore a lot of studios are more inclined to make historical or period films.”

However, the flood of historical epics and adaptations of classic literature or old legends has its drawbacks. “Two problems have emerged,” says Media Asia CEO John Chong. “One, the budget and the actors are getting more expensive. Two, with more of the similar types of films in the marketplace, they are becoming less popular in the foreign markets.”

For now at least, historical epics are still going strong, but studios and filmmakers are looking for alternative ways to move away from the norm. It’s a matter of mix and match for many, such as Hong Kong Universe Films’ putting together the 3D thriller Sleepwalker 3D from Oxide Pang and the cop thriller Fairy Tale Killer from twin Danny Pang, with an as-yet-untitled action drama from Benny Chan set in post-WWII China.

Increasingly sophisticated moviegoers in China are also challenging studios and filmmakers to stay away from formula and think out of the box. “Chinese audiences likes films that make them think, and they demand quality,” says Chan. “For every film that succeeds, audiences want more improvement, and not more of the same. They want something extra in the next film.” Peter Chan noted.

Adds Media Asia’s Chong: “Never try to guess what the Chinese audience would like or be too calculated, because it wouldn’t work.”