Hong Kong’s Once Mighty Film Industry Grapples With Changing Market & Political Realities

As Filmart gets underway, Hong Kong’s major production companies, including Edko Films, Emperor Motion Pictures (EMP), Media Asia, One Cool Group and Universe Entertainment, will be unveiling their new titles in enormous booths at the front of the trade show floor, some of which will be as elaborate as film sets.

Many of the films they are launching are big-budget Hong Kong-China co-productions, featuring top Hong Kong stars and directors, and aimed at audiences in both China and Hong Kong. EMP has Derek Kwok’s Raging Havoc, starring Andy Lau and Nicholas Tse; Mandarin Motion Pictures has The Prosecutor, starring and directed by Donnie Yen; and Media Asia is launching four new titles headed by Behind The Scene, produced by Infernal Affairs director Andrew Lau. One Cool’s slate includes a trio of action films starring Louis Koo and produced by Soi Cheang.

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But behind all the glamour, stars and action, Hong Kong’s film industry has not been having the easiest time of late. For the past two decades, Hong Kong’s major market has been mainland China – in the early days Hong Kong helped to grow China’s nascent film industry – but now finds itself increasingly squeezed out as China has its own capital, production expertise and stars. While China’s box office has been recovering rapidly since the pandemic, not a single Hong Kong-China co-production made it into the country’s top 20 films in 2023.

Released at the end of last year, EMP’s The Goldfinger, reuniting Infernal Affairs stars Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Andy Lau, provided some relief taking $80M at the China box office, while Entertaining Power’s Rob N Roll grossed $32M following its release this January. But these figures pale next to China’s homegrown hits – three Chinese films released over the recent Lunar New Year holiday – YOLO, Pegasus 2 and Zhang Yimou’s Article 20 –  grossed more than $300M apiece.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s own box office is struggling to return to pre-pandemic levels. In 2023, total box office reached $183M, around 25% up on the previous year which had been badly hit by cinema closures, but still 25% below the pre-pandemic year of 2019. The Hong Kong Motion Picture Industry Association (MPIA) described the figures as “very unsatisfactory” and reported that box office in the recent Lunar New Year holiday period was down 24% year-on-year.

<strong><em>Rob N Roll</em></strong>
Rob N Roll

Some local films are performing well at the Hong Kong box office – but it’s not the big-budget Hong Kong-China co-productions. Last year, legal drama A Guilty Conscience became the highest-grossing local film of all time in Hong Kong, grossing $14.7m, although it was the only local film in the year-end top ten. Two other local films from emerging filmmakers, Nick Cheuk’s Time Still Turns The Pages and Lawrence Kan’s In Broad Daylight, both dealing with social issues, grossed around $3M apiece, which was considered a successful result considering the relatively small budgets of both films.

“It’s probably time we started to redefine what is commercial in this market, because expensive films are not doing well, while films made for just HK$3M [US$383,000] are returning many times their budget,” says Golden Scene sales & acquisitions manager Felix Tsang. “Audiences are responding to films that speak more directly to their personal experience.”

New generation

Golden Scene has been involved in producing and/or distributing a whole slew of films from this new generation of filmmakers, including two upcoming titles – Sasha Chuk’s Fly Me To Moon, which deals with topics including immigration, poverty and addiction, and Ray Yeung’s All Shall Be Well, about an older lesbian couple and how the surviving partner struggles to retain her home and her dignity when one of them passes away. All Shall Be Well recently premiered in Panorama at the Berlin film festival, where it won the Teddy Award, and will play as the opening film of this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Other companies that are backing emerging filmmakers include One Cool, which financed In Broad Daylight, about abuse and corruption in the care home system; Edko Films, which is launching Norris Wong’s second film The Lyricist Wannabe; while MM2 Entertainment produced Time Still Turns The Pages, which touches on suicide.

Many of these new generation films have also received funding from the Hong Kong government. The Hong Kong Film Development Council (HKFDC), under Create Hong Kong, operates the First Feature Film Initiative (FFFI), which offers grants of up to $1M (HK$8M) to films from first-time directors, as well as the Film Production Financing Scheme, which co-invests in films with budgets of up to $7.7M (HK$60M). The latter scheme co-has financed films including A Guilty Conscience, Over My Dead Body, Mama’s Affair and Social Distancing.

<strong><em>All Shall Be Well</em></strong>
All Shall Be Well

Yeung, a more experienced director with credits also including award-winning drama Twilight’s Kiss, says he applied for government funding for All Shall Be Well but didn’t end up using it because he’d managed to raise finance privately before the funds came through. He explains this process was a struggle, as funding sources in Hong Kong are limited, but hopes the success of recent new generation films might encourage local companies to rethink their investment strategy. “I meet a lot of local audiences who say they don’t want to take their families to see violent gangster movies, but like watching films from this younger generation because they’re a lot more meaningful,” Yeung says.

Censorship concerns

But the elephant in the room for this new generation is that Hong Kong is not operating under the same rules as it was before the pandemic. Following pro-democracy protests in 2019, Beijing introduced the National Security Law in 2020 and is currently implementing an additional piece of security legislation, Article 23, which criminalizes “treason, espionage, external interference and disclosure of state secrets”, as part of Hong Kong’s own mini-constitution.

While half a million people marched against Article 23 when it was first mooted in 2003, there’s unlikely to be much protest now, although the Hong Kong Bar Association, European Chamber of Commerce and Hong Kong Journalists Association have all raised concerns about how the law will be interpreted.

As the wording of these laws is worryingly vague, they have resulted in a much higher degree of self-censorship among Hong Kong filmmakers. It’s become difficult to tell stories that touch on political topics or question government policy in Hong Kong and mainland China. Stories that feature police or other characters in positions of authority, involved in corruption or any other form of moral ambiguity, are also tricky to tell. In fact, the irony of Leung and Lau’s recent re-teaming is that it would be almost impossible to make a film like Infernal Affairs in Hong Kong today.

<strong><em>In Broad Daylight</em></strong>
In Broad Daylight

Another problem this new generation faces is that their films are usually hyper-local and relatively low-budget, which makes it difficult for them to travel beyond a few international territories (although that’s not an issue only experienced by Hong Kong filmmakers). And while many first films are being made, very few of these directors are going on to make their second features. “A lot of these filmmakers can’t get funding for their second films because they can’t get their scripts past the big companies,” says Tsang. “There’s still a mismatch between what the industry is making and what the Hong Kong audience actually wants to see.”

Government support

Aware of all these issues, HKFDC has been expanding its support for Hong Kong filmmakers, with a recent focus on encouraging them to explore international markets beyond Hong Kong and China, initially through co-production and other forms of collaboration with Europe and the rest of Asia.

At the recent Berlin film festival, HKFDC announced a Hong Kong-Europe co-production funding scheme, following the launch of a Hong Kong-Asia co-production programme, as well as a streaming content development scheme, in 2022. The ‘Hong Kong-Europe-Asian Film Collaboration Funding Scheme’ will offer grants of up to $1.15M (HK$9M) to feature film projects that combine Hong Kong and European and/or Asian talent. The projects do not have to shoot in Hong Kong, and do not have to be filmed in the city’s official languages of English and Chinese, although 30% of below-the-line costs must be spent in Hong Kong.

“Looking at local production over the last few years, most Hong Kong movies focus on Hong Kong’s current stories and social problems, so we feel a scheme like this will expose our filmmakers to what is happening in the rest of the world,” says HKFDC chairman Wilfred Wong.

“Hopefully, it will also pave the way for them to enter other film markets because they can work with film people from other parts of the world, and maybe explore stories other than focusing on the situations surrounding Hong Kong.”

<strong><em>Fly Me To The Moon</em></strong>
Fly Me To The Moon

Hong Kong-based producer and industry consultant, Michael J. Werner, who recently produced Yeung’s All Shall Be Well, says this kind of government intervention is necessary as it’s becoming increasingly difficult to raise finance for independent feature films, not just in Hong Kong, but throughout much of the world. At the same time, up until now, the global streamers have not focused on producing Hong Kong content in the way they have in territories such as India, South Korea and Japan.

“There’s no institutional financing for films in Hong Kong, no banks that have film financing divisions, and if there are high net worth individuals financing films, they’re not doing it in a very public or coherent fashion,” says Werner, who also executive produced many Asian and international films when running Fortissimo Films. “So in Hong Kong, as in many other territories, it’s meaningful that the government is developing programmes that help bring about the creation of content.”

However, Werner adds that the new funding schemes need to be clear from the outset about their criteria and objectives: “It’s incumbent upon the FDC to make the programmes transparent and fair so that everybody really has a chance to apply and receive that funding,” Werner says.

HKFDC says that its expects to announce the first round of projects funded under the Hong Kong-Asia collaboration scheme, first unveiled in November 2022, before the end of March. Meanwhile the expanded scheme also involving Europe will be discussed at a Filmart seminar on Tuesday (March 12).

Of course, none of the challenges that Hong Kong is now facing are new. Due to the small size of the Hong Kong market, and the city’s unique geographical and political position, the local film industry has always faced this dilemma of whether to make films for the China market, with the attendant risk that they won’t work elsewhere, or to aim for international markets with all the complexity that involves.

Hong Kong’s film industry has also always been extremely resilient. But with Beijing’s increasing influence over the city, its creative industries now need to navigate a much more complex reality. Hong Kong is also facing a rising tide of competition from dynamic and much freer content industries in Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Southeast Asia. It might take more than resilience; for sure it will take a great deal of courage, partnership and experimentation, to chart a new path.

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