On July 1st 1997, Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese authority, to date it has been over twenty years.
During these two decades, it has been an ongoing debate whether Hong Kong’s film industry has deteriorated. In reality, over the past twenty years, film directors from Hong Kong are joining the film production scene of mainland China, becoming further involved in production and the Chinese film market. Profound and long-lasting impact is being generated by this group of talented minds.
In 2016, the top three movies in terms of box office in the mainland market were all directed by Hong Kong directors. The Mermaid, directed by Stephen Chow, even set a milestone record by becoming the first film to get a box office of over ￥3 billion in mainland. The booming golden era for Hong Kong’s film industry had nurtured groups of behind-the-scene talents for China’s film industry, such as video editing, filming talents and martial art and art directors. They are now an indispensable part of mainland’s film industrial chain.
From glory to decline, Hong Kong-Mainland productions become the mainstream
Driven by a group of film industry talents, relaxed cultural environment, and the enormous Asian film market, Hong Kong’s film industry entered a booming phase in the late 70s. It wasn’t until in the early 90s that the movie scene in Hong Kong started to slow down. During that period, Hong Kong’s industrialized, commercialized and diverse-genre development model had built the city a reputation in Asia and among Chinese-speaking society markets, continuing nurturing movie talents and pumping in fresh flood into the industry. Hong Kong ultimately was considered as the oriental Hollywood as its film production volume once ranked the second in the world.
Starting in 1993, Hong Kong’s movie industry started to decline from its peak, influenced by multiple elements. For instance, Hong Kong gradually lost the Taiwanese and Southeast Asian market to Hollywood while piracy issues started to loom large. The city’s movie industry also began to have talent issues while low-quality movies flooded the market.
The year of 1997 had been a turning point during the decline of Hong Kong’s movie industry. In this monumental year in which Hong Kong returned to China, movies that are now considered as all-time classics like Happy Together, Legend of Mad Phoenix, and Made in Hong Kong etc. were born. But it was also in the same year that Hong Kong’s movie industry lost the local market entirely to Hollywood’s siege.
In 1997, phenomenal film Titanic debuted in Hong Kong, cashing in HK$114.94 million as the champion in box office. The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which went on screens in the summer, took the second place in box office, garnering HK$58.23 million. In contrast to that,
local film Mr. Nice Guy with the best market performance only had a box office of HK$45.42. It was the very first time that foreign films exceeded local films in box office this much since 1980s. The financial crisis that swept through Asia in late 1997 also accelerated Hong Kong’s local movie industry as well as overseas markets.
In the following five years, Hong Kong-based movie makers, including Andrew Lau, Stephen Chow, Johnny To and Ang Lee etc., started to apply special effects popular in Hollywood in their movies, bringing up a tech craze in the city’s film industry. The tech craze brought about successful movies like King of Comedy, Shaolin Soccer, Running Out of Time, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Infernal Affairs etc.
The year of 2003 was another turning point. That was when SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) broke out, which dragged down the city’s film industry that just showed some progress. In this same year, the central government signed the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement with Hong Kong SAR. Subsequently, China’s State Administration of Radio Film and Television introduced three new regulations on mainland-HK production, further loosening up policy restrictions on areas from production and distribution to screening.
With the implementation of these regulation changes came the ‘rush’ to the north from Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s film companies started to collaborate with film companies in the mainland while Hong Kong’s directors began to choose mainland for filming.
After ten years of run-in, mainland-HK productions have become a mainstream. In 2015, there were 48 mainland-HK film projects, 38 of which received screening approval and succeeded in box office. For instance, Monster Hunt topped the Chinese box office chart at ￥2.439 billion, setting a new record. In 2016, on the top 15 Chinese film ranking, eight were directed by Hong Kong’s directors. It only took 20 years for the Chinese market to grow into world’s second largest film market, influencing the world movie industry heavily. Without a doubt, directors from Hong Kong have played a major role in this rapid development.
Conquering mainland audience, Hong Kong directors holds up the development of Chinese films
In reality, directors from Hong Kong and Taiwan are becoming increasingly popular in mainland. But it’s another story in about ten years ago.
Directors that entered the mainland market early had experience difficulties when fitting in in the local market as their films’ box office encountered big failures. For instance,
Peter Chan’s The Warlords and The Stand-In, Hark Tsui’s The Seven Swords and Missing, Wong Jing’s On His Majesty’s Secret Service and Future X Cops etc. all failed both in box office and review.
In 2012, Hong Kong directors seemed to be having sudden revelations. Peter Chan for example made American dreams in China and Dearest, Hark Tsui made Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, Wong Jing made The Man From Macau, and Stephen Chow made the Mermaid, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons etc., which all achieved success in box office. Among all, the Mermaid even topped the mainland box office chart at ￥3.39 billion. In the past few years, films directed by directors from Hong Kong and Taiwan have taken a share of the annual top 10 box office chart.
It’s undeniable that directors from Hong Kong have become popular catches among mainland companies. Besides directors like Hark Tsui and Peter Chan etc. that entered the mainland market early, new generation directors like Pang Chun, Dante Lam, and Derek Kwok also have quite a few film contracts in their hands. Yung Chi-Kwong, director of the award-winning Port of Call, is also being chased by mainland companies. He has recently signed contract to direct Pacific Slaughter.
From 2003 to date, there have been more and more movies co-produced by mainland and Hong Kong. In 2003, the number had been 26. In 2016, the number had surged to 43. It’s worth noting that in 2013, the box office in mainland China had already reached ￥21.769 billion, becoming the second largest film market in the world after the North America market. In that year, 14 out of the top 30 films were directed by Hong Kong directors. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, directed by Stephen Chow and Derek Kwok, set a box office record of ￥1.2 billion. In 2016, mainland-HK co-produced The Mermaid, The Monkey King 2, Operation Mekong, The Man From Macau 3, and Time Raiders made it into the top ten list of the box office chart. The Mermaid even set a new box office record in mainland at ￥3.39 billion.
Hong Kong films won’t fade away as they are fusing into the greater Chinese film industry
When movie industry insiders in Hong Kong are choosing to enter the mainland market, with many already starting to lead the trends in mainland, many people who had witnessed the golden era in the 80s and 90s are also worrying that whether Hong Kong movie has come to an end.
The truth is, the reality is quite the opposite. If we only refer Hong Kong movies to those old and funky films we used to watch on DVD, then those movies have indeed met their death. But in a broader sense, Hong Kong movie will never die. Every year we still have quality movies coming from Hong Kong. The industry in Hong Kong will only thrive and enter a new phase as Hong Kong further merges into mainland and mainland’s economy grows further.
Hong Kong’s movie industry was nurture by the city’s movie makers, and will continue to thrive because of them.
In the past few years, movies like American dreams in China, Dearest, The Mermaid, and even the recent Love Off The Cuff etc. are very popular among the mainland audience. The audience’s perception of Hong Kong movies no longer limit to crime and action films.
It’s apparent that there has been an increasing number of patriotic films directed by Hong Kong directors. For instance, Dante Lam directed Operation Mekong, Hark Tusi directed
The Taking of Tiger Mountain 3D, and Siu Fai Mak directed Extraordinary Mission. Upcoming patriotic movies include The Founding of An Army and Operation Red Sea etc. For film industry insiders in Hong Kong, the grander mainland market provides them with a broader outlook and a bigger layout. Larger investment has given them more opportunities to realize their artistic goals. Using commercialized, generalized, and industrialized filming techniques and story-telling methods to showcase a movie story with positive energy is what Hong Kong directors have learned after fitting into the mainland market.
At present, the development of the Chinese film industry has entered a golden era driven by demographic dividend, mass amount of story ideas brought about by rapid social changes, and the advancing film industrialization. After years of run-in, the cooperation between Hong Kong and mainland will continue to deepen, with the line between made-in-mainland, made-in-HK, and made-by-HK-and-mainland starting to blur. From the global perspective, the Chinese film industry is being redefined as the operation and production norm gradually transform.
Just like what Hark Tsui had said before, “what we are experiencing is not about Hong Kong and the mainland, but China and the world.”
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