At the very end of 2011, a new box-office record was set for a Chinese-language movie in Hong Kong. The Taiwanese teen picture You Are the Apple of My Eye, from first-time director Giddens Ko, was a sensation when it hit the city’s cinemas late in the year. It took moviegoers just 73 days to propel it past the previous titleholder, Stephen Chow’s 2004 Kung Fu Hustle. For Hong Kong’s cinema operators overall, there’s even greater cause for encouragement. Hongkongers are showing little sign of ditching their multiplexes anytime soon. Indeed, ticket sales for 2011 topped the previous year’s figure.
But the outlook for local movies in hometown cinemas was less bright. When 2011’s statistics were tallied, just two local films made it into the city’s top 10. Only five local productions scored places in the top 20. Among the problems that continued to cause problems for Hong Kong cinema on the home front were filmmakers’ mixed results in meeting the different tastes of local and mainland Chinese markets, Hongkongers’ limited interest in homegrown productions, and a small roster of new talent.
In 2011, as in previous years, the topic of co-productions between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese film companies dominated discussions about Hong Kong cinema. The year saw the continued expansion of the cinema scene in China. Ticket sales for local films across the border often eclipsed Hong Kong box office takings. (Under a 2003 trade pact, the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement, co-productions can play in the mainland as local films and are not subject to screen quotas.) Case in point: Tsui Hark’s 3-D martial arts and fantasy extravaganza Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, which starred Jet Li and was released in time for Christmas. Hong Kong takings represented just one per cent of what the film took across the whole of China by late January.
Tsui’s Flying Swords did impress critics and swordplay fans in Hong Kong - witness its 13 nominations for April’s Hong Kong Film Awards. But the city’s audiences were unexpectedly cool on the film. It wasn’t the only example of a movie being received differently in Hong Kong and the mainland. At the cinematic low end, the cheap slasher Mysterious Island, from Chung Kai-cheong, was barely noticed in Hong Kong. But it was a novelty for teens on the mainland, where it became a sensation. When Andrew Lau turned in a touching Hong Kong-mainland cross-cultural romance in A Beautiful Life, moviegoers in the city complained about the story’s criticism of Hong Kong people.
The co-production system continues to highlight the conundrum filmmakers face in catering to two different markets. Each is set apart by distinct audience tastes and censorship rules. Approaches to the two markets can be quite different. Take the 2011 films from director Johnnie To. His Don’t Go Breaking My Heart captured hearts on the mainland and in Hong Kong. It featured a pop urban romance that audiences in both markets could relate to. But To made sure that there was nothing in it to bother the mainland censor. By contrast, the director’s Life Without Principle was made to connect with Hong Kong audiences. An edgy, vital and timely work, Life Without Principle tied together everyday concerns about stocks, property and just getting by. It had a freewheeling and often observational style. Come early 2012, To delivered Romancing in Thin Air, another big-budget co-production which aimed to strike a comfortable balance between viewers on both sides of the border.
For audiences looking for quality Hong Kong pictures in 2011, To and Tsui’s films were great places to start. Another strong entry was Peter Chan’s Wu Xia. A star-studded affair with Takeshi Kaneshiro, Donnie Yen and Tang Wei leading the cast, and featuring astounding martial arts sequences set against a lush rural backdrop, the picture was a major treat for action fans. More strong action choreography could be found in Benny Chan’s pricy historical saga Shaolin, starring Andy Lau and Jackie Chan and centred on the famed Shaolin Temple in the early 1900s.
Director Herman Yau turned in a superb historical epic in The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake, blending the story of a heroine with fierce fight choreography and musings on the legacy of young revolutionaries. Woman Knight was one of several pictures marking the centenary of the Xinhai Revolution, a major point in Chinese history. Among the others were 1911, a patchwork retelling of period events co-directed by and starring Jackie Chan, and Derek Chiu’s 72 Martyrs, also detailing scenes of uprising.
High-budget action-fantasy cinema showed up in Wilson Yip’s A Chinese Ghost Story, a remake of the 1986 film of the same title which delivered nostalgic supernatural-themed fun. (Yip’s film was entitled A Chinese Fairy Tale on the mainland, where censorship rules forbid ghost stories. The original story’s ghouls in turn became censor-friendly demons.) More period fantasy turned up in Gordon Chan’s Mural, a colourful and charming romance and adventure story based, like A Chinese Ghost Story, on the classical literature of Pu Songling.
Tony Chan and Wing Shya’s Love in Space was a contemporary-set work which stood out. Like the co-directors’ Hot Summer Days a year earlier, the film assembled a group of romance stories involving various age groups. Adding to the formula were international settings (including a lovely storyline in Australia) and a segment set in orbit to tie in with the film’s Moon Festival release date. Jeff Lau delivered a fine, albeit challenging, romantic number in East Meets West 2011, toward the end of the year. Lau kept the audience on its toes as he unleashed a wild superhero story from a plot heady with nostalgia. Moviegoers crowded cinemas for Alan Mak and Felix Chong’s Overheard 2, a slick, name-only follow-up to 2009’s Overheard which revolved around shady stock market dealings.
While co-productions made up the bulk of high-profile Hong Kong movies in 2011, there were some exceptions. Notably Christopher Sun’s 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy, which scored worldwide publicity early in the year for its novelty value. The film itself may not have been a critical high point - an uneasy blend of kinky comedy and horribly violent torture scenes didn’t help - but returns at local cinemas were strong. Sleaze also proved appealing to cinemagoers when Wilson Chin’s Lan Kwai Fong hit screens. The nightclub saga promised a parade of cleavage and booze-fueled bedroom antics, and young viewers lapped it up. But those outside the youth demographic, were let down by the film’s poor plot, weak stars and cheap-cinema feel.
Far racier material showed up in Cash Chin’s The 33D Invader. Equipped with a gleefully silly story (a woman from the future time-travels to current-day Hong Kong in search of a sex partner to help save the human race from aliens), Chin’s trash epic made up for low production values with an unpretentious, anything-goes vibe.
Further low- and mid-budget highlights of 2011 included Patrick Kong’s Love Is the Only Answer and Wong Ching-po’s Let’s Go! Kong continued his line of troubled-romance epics in the surprisingly involving Love Is the Only Answer, which captured a failed wedding day and its aftermath. Kong, in a busy year, also released Mr. & Mrs. Single, a sleek mainland-set office romancer. He also co-directed, with Wong Jing, the trashy horror omnibus Hong Kong Ghost Stories. Wong Ching-po’s Let’s Go! meanwhile delivered a bizarre blend of anime-inspired superhero action and sights and sounds geared toward prompting nostalgic feelings.
Nostalgia remains an ongoing theme in films not gunning for big mainland returns. Witness the 2011 Chinese New Year comedy I Love Hong Kong, directed by Chung Shu-kai and Eric Tsang. Its portrayal of past housing estate life, in which cheery neighbours are shown being more community-minded than their counterparts today, was a big attraction.
One of the major problems that dogs the Hong Kong film industry is weak screenwriting. This fault was on display in the low- to mid-budget arena. Since the mid-1990s, many Hongkongers have derided local fare as being poorly made. It’s not hard to see why the view persists. Wilson Yip’s Magic to Win rode a wave of interest in magic and included hints of sorcery for Harry Potter fans, but the plot was messy from start to finish. Wilson Chin’s resort-set quickie Summer Love Love pieced together random skits, cameos and product placement for a ham-fisted stab at selling tickets to teens. And in Tony Tang’s beach volleyball–themed Beach Spike, the writers had a good line of attack (volleyball babes plus kung fu) but the script couldn’t land a winner.
At the higher end, Frankie Chan’s period epic Legendary Amazons suffered from having too many characters. Feeble exposition as it set up a less-than-thrilling adventure. Oxide Pang’s Sleepwalker in 3D hit cinemas with a demand for premium ticket prices (when Hong Kong 3D films play local cinemas, no 2D version is released simultaneously). But the slow-moving murder mystery lacked adequate tension and suspense. And Ching Siu-tung’s The Sorcerer and the White Snake, in featured disappointing CGI-filled action. It was a letdown for those hoping for a classy update of Tsui Hark’s sublime 1993 film Green Snake.
As in past years, Hong Kong saw a limited supply of new acting talent onscreen in 2011. The year was not short of fine performances from established stars. Among them were Lau Ching-wan’s turns in Life Without Principle and Overheard 2, Louis Koo and Daniel Wu’s rivalry in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, Chow Yun-fat’s dual role in Jiang Wen’s mainland hit Let the Bullets Fly, Donnie Yen’s comic part as a beauty-products salesman in All’s Well End’s Well 2011, Eason Chan’s laid-back showings in East Meets West 2011 and Love in Space, and a quirky turn from Aaron Kwok in Oxide Pang’s Bangkok-set The Detective 2.
Local leading ladies putting in memorable showings in 2011 included Sandra Ng in Vincent Kok’s cheery period superhero flick Mr. & Mrs. Incredible and Karen Mok in East Meets West. But the top female roles in co-productions still largely go to mainland actresses. Promising young talent remains in short supply. Aside from the occasional positive notes, like actress Angelababy’s star turns in Love in Space and Jingle Ma’s beachside romance Love You You, most new performers have not yet developed enough acting chops to build a strong following.
As for talent on the other side of the camera, the mainstream film scene offered little room for new directors. Those looking for new directors with commercial potential had to try short films. Mo Lai’s short 1+1, about people displaced by a railway project, scored a well-received theatrical run, while a photography-themed mockumentary by Wong Wai-kit, The Decisive Moment, impressed in festival screenings. Both had been awarded in 2010’s Fresh Wave short film festival, an event that showcased further strong works in 2011. Fresh Wave is one of several events stoking the fire for Hong Kong film culture alongside the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Another major film culture development in 2011 was a high-profile Hong Kong Film Archive programme. In addition to continuing its work in preservation, conservation and restoration, the Archive launched “100 Must-See Hong Kong Movies”, a multi-year series of screenings and seminars to boost discourse on the local canon.
Given the weak pulse of mainstream Hong Kong cinema in 2011, it was been encouraging to see 2012 get off to a decent start. At Chinese New Year, Chung Shu-kai and Wilson Chin’s I Love Hong Kong 2012 and Chan Hing-ka and Janet Chun’s All’s Well End’s Well 2012 both readily entertained with a definite Hong Kong focus in their comedy. Romancing in Thin Air took viewers to an exotic location and boasted quality lead performances from Louis Koo and, in a comeback, Sammi Cheng. Derek Yee sparked nostalgia among Hongkongers when he reteamed Lau Ching-wan and Tony Leung Chiu-wai in The Great Magician, rekindling a much-loved 1980s TV pairing. Pang Ho-cheung charmed with Love in the Buff, a Beijing-set follow-up to 2010’s local fave Love in a Puff, and rushed out the fiercely local and movie-themed comedy Vulgaria. Wong Jing turned in an unexpectedly sharp update to his long-running cards ’n’ mahjong film escapades in Mr. & Mrs. Gambler. Dante Lam provided some spectacular action in The Viral Factor, a pricy and confident globe-trotting ride, and Soi Cheang put finishing touches on further thrills in his car-racing saga Motorway.
Then there was A Simple Life. Ann Hui’s drama about a long-serving and dutiful housemaid made waves last September when Deanie Ip won the Best Actress award in Venice. The film then went on tour, hitting festivals and racking up awards in places as diverse as Estonia and Taiwan. But mainstream Hong Kong viewers were denied the film for months. Apart from having limited shows to wangle award nominations, A Simple Life was held back from theatrical release in its hometown until March, just before the Hong Kong Film Awards winners were announced. While Hong Kong viewers could understandably be sore about not getting to see the highly anticipated film earlier, the pre-release hype offered several months’ worth of much-needed positive PR for Hong Kong cinema.