Hong Kong's beleaguered film sector hopes for rebirth

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The Independent Culture

Hong Kong's beleaguered film industry was a global powerhouse just two decades ago, pumping out 300 movies a year and boasting a fan base that stretched across Asia.

Led by up-and-coming action stars Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat along with director John Woo, the city's film sector was among the world's most prolific by the late eighties, trailing only Hollywood and Bollywood.

Woo - whose later directorial credits include "Face/Off" and "Mission: Impossible II" - won acclaim for his gritty 1992 cop thriller "Hard Boiled", which became synonymous with the wildly popular Hong Kong action genre.

"That's when Hong Kong film was in its golden age," said director Mabel Cheung, who jointly produced the drama "Echoes of the Rainbow", which won the Berlin International Film Festival's Crystal Bear Award in February.

"There was a big market for Hong Kong films with all of these big names back then who were just starting. It was a very exciting time."

As the Hong Kong Film Awards drew to a close Sunday night, Cheung and others said they hoped the hard-hit sector would enjoy a revival by tapping the mainland Chinese market.

The industry's swift and brutal fall from grace came as Hollywood lured away Woo and other film giants, moviegoers at home and abroad grew tired of the city's formulaic action plots and illicit piracy hammered profits.

Some of Hong Kong's traditional markets, including Taiwan, Korea and Malaysia, also began developing their own cinema sectors, another blow to its once-mighty film industry, which splashed onto the international scene in the early seventies with late Kung Fu legend Bruce Lee's martial arts blockbusters.

By 2003, the sector was a shell of its former self with spiralling box office receipts and producing just 55 films a year.

"Audiences got tired of the same film over and over again," Cheung said.

"They demanded new ideas. For a while, Hong Kong films lost direction."

Now there are early signs Hong Kong's film sector may claw back some of its former glory with a new generation of directors eager to make a name for themselves, experts said.

"There is new blood pumping into an old industry and there is a general trend worldwide that people want to see local films," said Jacob Wong, curator of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society.

The number of Hong Kong productions - estimated to contribute about 4.25 billion US dollars annually to the local economy - has been rising in recent years and the government is pouring money into a film development fund.

"That's how 'Echoes of the Rainbow' got made," Cheung said, referring to the fund. "Otherwise, it might not have seen the light of day."

Hong Kong's stylistic filmmaking still holds wide appeal, Wong said, pointing to American director Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning 2006 film "The Departed", which was a remake of the 2002-2003 "Infernal Affairs" trilogy.

Another homegrown success story, "Bodyguards and Assassins", was one of the best-selling movies on the Chinese mainland last year, he said.

"It's not a watershed, although it marks a turning point," Wong added.

Still, the industry's future success depends largely on whether it can become a major player in the fast-growing mainland Chinese market, observers said.

"The (industry) is coming back because of the huge market in China," said Brian Chung, chief executive of the Hong Kong Motion Picture Industry Association.

"There are maybe 5,000 movie screens in China right now. In five years, there will be 10,000. More screens means more money."

Hong Kong directors, who are already accustomed to tailoring films to different markets, have an edge over mainland producers, who often have a less international outlook, and are familiar with Chinese audiences' tastes, Chung said.

"The advantage Hong Kong directors have is that they can make a commercial film better than a director in China," he told AFP.

"The Chinese director treats the work as art, but the Hong Kong director will think of the film as a product suitable for the market."

There is also room for the Hong Kong and mainland film sectors to join forces with co-productions such as 2008 historical war epic "Red Cliff", which smashed Chinese box-office records, observers said.

Wong, from the film festival society, agreed that Hong Kong directors should focus on places "where people use chopsticks", but said producing a film in censorship-heavy mainland China can limit what sort of films get made.

"I'm cautiously optimistic about the industry," he said. "But I'm pessimistic about quality."

Perry Lam, editor of Hong Kong arts and culture magazine Muse, is not convinced the mainland market will be enough to ensure the industry can turn itself around.

"One can easily find cogent reasons for arguing that the future of Hong Kong cinema lies in embracing the Chinese market," Lam said.

"Nevertheless, I smell more desperation than inspiration in the latest race to make the Hong Kong cinema mainland-friendly."