Hong Kong’s return to China came with concerns for its film industry, but change was necessary even before the Handover on July 1st, 1997. Whatever issues the Handover would create for Hong Kong cinema – restrictions over creative freedom, potential profits from the mainland market, the preservation of Hong Kong language and culture – none change the fact that the territory’s wildly popular film industry was already losing steam.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Hong Kong film industry was robust and startlingly successful. Output averaged around 200 features per year and the films were amazingly popular with local audiences, the Chinese diaspora, and moviegoers across Asia. But by the mid-1990s, Hong Kong cinema was losing local audiences to Hollywood films, and popularity had dimmed in overseas territories. With the rise of piracy and the dwindling of audience support, Hong Kong filmmakers had to adjust.
New genres rose to replace fading ones. Martial arts and costume swordplay films started to lose favour but audiences turned out for modern comedies and romances, and youth triad sagas like the Young and Dangerous films saw a spike in popularity. However, triad films eventually flamed out with audiences, and ironically the first great post-Handover film worked as a commentary on the genre. It wasn’t intended as such, but Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong (1997) nevertheless deconstructed triad films with a take that addressed real local issues.
Shot on leftover film stock, the independently produced Made in Hong Kong owed a stylistic debt to arthouse auteur Wong Kar-wai but established its own identity by exploring the emotions and anxieties arising from the Handover. The tale of a young go-nowhere gangster who befriends a terminally ill teen girl, Made in Hong Kong explored themes of personal identity, endings and beginnings, and the individual facing their futility. Handover angst had long been featured in Hong Kong films, but Made in Hong Kong made the metaphors raw and immediate, in no small part due to its proximity to the event.
The themes of change and identity would appear in many films to follow. After Made in Hong Kong, Fruit Chan directed two more Handover-themed films, The Longest Summer (1998) and Little Cheung (1999) – collectively, the films are called The Handover Trilogy. Meanwhile, Gordon Chan and Dante Lam’s Beast Cops (1998) made obvious reference to changing Hong Kong. Besides offering a nod to colonial times by pairing a Hong Kong detective with a Western-raised Chinese cop, Beast Cops showed anxiety for the future with its antagonists – young, amoral triads who violate the honourable codes of their predecessors. Though a commercial action drama, Beast Cops presented a changing, compromised world and asked complex questions of the characters within.
Previously, martial arts and action genres were Hong Kong cinema’s chief exports to the West, but they slowed after the Handover, only to be replaced in international esteem by the crime genre. Post-Handover crime films weren’t that much different from their precursors, but the Handover seemed to accentuate their uncompromising bleakness. Also, the films frequently contained metaphor for the tensions between Hong Kong and the mainland, and tackled themes involving psychology and identity. Ringo Lam showcased this dynamic in Full Alert (1997), which blurred the line between its cop and criminal protagonists powerfully.
The Hong Kong crime genre reached the pinnacle of its commercial success with Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs (2002), an award-winning blockbuster that’s regarded as one of the finest Chinese films ever made. Besides its iconic genre and story – about two undercover agents, one in the police and one in the triads, who engage in a tense battle of wits – Infernal Affairs was technically superior and loaded with superstars, and found success in Hong Kong and overseas. The film spawned two sequels and a slew of imitators but its combination of a terrific concept, top talent, and an unusually receptive local audience made its success difficult to replicate.
The crime genre still flourished, if not in popular terms then in artistic ones. Director Johnnie To became arguably the face of 21st century Hong Kong cinema due to his work in the genre. Starting in 1998, To and his company Milkyway Image produced a run of thematically rich crime films that explored ideas like nihilism and determinism, some offering strong commentary on the Hong Kong vs. mainland dynamic. The Longest Nite (1998), Expect the Unexpected (1998) and A Hero Never Dies (1998) firmly established Milkyway Image’s crime genre aesthetic, which To expanded upon with the spartan actioner The Mission (1999) and enthralling cop thriller PTU (2003). To reached the apotheosis of this work with dark gangster dramas Election (2005) and Election 2 (2006), which used triad power struggles as a metaphor for Hong Kong elections, with a chilling nod to China’s influence serving as the director’s final opinion on the subject.
However, Johnnie To wasn’t limited to playing cops and robbers. Along with writer-producer Wai Ka-fai, To and Milkyway Image delivered smart commercial films that frequently drew large audiences, like the wildly successful romantic comedies Needing You (2000) and Love on a Diet (2001). At the top of their game, Wai and To co-directed Running on Karma (2003), a surprisingly dark comedy-fantasy that touched upon history, identity and religion. Running on Karma featured garish comedy and violence similar to populist films, but its themes of faith and forgiveness were complex and accomplished. The film succeeded financially and critically, and showed that there were still rewards in uniquely Hong Kong films.
Perhaps no filmmaker became more identified with Hong Kong than actor/director Stephen Chow. The comedian’s brand of Cantonese wordplay and non sequiturs (known as mo lei tau or “nonsense comedy”) were long considered untranslatable to other languages and cultures. Chow adapted to Hong Kong cinema’s fading fortunes by changing his style to accentuate comic timing and visual humour, while enlarging his canvas to blockbuster proportions. His CGI-laden sports comedy Shaolin Soccer (2001) took Asia by storm and established Chow as Hong Kong cinema’s greatest crossover success, with box office returns across Asia that outpaced his superstar contemporaries. With his megahit follow-up Kung Fu Hustle (2004), Chow established a clear formula for box office success: commercial storylines, extensive use of CGI, less Hong Kong specificity, and co-production with mainland China studios.
The 2003 signing of CEPA (Mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement) allowed for co-productions to enter the mainland outside of its restrictive foreign film quota, and Hong Kong filmmakers were quick to take advantage. Returning to Asia after a brief stint in Hollywood, director Tsui Hark would go on to benefit greatly from CEPA. Following the popular success of director Andrew Lau’s The Storm Riders (1998), a comic book adaptation that extensively used CGI, Tsui made his own attempt at CGI fantasy with The Legend of Zu (2001), an update of his hit Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983). However, its modest success and the advent of CEPA led Tsui to work more closely with mainland studios, culminating in a string of financially successful swordplay films featuring China stars and the latest moviemaking technology.
Like Tsui, producer-director Peter Chan took a detour to Hollywood in the late 1990s, but soon returned to Asia to produce films utilising talent and financing from Korea, Thailand, China and Hong Kong, among other territories. This pan-Asia model yielded horror film The Eye (2002) and the Chan-directed musical Perhaps Love (2005). Afterwards, Chan turned to China as a primary partner for his directorial works, starting with award-winning period epic The Warlords (2007), a gritty all-star remake of Chang Cheh’s heroic bloodshed classic Blood Brothers (1973), and continuing with period martial arts thriller Wu Xia (2011). Peter Chan also shepherded Hong Kong-focused projects like Golden Chicken (2002), about a prostitute whose story serves as a panorama of contemporary Hong Kong history, and Protégé (2007), an undercover police drama that merged crime thrills with a locally relevant anti-drug story.
Similar to Chan, Protégé director Derek Yee worked on Hong Kong-focused films post-Handover, with crime thriller One Nite in Mongkok (2004) deserving mention for its allegorical story about a police unit tracking a mainland hitman in Hong Kong’s most crowded district. Also like Chan, Yee would transition to larger China co-productions, including Sword Master 3D (2016), a Tsui Hark-produced 3D remake of a Shaw Brothers swordplay classic. The 21st century resurgence of costume martial arts and swordplay films was only possible with co-production, as pure local productions lacked the resources for costly CGI and ballooning talent fees. The enlarged canvas provided by co-productions is one reason that director John Woo returned to Asia from his A-list Hollywood career. With greater resources at his disposal, Woo was able to mount the superlative costume epics Red Cliff (2008) and Red Cliff 2 (2009).
Director Patrick Tam also made a return, but not from Hollywood or another overseas location. The filmmaker behind the New Wave classic Nomad (1982) and Final Victory (1987), Tam ceased directing after the acclaimed gangster romance My Heart Is That Eternal Rose (1989). However, seventeen years later, Tam would make a triumphant return with the acclaimed drama After This Our Exile (2006), about the turbulent relationship between a Chinese father-and-son pair in Malaysia. Besides earning numerous awards, the film maintained faith in Hong Kong film’s artistic credentials. However, Tam has remained quiet since After This Our Exile, not taking advantage of his film’s success or the increasing resources afforded Hong Kong filmmakers by China co-productions.
Nevertheless, many of Hong Kong’s top arthouse directors soon boarded China co-productions. Post-Handover, director Stanley Kwan continued his explorations of gender with the relationship drama Hold You Tight (1998), notable for its frank depiction of homosexuality in Hong Kong, before moving on to mainland-targeted work. Simultaneously, Wong Kar-wai found success with Cannes-feted romantic dramas Happy Together (1997) and In the Mood for Love (2000). Yet after a stop in Hollywood, Wong went to China both thematically and financially for the opulent martial arts drama The Grandmaster (2013), which won multiple awards and earned Wong his biggest box office yet. With fewer locals appreciating their home-grown cinema, the mainland offered greener pastures for Hong Kong filmmakers.
Yet smaller local films remain quietly in vogue. Before making co-productions like the blockbuster martial arts biopic Ip Man (2008), Wilson Yip directed genre films steeped in local culture, from horror-comedy Bio-Zombie (1998) to the genuinely surprising cop drama Bullets Over Summer (1999). New Wave filmmaker Ann Hui moves between smaller films and larger co-productions, yet remains a relevant local figure. Her gentle docudrama The Way We Are (2008) won acclaim and awards for its subtle portrait of daily life in the town of Tin Shui Wai, while her drama A Simple Life (2011) would go on to international acclaim and box office returns seldom seen for a film of its scale and subject matter. About the relationship between a Hong Kong film producer and his ageing housekeeper, A Simple Life is also notable because it’s a co-production, and shows that mainland investment and small Hong Kong stories are not mutually exclusive.
Probably the most prominent Hong Kong filmmaker to emerge post-Handover, Pang Ho-cheung made his name on films celebrating local culture. His hit romantic comedy Love in a Puff (2010), about two smokers who meet while evading Hong Kong’s indoor smoking ban, is pointedly structured around local news and pop culture. Pang earned even bigger box office with Vulgaria (2012), which delighted Hong Kong audiences with its ribald, off-colour story and creative use of Cantonese slang and profanity. About a producer’s attempt to make an exploitation film, Vulgaria is also relevant because it satirises experiences and issues that are very unique to current Hong Kong filmmaking.
Pang’s work demonstrates that local filmmaking is still vibrant and essential. Indeed, many Hong Kong filmmakers who’ve risen post-Handover debuted with – or still make – Hong Kong-focused works. Soi Cheang turned heads with horror films and the unexpected thriller Love Battlefield (2004), before directing the acclaimed crime film Accident (2009) for Johnnie To’s Milkyway Image. Singer-turned-director Juno Mak revealed hidden talents with Rigor Mortis (2013), a stylish update of the iconic Chinese vampire genre. Youth were served onscreen, too. Love in a Puff co-screenwriter Heiward Mak made an astonishing directorial debut in her early twenties with harrowing teen saga High Noon (2008), while Adam Wong charmed audiences with energetic, youthful surprise hit The Way We Dance (2013).
Recently, younger filmmakers have even broken through to award-winning status. Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng’s Gallants (2010), which pays tribute to the martial arts genre, won a Hong Kong Film Award for Best Picture, as did Ten Years (2015), a politically themed omnibus film by five new Hong Kong directors. Philip Yung’s Port of Call (2015), a harrowing mystery-drama based on a grisly real-life murder, was honoured by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society with its award for Best Film.
A year later, the Hong Kong Film Critics Society’s highest honour went to Milkyway Image’s Trivisa (2016), directed by Johnnie To protégés Frank Hui, Jevons Au, and Vicky Wong. Trivisa quite fittingly takes place during the Hong Kong Handover, with the event serving as a backdrop for a criss-crossing story about three criminals struggling to reinvent their careers in the shadow of a changing Hong Kong. The film’s parallels between crime and filmmaking could not be more obvious. As a genre film or a metaphor for the film industry, Trivisa offers salient advice for Hong Kong and its filmmakers: In an uncertain world, you change or you perish. Twenty years later, Hong Kong cinema is still applying that wisdom.