How Hong Kong Is Betting on Nostalgia to Boost Its Box Office

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

With China and Hollywood dominating local screens, the city's storied film sector is hoping throwback crime epics can revive ticket sales.

The selection of Dante Lam’s military action hit Operation Red Sea to represent Hong Kong in the Oscars’ foreign-language film race should have come as a triumph. Instead, many local industry veterans believe the blockbuster’s selection showcases everything that is wrong with Hong Kong’s formerly vaunted film industry.

Co-produced by Beijing’s Bona Film Group and Hong Kong’s Emperor Motion Pictures, Operation Red Sea grossed a mammoth $579 million in mainland China, more than any film earned in a single territory outside of North America this year. But the movie’s premise — a propagandistic yarn celebrating Chinese military strength — mostly fell flat in director Lam’s hometown, where much of the former British colony’s population has grown wary of the incursion of Chinese control. In Hong Kong, Operation Red Sea earned $1.1 million.

The film’s selection for Oscar consideration — despite failing to find an audience at home — has thrown into sharp relief the paucity of local films from which Hong Kong had to choose. Merely 27 of the 186 films released in Hong Kong in the first six months of 2018 were categorized as locally made (and a great many of them were actually Hong Kong-China co-productions targeting the mainland market). During the summer, Hong Kong box office was up 16.9 percent compared with 2017, but only one local title cracked the top 10. (Meanwhile, Hollywood is happily filling the gap, with megahit The Avengers: Infinity War ranking No .1 for the year so far with a whopping $20 million collected during its two-month run.)

Still, Hong Kong filmmakers have faith — and proof — that the island's audience yearns for locally made films. The problem is there just aren’t enough of them being produced.

Men on the Dragon, the sole Hong Kong hit of the summer — it earned HK$15 million ($1.93 million) — tells a very local story about a group of middle-aged men who quest for glory in a dragon boat race.

“A lot of people in Hong Kong have told me they haven’t laughed as much at a Hong Kong comedy in a long time,” says Sunny Chan, the film’s writer-director. “They are of the opinion that many of the Hong Kong-China co-produced comedies, most of them dubbed from Mandarin, don’t hit the mark for them, as the jokes don’t have local resonance. Many expressed to me that they crave a good Hong Kong comedy, something that has been absent for quite some time.”

If local relevance is the key to attracting local support, one of the most common ways to cultivate it has been the pursuit of nostalgia. Edko Films has just announced Anita, a biopic making its market debut at AFM, about the life of the much beloved Cantonese pop songstress Anita Mui, who dominated the charts in the 1980s and ’90s before her death in 2003. Project Gutenberg, meanwhile, starring Hong Kong golden-age cinema hero Chow Yun-fat in a throwback role reminiscent of the characters of his greatest hits, was released in early October and grossed HK$21.3 million ($2.74 million) in just 10 days (and roughly $144 million in China to date).

“I want to continue the legacy of the Hong Kong commercial films that were thriving when I joined the industry,” says Chin Ka Lok, director and co-star of Golden Job, another throwback crime hit from this year. “Although I believe that we have to look forward and not just dwell on the past, I really hope there will be a more diversified output in the Hong Kong film industry.”

The pursuit of local relevance recently has produced one new current of diverse filmmaking in Hong Kong: smaller-scale, socially conscious films that principally target local audiences.

The predominant local crop of moviemaking can be summed up by the following titles: Little Big Master (about rural school life), Mad World (exploring mental illness and Hong Kong’s cramped living spaces), Tomorrow Is Another Day (probing local perceptions of autism), newly released Distinction (special needs children and the city’s education system) and the upcoming I’m Living It (about Hong Kong homeless people taking refuge in 24-hour fast-food restaurants).

“The market has become rather one-sided,” Chin notes. “The films about social ills, albeit valuable, cannot compete with Hollywood blockbusters."

He adds: “We used to excel at midrange commercial fare with budgets of about HK$30 million-HK$50 million ($3.9 million-$6.4 million), and I want to bring those back. For a market to be healthy, we have to have more diversity.”

To achieve heterogeneity and sustainability, quantity is fundamental. “We have to increase production,” says veteran producer John Chong, who recently returned to the prominent film studio he co-founded, Media Asia, to oversee production. “That will create more opportunities, not only for new directors but also for new actors and crewmembers behind the scenes.”

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 1 daily issue at the American Film Market.