A new local box-office record and a chart-topping smash in mainland China offered a boost for Hong Kong cinema in 2016. Longman Leung and Sunny Luk’s flashy thriller Cold War 2 last year became the all-time number one Chinese-language film in Hong Kong, thanks to a strong summer showing, while Stephen Chow’s eco-themed fantasy comedy The Mermaid was dominant in the mainland, snapping up the year’s overall top spot with more than double the takings of its nearest competitor. But while these successes offered cheer, key film-industry figures slipped over 2016 and the city’s long-running slump in local production bore on.
Following a 20 per cent rise in box-office takings in 2015, the overall cinema takings in Hong Kong dropped in 2016 by almost 2 per cent, even though the number of releases rose slightly. The box-office drop was the first in a decade, and it came alongside the first fall in admissions in just as long. While the number of Hong Kong films on release in 2016 rose slightly, from 59 in 2015 to 61, their market share declined to 18 per cent, down from 19.4 per cent a year earlier. By year’s end there were only two local productions in the overall top 10, albeit a better result than just one in the previous year.

Once again, a Marvel superhero film topped the Hong Kong charts – this time it was Captain America: Civil War. The two Hong Kong movies joining it among the 10 highest grossing films were Cold War 2 in third place and The Mermaid in seventh. Cold War 2, a tightly plotted follow-up to the co-directors’ 2012 hit, gained a lift with its high-profile July release, and wooed viewers with plot points relevant to the city’s current political climate.
Chow’s novel fantasy-comedy-romance formula in The Mermaid found success in the Lunar New Year festive season, a traditional period for families and friends to flock to cinemas. The box-office results of those two films were outliers in Hong Kong, however: the third-place winner in the local films’ top 10, Wong Jing and Andrew Lau’s trashy star-studded comedy From Vegas to Macau III, made less than half of what The Mermaid did, and only six Hong Kong films could break the HK$10 million (US$1.3 million) barrier at home.
While hits like Cold War 2 and The Mermaid could lift the spirits of filmmakers and audiences alike, the bigger picture was mixed across the year. Weeks could pass without a new local film reaching cinemas, and the long summer had few home-grown blockbusters. Too often these days, local films slink in and out of Hong Kong theatres with little notice; die-hard moviegoers must keep close watch on changing schedules, lest they miss an unpromoted film playing, say, morning shows at a lone out-of-the-way cinema. Quality remains an issue, with moviegoers sensitive to value for money at the box office. Many are leery about the standard of local productions after past disappointments.

Fortunately for its aficionados, Hong Kong cinema delivered some pleasing highlights in 2016. Aside from Cold War 2 and The Mermaid, consider Soul Mate, the first feature film from Derek Tsang as solo director. Tsang turned in a polished and sensitive years-long story of the relationship between two young women in the mainland, and his accomplishment resulted in acclaim. In Taiwan, the film unusually picked up two Best Actress prizes at the Golden Horse Awards, and back at home it was the front runner, with 12 nominations, in the Hong Kong Film Awards.
More quality viewing came in Benny Chan’s period actioner Call of Heroes, a high-end picture offering plenty of fights as townsfolk stand up to a vicious warlord and his forces. While Chan delivered a nostalgic Hong Kong martial arts cinema vibe, director Derek Yee spruced up old material in the wuxia epic Sword Master, based on the same story as Chor Yuen’s Death Duel (1977, with Yee as lead actor). As the bitter tale of swordsmen attempting to step away from the martial world played out, Yee and his team offered strong battles neatly enhanced with snazzy effects.
For quality modern-day action, viewers could turn to Dante Lam’s Operation Mekong, an explosive blockbuster built off a real case of mainland cargo ships being attacked in the Golden Triangle. While taking liberties with the story and boosting mainland Chinese patriotic themes as the heroes pursue a local drug lord, the film reinforced Lam’s standing as a leading maker of pricy big-screen thrill rides.
To pull off such high-budget entertainment, Hong Kong filmmakers like Lam must look north for investment in the form of Hong Kong-mainland co-productions, a practice that got a lift under a 2003 trade agreement and its subsequent revisions. The mainland market and its 40,000-plus screens remains a key focus for the Hong Kong film business, especially when the home turf can no longer guarantee large crowds, and attempts to reach other markets like Southeast Asia offer limited returns.
Hong Kong filmmakers continue to have an edge in making high-cost genre pictures for the Chinese market, and the response can be huge for those able to pull off a mainland hit. In 2016, four Hong Kong films – The Mermaid, Soi Cheang’s fantasy epic The Monkey King 2, From Vegas to Macau III and Operation Mekong – entered the overall top 10 in the lucrative mainland market.
While the sharp drop in mainland box-office growth in 2016 may dampen spirits after years of strong rises, co-production should continue to entice Hong Kong talent, despite the issues it poses. Mainland censorship obviously applies, and the limiting effect of those rules is extended when pictures play in Hong Kong with identical cuts. Overt politically sensitive material is nixed, as are themes involving certain moral issues, and the supernatural. One continuing casualty is horror cinema, as spooky encounters must be defanged with a rational on-screen explanation to get approval from the censors.

A further wrinkle for co-productions is the divergence between audience tastes in the mainland and Hong Kong. The two markets can have differing responses to stars, comedy and storytelling, and Hongkongers too often simply shun mainland-focused tales. While Operation Mekong was seventh overall in the mainland, it didn’t even make the top 10 for local productions in Hong Kong.
A mainland release isn’t the be all and end all, however: some key Hong Kong filmmakers remain content to forgo co-production and develop locally focused work without the restraints of securing approval across the boundary. Top among those films last year was Trivisa, from new-generation directors Frank Hui, Jevons Au, and Vicky Wong. This wove dark undercurrents of post-1997 Hong Kong commentary into the stories of three criminals. While mainland play was impossible, an appreciative hometown audience pushed the movie into the local-film top 10.
A look over other Hong Kong productions in 2016 presents a decent variety of pictures across most genres. In the thriller department, celebrated director Johnnie To delivered Three, building tension between cops and bad guys into a hyper-stylised crescendo at a hospital. Local themes got a strong run in Ben Fong’s The Menu, a spirited look at rough goings-on in Hong Kong journalism. The film was an adaptation of a local TV series, and it wasn’t the only thriller to come from the small screen. Jazz Boon’s Line Walker adapted another TV serial, this time following a tangled plot of drug trafficking and police undercover work from Hong Kong to Brazil.

Over in action cinema, veteran Sammo Hung directed and starred in The Bodyguard, in which a dementia-afflicted old man sets out to right wrongs in his neighbourhood. Crime drama mixed with psycho-thriller touches in Herman Yau’s Nessun Dorma, about a young maiden who suffers a kidnapping ordeal ahead of marriage hell. Yau also turned to political allegory in The Mobfathers, staging triad election manoeuvres as a biting satire of developments in local political reform. Thriller veteran Ringo Lam also dived back into the genre with Sky on Fire, a crime saga revolving around a cure for cancer, but the film was one of his lesser works thanks to its messy script and absurd climax.
Among dramas, Lo Yiu-fai’s low-key picture Happiness found acclaim for its performance by Kara Wai, playing a woman with Alzheimer’s who takes in a young drifter at home. Also impressing was the baseball-themed Weeds on Fire from Steve Chan, a strong directing debut that mixed sports thrills with a coming-of-age story. Yuen Kim-wai’s intriguing Heaven in the Dark, adapted from a stage play and featuring extensive flashbacks, centred on a young woman confronting the man who, years earlier as a pastor, was found guilty of molesting her.
The prolific Patrick Kong continued his run of troubled-relationship sagas in the sequel L for Love, L for Lies Too, aiming to pull in young viewers with a story laced with cheating and bitterness. Two Malaysian-born directors also turned in Hong Kong productions of note: Lim Kah-wai followed a local actress’s mainland journey in the gentle road movie Love in Late Autumn, while relationship drama spread further to Malaysia in Ryon Lee’s cross-generation family saga Show Me Your Love.
Drama met comedy in the Wong Kar-wai-produced See You Tomorrow. Directed by mainland writer Zhang Jiajia, the picture delivered the nostalgic sight of Hong Kong A-list stars Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Kaneshiro Takeshi hamming it up with old-style Hong Kong cinema gags, while also giving a fresh run to themes and devices that have coursed through Wong’s past work. Among other comedy notables was Vincent Kok’s House of Wolves, a delightfully absurd romp with actors Francis Ng and Ronald Cheng chasing the same girl in their village.
Documentaries offered a diverse slate in 2016, too. Wong Siu-pong’s Snuggle focused on the city’s ageing society, and the stress that relatives go through as family members live to older ages. Cheung King-wai’s The Taste of Youth turned to young people brought together by a music event, then followed them to capture issues faced by local teens. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement of 2014 was the focus of Chan Tze-woon’s indie documentary Yellowing, which spent time with activists who camped for weeks on the city’s streets in protest. Late in the year, documentary cinema turned to the film business itself, with Hui See-wai’s The Posterist. Hui, the son of comedian Michael Hui, tracked down the artist who painted not just the iconic posters for his father’s 1970s hits, but also dozens of the city’s best-known film posters of the 1980s.
Hui’s debut as director was one of several in 2016. Soul Mate, Trivisa and Weeds on Fire served as high-profile showcases, as too did Wong Chun’s Mad World, a mental-illness story that has been picking up film awards at home and in Taiwan. Other notable debuts for directors included Line Walker, Happiness and Heaven in the Dark. In terms of formal schemes to help bring up new talent, Mad World and Weeds on Fire both came from the government’s First Feature Film Initiative, which finances projects that win an annual script competition.
The city’s Fresh Wave International Short Film Festival for new and emerging talent continues to play its part, each year funding and screening around 30 short films. The past 12 months have seen Fresh Wave alumni lauded for directing Trivisa and Mad World, underlining the programme’s position as a stepping stone. Last year’s two Good Take! anthologies stemmed from another effort, in which rising talent was involved in making short films produced by screen veteran Eric Tsang.

In the city’s acting scene, long-time leading men like Chow Yun-fat, Andy Lau, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Lau Ching-wan, Francis Ng, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Jacky Cheung, Nick Cheung and Louis Koo continued to hold top roles in 2016. Taiwan’s Eddie Peng is also picking up major lead parts too. Among the new-generation actors, Shawn Yue stands out, with award nominations recently going his way for Mad World. Others gaining attention include Gregory Wong and Aarif Lee, plus Lam Yiu-sing, and newcomer Tony Wu in Weeds on Fire.
Among actresses, mainland talent tends to be cast alongside Hong Kong leading men in large co-productions. Fortunately, key roles are being offered in smaller works like The Menu (Kate Yeung, Catherine Chau), Heaven in the Dark (Karena Lam), Weeds on Fire (Hedwig Tam) and Show Me Your Love (Michelle Wai). While one can easily point to promising acting talent, male and female, few are gaining the traction needed for strong box-office appeal.
2017 got off to a mixed start for Hong Kong cinema. Stephen Chow showed up as co-writer and producer Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back, a Tsui Hark-directed sequel to Chow’s 2013 hit fantasy based on the literary classic Journey to the West. Though the film performed well in the mainland, leading the Lunar New Year releases and breaking the record for a single-day gross, the CGI-fuelled epic received poor word-of-mouth support in Hong Kong.

Another big Lunar New Year movie in the mainland was Stanley Tong’s Kung Fu Yoga, a burst of high-budget silliness with Jackie Chan pursuing treasure from China to Dubai to India. (The film didn’t get a proper Hong Kong release until a month later.) In Hong Kong, a highlight of the Lunar New Year season was Lawrence Cheng’s locally focused comedy-drama The Yuppie Fantasia 3, centred on an office worker’s complicated domestic life and arriving 27 years after part two. Much less impressive in the festive season was Cook Up a Storm, from Raymond Yip. Set in Guangzhou and focused on rivalries among chefs, the film suffered from weak writing and limp direction - just the sort of work that feeds wariness among Hongkongers who view local productions as sub-par.
After the Lunar New Year, Hong Kong cinema offered some enticing coming attractions. Noted theatre artists Roy Szeto and Kearen Pang had their film directing debuts Shed Skin Papa and 29+1, respectively, set for release. Another directorial debut was in the offing in cinematographer Jason Kwan’s film A Nail Clipper Romance. Among the industry’s bigger names, Pang Ho-cheung was set to deliver Love Off the Cuff, the third part of a trilogy that started with 2010’s romantic comedy-drama Love in a Puff, Herman Yau had the Andy Lau-led bomb-disposal thriller Shock Wave in the offing, and Ann Hui was finishing up her wartime saga Our Time Will Come.
Hong Kong cinema continues to face a difficult market, but filmmakers like these seem undeterred, and continue to focus on making quality big-screen entertainment for viewers at home and beyond.
Tim Youngs