On the eve of the 34th Hong Kong International Film Festival and Filmart, Liz Shackleton looks at whether the current surge in Hong Kong cinema really amounts to a revival.

Love In A Puff

With three local comedies vying for audiences over Chinese New Year, and Alex Law’s drama Echoes Of The Rainbow taking a Crystal Bear at Berlin, there has been talk of a revival in Hong Kong cinema.

Local films also feature strongly at the upcoming Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) with eight titles making their world premieres – two of which, Ivy Ho’s Crossing Hennessy and Clara Law’s Like A Dream, will open the event, while a further two, Scud’s gay love story Amphetamine and Heiward Mak’s Ex, will close it.

“Films for the Chinese market take time and it’s not easy to pass censorship, so we need to make local films to keep production levels buoyant.”

John Chong, CEO, Media Asia

Although it can be difficult to define Hong Kong cinema, the term is often used to refer to Cantonese-language films, with local themes and talent, as distinct from the Mandarin-language co-productions, aimed at mainland China, that the local industry has increasingly focused on. Several of the films that are premiering at HKIFF, such as Pang Ho-cheung’s Love In A Puff, a love story based around Hong Kong’s smoking ban, appear to fit that description.

Hong Kong’s overall production volume is also rising. Jack So, chairman of the Hong Kong Film Development Council (HKFDC), recently announced that the territory produced 70 films in 2009, including co-productions with the mainland, a 30% increase on 2008, and numbers are expected to rise further still in 2010.

Whether this truly represents a new lease of life for Hong Kong films, or whether it is a case of astute positioning on the part of the HKIFF and HKFDC, it does appear that Hong Kong cinema, like the Cantonese language itself, is proving incredibly resilient in the face of competition from the vast Mandarin-speaking mainland market.

China has become a crucial market for Hong Kong productions, but its censorship rules restrict Hong Kong’s traditional ghost, gambling and gangster movies, and mainland audiences have different tastes to cinema-goers in Hong Kong. That has led to a downturn in small to medium-budget Cantonese-language fare, and an upsurge in mainland-focused co-productions.

But the situation started to change last year with the success of Mandarin Films’ comedy All’s Well, Ends Well, and the return of Shaw Brothers and broadcaster TVB to production with local titles such as crime drama Turning Point and comedy 72 Tenants Of Prosperity that managed to recoup just in Hong Kong.

Also encouraging is the fact that even mainland audiences have been warming up to films with a strong Hong Kong accent. Last year, Wong Jing’s old school comedy, On His Majesty’s Secret Service, grossed $14.9m (RMB102m) in China.

Hong Kong’s more internationally focused studios are also increasing production of smaller, culturally specific films. “We have to make films for the China market, but they take time and it’s not easy to pass censorship, so we need to make local films to keep production levels buoyant,” explains John Chong, CEO of Media Asia, which financed two HKIFF gala screenings – Dante Lam’s Fire Of Conscience and Love In A Puff.

“There’s also been an optimistic mood since Shaw Brothers stepped back into filmmaking and made some money.”

Wellington Fung, secretary general, HKFDC

The Film Development Fund (FDF) is also playing its part in supporting small to medium-budget productions. Administered by the HKFDC, the fund has part-financed 14 projects including Echoes Of The Rainbow. Following a review last year, the FDF is increasing investment in individual projects from 30% to 40% of the total budget, and has raised the budget ceiling from $1.5m to $1.9m (HK$12m to HK$15m).

However, HKFDC secretary general Wellington Fung believes growth in the mainland market is the biggest factor driving investment in local films. “Box office has become so huge that investors feel they can recoup on a broader range of projects. There’s also been an optimistic mood since Shaw Brothers stepped back into filmmaking and made some money.”

The question is whether all this investment will continue to be justified by box office returns. Hong Kong audiences can be fickle, and their return to local product could be a knee-jerk reaction to last year’s financial downturn, or the result of heavy marketing – TVB carpet-bombed its TV channels with advertising for 72 Tenants

Also, some smaller Hong Kong films have seen big numbers on the mainland, but pre-guessing the tastes of viewers to the north is a risky business, and the market is becoming crowded as growth in screens lags behind the number of new films.

As for overseas markets, the Shaw Brothers comedies will probably be lost on foreign audiences, but for titles such as Echoes Of The Rainbow, being culturally specific actually broadens their appeal.

Likewise, Love In A Puff features local humour and the more colourful end of the Cantonese vocabulary, but its director Pang observes that blossoming romance is something most cultures can relate to: “Some words or dialogues may be lost in translation, but the audience will understand us if the topic is universal such as love or family relationships,” says Pang.