The running joke at the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum in April was that the only Asian country producing films of a lower quality than Hong Kong was Macau. The huge success at the Hong Kong box office this year of Nakata Hideo's Japanese psycho-horror Ring ($4m) and Kang Je-gyu's Korean blockbuster Shiri ($750,000) has forced the industry to accept that Hollywood is not the only threat to local product.
Hong Kong producers are tackling the problem by adopting Japanese genres, actors and locations. Indeed, the influence of Japanese culture on Hong Kong production is a lot more apparent than anything coming out of Europe or the US. Television drama, Japan's key cultural product, has come into the mainstream this year as a ratings winner on Hong Kong terrestrial television. It is also an acknowledged influence on local directors as diverse as Wong Kar-wai and Johnnie To.
This culture shift means that there is now a wider range of theatrical roles opening up in Hong Kong for the stars of Japanese TV drama. Top drama actresses Tokiwa Takako, Seto Asaka and Fujiwara Norika have signed up for leading roles in Hong Kong projects this summer opposite Andy Lau, Leon Lai and Aaron Kwok respectively.
The biggest local hit of the year so far, Jingle Ma's Tokyo Raiders ($3.6m), signals a new direction for Hong Kong producers. A slick action comedy starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Kelly Chen and Ekin Cheng, Raiders proves that a local film in Japanese dress can be box-office gold. Popular singer Cheng, already set to reprise his role in a 2002 sequel, has since returned to Japan to shoot Andrew Lau's Born To Be The King, the latest in the landmark Young And Dangerous franchise produced by Manfred Wong.
Although there are moves to establish Hong Kong film commissions in Japan, shooting in Tokyo can still be a bureaucratic nightmare, especially for an industry as spontaneous as Hong Kong's. Gordon Chan's Okinawa: Rendez-Vous, now in post-production, uses Japan's southern island as the key location for its bank-heist romance. Whether these films also have a market in Japan will be revealed when Raiders receives its international premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival in November. With an estimated budget in excess of $3m, it is essential that Okinawa: Rendez-Vous finds a larger international audience.
Two new Hong Kong companies have launched in response to the perceived crisis in the quality of Hong Kong films, both adopting a pan-Asian approach. Applause Pictures, founded by Peter Chan, Teddy Chen and Allan Fung, was unveiled earlier this year with backing from local multi-media giant Star East Holdings. The company estimates the pan-Asian market consists of an audience of around 200 million people and it has already announced its first four projects. They include new films from Thai director Nonzee Nimibutr and Korean director Hur Jin-ho, whose Nang Nak and Christmas In August were the first Thai and Korean films to successfully break into the Hong Kong market.
One Hundred Years of Film, backed by China Star Entertainment, is the production banner behind Okinawa: Rendez-Vous, launched with the intention of reinvigorating the second century of Hong Kong film-making. Its intention is to shoot 15 to 20 films a year and directors attached include Johnnie To, Gordon Chan, Wilson Yip, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam. It has already had its first box office success in Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai's romantic comedy Needing You which took $850,000 on its opening weekend. Lacking Japanese stars or locations, the title's marketing adopted poster designs with Japanese motifs, a stylistic device also adopted by Golden Harvest for the release of Jingle Ma's Summer Holiday in July.
But Jackie Chan, the man with most success in creating a pan-Asian image for a pan-Asian audience, is already one step ahead. His latest film, The Accidental Spy is nearing completion for Golden Harvest and is set in Korea, a country poised to become as hip as Japan for Hong Kong audiences.