THE DECLINE OF THE HONG KONG CINEMA -- Before 1997
by Toh Hai Leong
In the early 1980s when I was reviewing Hongkong films for the Sunday Times in Singapore, I had the opportunity of viewing more than my fruitful share of films by New Wave luminaries like Allen Fong, Clara Law, Mabel Cheung, Ann Hui, Stanley Kwan, Jacob Cheung, Fannie Fang, Tsui Hark, Cheng Tokening, Patrick Tan, Yim Ho, most of whom cut their teeth making socially concerned cinema vérité for television before branching out into cinema. The Hongkong film industry was then a force to be reckoned with, artistically and commercially.
The revitalizing movement was carried on its slowly ebbing momentum until as late as 1993. Of course, since the New Wave films, being more intellectual, are meant more for the local yuppies and for Western tastes and international film festivals, the Hongkong triads were particularly interested in their productions. The highly commercial and lucrative films were, however, in their purview and close-guarding. The triads would go to all lengths to ensure that the superstars under their control in the 1980s (apparently, some well-known actresses were even gang-raped and videotape to force their compliance in acting for the sensational Category III sex films) work nonstop, with no respite and sometime he or she would hop from one set to another without so much as a change of fresh clothing!
Now the local triads have fanned out to Chinatowns overseas, largely due to the fact that when Hongkong is repossessed by the People's Republic of China, the death penalty for their activities -- from grand larceny to money laundering under the so-called film company's cover -- is mandatory in post-1997 Communist-dominated Hongkong.
Domestic movie ticket sales since 1993 have shown a drastic halving -- from 33.6 million admissions (the Colony's population is about 6.2 million) to 14.1 million in 1995. When I was in the Colony in 1993, ticket prices averaged at Hong Kong dollar 40.00 (US dollar 5.20) compared to this year's average at Hong Kong dollar 55.00 (US dollar 7.15). In 1989, official figures showed a sale of 44.8 million tickets compared to 24.3 million in 1995.
The above figures are proof that the Hongkong film industry is in dire straits. In spite of several prominent movie moguls' prediction that business would pick up after 30th June 1997 with China's vast but largely (cinematically) untutored market to tap in, their statements sound hollow and the future looks grim.
To substantiate my pessimistic outlook, already Singapore's Eng Wah Film Organisation, touted as the leading distribution and exhibitor of Hongkong films since the booming 1980s, has shunned bringing in those Cantonese Mandarin-dubbed movies except for Stephen Chow's mo-lei-tau (nonsensical comedy) films and Jackie Chan's mega-hits, Rumble in The Bronx (1995) and First Strike-The Story of the CIA (1996). Even then, Chan hailed as Asia's last action hero, is aging and he has expressed desire to go behind the camera to direct. Chan's last two monster box-office hits were brought in by a new distribution and exhibition player in the Singapore film scene -- Golden Village Entertainment, a joint-venture between Raymond Chow's -- Jackie Chan's Golden Harvest (Hongkong) and Village Roadshow of Australia. Eng Wah have become a second, if not the third leader in the distribution and exhibition of Hongkong movies here. The strongly emerging second player is Overseas Movie Pte Limited, once a leftist film Organisation with strong ties to Mainland China. The new management, however, has switched to a decidedly commercial orientation, bringing in more independent small-budget Hongkong movies. The only box-office draw to date has been Andrew Lau's triad youth films, Young and Dangerous I, II and III (1996).
Audiences have even been staying away from Andy Lau's romance films, Moment of Romance III, directed by ace filmmaker Johnny To who made the Story of Ah Long.
Maybe the decline is due to the Colony's exodus of its most famous mavericks -- John Woo who has absconded to Hollywood and made two action flicks there, Hard Target (1993) and Broken Arrow (1996); Tsui Hark, Asia's George Lucas and Ringo Lam. The charismatic Chow Yun Fat of A Better Tomorrow fame may soon be seen in Hollywood action movies perhaps with Sharon Stone -- meanwhile Chow is polishing up his English for his new working environment.
Even the infuriatingly oblique Godard of the East, Wong Kar Wai (Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express) has been wooed by Quentin Tarantino, who has expressed his admiration for John Woo and Wong.
Hongkong art films -- Yim Ho's Homecoming (1986) and The Day the Sun Turned Cold (1995), Mabel Cheung's trilogy, The Illegal Immigrant (1985), An Autumn's Tale (1988) and 8 Taels of Gold (1990), Allen Fong's docudrama films, Father and Son (1981), Ah Yang (1984) and Just Like Weather (1987), Clara Law's Farewell, China (1991), Stanley Kwan's Rouge (1988), et al -- have been stretched to their artistic limits and very few good ones have been made after 1993 except for Yim Ho's 1995 achievement which was nominated for the Oscar's Best Foreign Language Film (but did not win) and Ann Hui's last year's back-to-form film, Summer Snow which won for its gentle veteran, Josephine Siao Fong Fong, the Berlin Film Festival's Best Actress award.
One of the best Hongkong films made in 1996 was Shu Kei's Hudumen, a sometimes charming comedy about a successful opera star (Josephine Siao again) beset with a defiant lesbian daughter, a cantankerous husband obsessively wanting to emigrate to Australia and longing for his lost son. Maverick Wong Kar-wai has stretched himself thin with his Fallen Angel (1995) and he looks westward now to refresh his preoccupations with jaded hit men out of step with the fast changing times.
Two concomitant factors contributing to the decline of Hongkong cinema are first, the crushing weight of rampant video piracy and second, the rise of the home entertainment system, owned by virtually all middle-class Hongkongers who prefer to watch films on videotape and laserdisc (and soon the remarkable DVD) at home.
Video piracy is the biggest headache that the filmmakers now face. The more blatant kind is the pirate attends an afternoon matinee, usually with very few people present, points his handycam at the screen and tapes the film off the screen (especially the Category III). It is that simple. With this master tape, he or she duplicates the movie by the dozen on slave VHS units. The sound quality is atrocious, with sometimes a cough here, a squelch there, or someone munching on biscuits, or somebody crossing the length of the front row with his or her head silhouetted against the screen. With video libraries dotted in every major sectors of the city, it is normal for a thrifty person to borrow several tapes and laserdiscs and make good quality copies of their favorites and share the cost among friends, without the hassle of going to the cinema.
In addition, home viewing is also encouraged by the cheaper price of original local Hongkong films on video of every conceivable genre. From a hefty and prohibitive price tag of Hong Kong dollar 800.00 (US dollar 104.00) to Hong Kong dollar 500.00 (US dollar 65.00) for first-time releases, one now can get well-made films like Remains of a Woman, Daughter of Darkness and other adult titles (Category IIB and III, the equivalent of the US NC-rating and X respectively) on video for as little as Hong Kong dollar 99.00 (US dollar 13.00) to Hong Kong dollar 140.00 (US dollar 18.20). Action-oriented video, can be bought at Hong Kong dollar 200.00 (US dollar 26.00) apiece, even for well-known titles.
So while Hong Kong's Jackie Chan or Ching Siu-Tung's fantasy martial arts films are attracting audiences all over American and Canadian Chinatowns in droves to the cinemas, audiences are deserting the local cinemas in equal numbers. Thus it is very difficult for studio-backed producers to come up with Hong Kong dollar 10-15 million (US dollar 1.3-2 million) to make a movie now, with big and established names like Andy Lau, Leon Lai, Stephen Chow who are not abashed to ask over Hong Kong dollar 40 million (US dollar 5.2 million) in fees. In reality, this figure is a conservative estimate -- the cost of production has escalated to twice the amount -- up to Hong Kong dollar 30 million (US dollar 3.9 million) and with no guarantee of breaking even. Unless, of course, it is Jackie Chan and his favourite director Stanley Tong who are producing, directing and starring in the film.
This is a cold, harsh reality -- there will be no more days as in the glorious '80s when John Woo's A Better Tomorrow (1986) grossed Hong Kong dollar 30 million (US dollar 3.9 million) and outgrossed Hollywood imports. Now, the highly entertaining and popular Hollywood films grab the top spot. In late 1995 and 1996, the only Hongkong film to beat the Hollywood mainstays were the three sequels of The Young and Dangerous These three films were so successful that critics were inclined to equate this breakthrough with hope for local film production. There is an irony in this. Three good apples in a basket full of rotting ones do not make change in the already dying Hongkong cinema.
Undoubtedly, the heroic trio of films reflect the anxious, jittery times and spirit, especially of the youths, caught between the crossfire of hope and uncertainty about the Colony repossessing by the Big Brother, well-known for brutalization and repression of freedom and democracy. Perhaps because of the fresh cast of young faces, their naivety and easy exploitation by the triads, the collective Hongkong psyche is in full identification and sympathy with them.
There is a symbolic boxer's film Somebody Up there Likes Me (1996, directed by the master of melodrama, Johnny To) which tells in a schizoid mix of machoism and femininity the tear-jerking story of Ken, a talented kickboxer (Aaron Kwok). Critic Li Cheuk-To summed up this film most succinctly and yet alarmingly: From his training to his miraculous success to his demise, his rise and fall mirrors the development of Hongkong cinema from the eighties to the present day. This suggests that To's contemporary cult film seals the final fate of Hongkong films and its industry with the death of Ken, the boxer-hero who takes on all the odds, even against the Japanese champion, and like a mythical Sisyphus struggles on, and defeats him before giving up the ghost.
There is no denying the Hongkong golden goose has laid its golden eggs in the 1980s. Like a lost love, the good times have gone and there can be no looking back.
This article first appeared in Kinema 1997.