HONG KONG: Gallants (打擂台, 2010)

Death of Film Culture in Hong Kong

by Vivian Burnham

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Prior to 2018, Hong Kong was under a 50 year pledge that allowed them to act as a quasi independent region that had control over its own laws. When legislators passed national security legislation in 2018, China asserted control over Hong Kong and placed it under direct rule of Beijing, withdrawing from their promise. Previously, this freedom allowed Hong Kong to rival the United States in terms of its level and quantity of cinematic productions. The Japan and International Motion Picture Copyright Association conducted a study quantifying the economic contributions of the film and television industry to Hong Kong. The industry comprised over 1,170 businesses, provided over 32,000 jobs, paying more than HK$3.4 billion in wages, with 33 billion in gross output, and valued at HK$6 billion. This is in addition to the TV and film festivals that generated HK$238 million in tourism-related spending. Of this, 73,000 room nights generated over HK$89 million in room revenue (Pow). Now the movie industry is considerably reduced because Beijing has to approve production through the central regulatory authority (NRTA).

There are essentially three eras of film in Hong Kong: pre-boom, boom /new-wave/golden era, and post boom. The general consensus is that the pre-boom is anything 1960 or before, the boom is 70s-90s, and post boom is late 90s to present. The “golden era”, as it was called, was noted as,“arguably the world’s most energetic, imaginative popular cinema” (Parkes). There was a focus on the “Old Guard” of directors and reliance on established stars that made this era what it was, but became an eventual hindrance to the growth of the industry as they were hard forces to replace and live up to. At this time, “costs started to spike. Much of this was due to star names demanding ever higher salaries – in the early 90s Jet Li’s million-dollar salary could reportedly eat up a third of a production’s budget, slashing margins”(Parkes). The eventual culmination of problems led to a transition period in Hong Kong cinema, even a decline perhaps, that was never resolved before its shocking annexation in 2018.

The golden era’s appeal in the West was largely due to its commercial comedies and action movies. They featured a, “unique and now-iconic blend of eastern and western principles towards filmmaking [that made] the Hong Kong New Wave instantly recognisable” (“Hong Kong New Wave”). This foothold in Western markets, and even in their own, relied on the aforementioned old guard which sparked a booming and innovative era of production. At its peak, it is was a spectacle that is easily identifiable and endlessly enjoyable with “Hong Kong films feature(ing) camera angles found nowhere else on the planet, and colors that are dazzling, with truly-scarlet reds and neon blues” (Morton).The “Kung Fu” genre played a key role in the golden era. “The upbeat culture was embodied in the local action movies … with a happy ending signifying there’s always hope …” (Meng) . Now with burdens of censorship, modern film markers are faced with the decision to take their productions elsewhere, making it “not really from Hong Kong” if they want to be shown or even made, or sacrifice some creative freedom and design their movies not to clash with the greater interests of the Chinese government.

Cinematic production in Hong Kong has already been moved to mainland China, taking regional identifiers from Hong Kong out of the films. Now all movies are veiled in Chinese co-production, symbolizing the choke-hold like control mainland China exercises on the once thriving Hong Kong film industry.

Since the return of Hong Kong to mainland China, the cinema heyday of Hong Kong has seen a marked decline. Co-productions with Hong Kong are just ways to use Hong Kong as a cinema dumping ground for films actually produced in the Mainland (in most cases Beijing). Hong Kong’s once sprawling and transnational cinematic landscape, that sported a unique and easily identifiable look, has become barren and failed to yield many international or box office films in the past 5 years. There may be films that are “set” in Hong Kong, but make no mistake that films from Hong Kong, through and through, are few and far between (without mention of the associated quality thereof). With additional restrictions on media and therefore creativity in Hong Kong today, it is unlikely that we will see an era of filmmaking close to what was produced in the golden era any time soon.

In October, 2021, “Hong Kong lawmakers passed an amendment to the Film Censorship Bill Wednesday that will allow authorities to ban films past or present that are seen as a threat to national security. People found guilty of producing such films can land punishments of up to three years in jail and a fine of $128,000” (Walker).

The new laws reflect China’s move to a more isolationist, and heavily censored, country. This censorship has included canceling screenings of award-winning films, removing books “sensitive to the law” from libraries and sale, cracking down on female directors/politically vocal directors, and even curbing “effeminate male celebrities” (Walker). As a result, cinematographers now have to be more creative when exploring themes relating to government and societal issues. Young filmmakers are struggling to overcome these challenges when making and showing their films.

Other additions to censorship law in China include the National Security Law of June 2020 that, “is likely to reinforce Hong Kong’s decline as a film and television production hub and push more filmmakers unwilling to self-censor to join the thousands of people who have already left the territory since a brutal government crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019”(Rahman).

The life of cinema in Hong Kong is irrefutably intertwined with politics and culture. China is currently designated by the U.S State department as a Level 3 out of 4 risk for travel due to, “arbitrary enforcement of local laws (and) wrongful detentions” (United States, Dept. of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs). So, what now? Is this just another period we have to wait out, or will it get worse?

Works Cited