Difficult Times: Hong Kong Cinema in 2018

Hong Kong recorded an increase in box-office takings in 2018, reaffirming the strength of the cinema sector in the SAR after two years of declining ticket sales. Spending on movie houses rose almost 6 per cent to HK$1.96 billion (US$249 million), and the number of films in theatres also increased, up 8 per cent to 300. But the snag for local filmmakers was that hometown productions were seldom the star attraction.

Jeff Cheung’s Agent Mr. Chan led local movies with a HK$44.7 million (US$5.7 million) haul. Tying Cantonese comedy into silly superspy antics, the film was a big local hit during the Lunar New Year. But it didn’t manage to enter the city’s overall box-office top 10. That chart was led by eight films from US franchises, topped by Avengers: Infinity War at HK$153.3 million (US$19.6 million), while the ninth and 10th slots went to Korean hits. Just 53 new releases were classed as local in the official 2018 tally, the same number as the year before. The market share of local films slipped slightly to 13 per cent from 14 per cent the year before.

As in 2017, filmgoers saw weeks pass without a major new Hong Kong movie. The profile of releases varied wildly, with some hometown films stuck in out-of-the-way venues or screening at awkward hours. Screenings of local pictures often end with speedy meet-and-greets by actors and other filmmakers, during which they implore audiences to talk up their work and add likes on social media. This does increase the enthusiasm for local works, but it does not always translate into successful theatrical runs. It’s especially hard when local cinema is often viewed as a second-tier product by moviegoers, a feeling that arose in the mid-1990s because of the slapdash works on show. Polished and bombastic imports are often seen as giving more value for money.

As it’s difficult to attract a large audience at home, Hong Kong-mainland Chinese co-production remains a major part of local cinema. By partnering with mainland companies, Hong Kong filmmakers gain access to the country’s 60,000-plus screens, as those films are classed as domestic works not imports, and are therefore not subject to quotas. Potential returns at the national scale are far larger, so filmmakers can aspire to much higher production values.

A case in point in 2018 was action specialist Dante Lam’s intense Chinese commando film Operation Red Sea, which shot to the top of the mainland box office in February, and held the number one slot through to the end of the year. Other filmmakers taking advantage of big co-production budgets included Soi Cheang, whose fantasy flick The Monkey King 3 was a delight in the Lunar New Year, and Tsui Hark, who turned in Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings, a film which continued the mind-bending thrills and spills the series has become known for.

The catch that comes with mainland co-production is that filmmakers need to follow Beijing’s censorship edicts. Filmmakers must be adept at balancing acts to avoid big-screen no-nos. Some prohibitions are easily understood, like political issues, the supernatural and letting wrongdoers get away unpunished, but others change with the times.

For a co-production to reach movie screens anywhere, including Hong Kong and even overseas festivals, a green light from the mainland is needed first. What’s more, Hong Kong the cinemas get the mainland cut of the film. Plot developments shoehorned into scripts clear mainland hurdles can wind up being blazingly obvious, and there are often abrupt fixes at the end to remove moral grey areas and ensure that even borderline baddies don’t get past the end credits without receiving punishment. In skilled hands, a mainland-friendly plot turn can fit in smoothly and even complement a film’s mood, but sadly that’s not the norm. The effect of the rules on genre work has also led to a decline in horror films – once a staple on Hong Kong’s movie circuits.

Filmmakers opting for co-production deals must also contend with the divide in audience tastes between Hong Kong and the mainland. That takes in everything from storytelling to comedy styles and favourite stars. Differences in audience responses can be stark, especially if Hongkongers perceive a production is aimed primarily at the mainland crowd. Operation Red Sea exemplified the split, with the film scoring just HK$8.7 million (US$1.1 million) in Hong Kong, and just scraping into the city’s top 10 local productions.

As the mainland is a much bigger market, Hongkongers fear that co-productions that have a distinctly local character will disappear. Successful crossovers included Felix Chong’s Project Gutenberg, and Chin Ka-lok’s Golden Job, two globetrotting crime co-productions that drew on Hong Kong screen nostalgia. But films focusing on hometown topics are primarily local releases which opt for smaller budgets – a type of filmmaking which is largely the province of today’s new-generation directors. Producers of such films often hope for awards and festival plays to drum up interest in the months before their full-scale cinema release.

Viewers keeping up with Hong Kong cinema in 2018 found a wide variety of pictures, even if quality fluctuated greatly. (In its annual prize list, the Hong Kong Film Critics Society only saw fit to give awards to two films from 2018, and recommend a meagre four more.) At the big-budget end, Project Gutenberg was a major treat, focusing on a painter (Aaron Kwok) moving into big-time counterfeit cash work under the control of a shadowy master (Chow Yun-fat). The picture took the confident swagger of 1980s Hong Kong crime cinema and married it to flashy modern production values and extensive foreign location work. Dante Lam’s Operation Red Sea had also headed abroad, shooting in Morocco, where it captured breathtaking scenes of mainland heroes rescuing Chinese citizens from a fictitious war-torn country.

Fantasy buffs were in for more sensational cinema when Soi Cheang delivered The Monkey King 3. Based on a classic work of literature, the effects-heavy movie saw the adventurers arrive in a kingdom of women, where a fresh tale unfolded with delightful visuals and polished screenwriting. Raman Hui’s Monster Hunt 2, a Lunar New Year release like Cheang’s film, continued the story of Wuba, a cute little monster pursued by far nastier beasts, utilizing a classy blend of animation and live action. Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee line passed the four-picture mark with The Four Heavenly Kings, in which the Tang dynasty sleuth tackled illusionists, sorcery and more in a wildly creative ride.

Drama provided several satisfying pictures. New director Sunny Chan’s mid-life crisis story Men on the Dragon caught attention with its fine ensemble cast, light comic touches and very local take on sports cinema, and consequently managed a lengthy summertime run. Screening on limited release in 2018 ahead of its full release this year, Still Human touched with a story of the relationship between a domestic helper from the Philippines (Crisel Consunji) and her elderly, wheelchair-bound employer (Anthony Wong). The first feature from Oliver Chan, the picture impressed with subtle writing and warm performances.

Fruit Chan’s Three Husbands, another limited release, brought more shocking sensations in a tale revolving around a mysterious and largely boat-bound hooker – a darkly comic work swimming in symbolism relating to contemporary Hong Kong. Political material also figured in Ling Yiang’s A Family Tour, a small picture based in part on the director’s own experiences as a mainland filmmaker in exile in Hong Kong. His quiet, low-budget tale saw a sneaky family reunion take place when a director attends a Taiwan film festival, and also reflected the difficulties of trying to make an overtly political Hong Kong film today.

Nostalgia was the main draw in House of the Rising Sons, which was about the origins of local pop group The Wynners, and directed by its drummer Anthony Chan. The enduring band is known for its easygoing entertainment, and the film aimed for the same, charting the band’s rise in rock from the late 1960s onwards. Far darker drama played out in Cheung King-wai’s Somewhere Beyond the Mist. With a story featuring a schoolgirl offing her parents, the picture was a stark, carefully plotted work that had strong atmospheric touches. More challenging, Derek Chiu’s No. 1 Chung Ying Street was a striking low-budget work that looked back at young leftists during Hong Kong’s deadly 1967 riots while tying in scenes of modern-day tension and activism. Tracey, a transgender coming-out drama from new director Jun Li, sustained a good run in cinemas. And mainstream audiences were attracted by the strong central performance of Philip Keung. New talent Chan Tai-lee also came to wide attention with Tomorrow Is Another Day, which focused on the life of a housewife with an autistic son and a cheating hubby. Quality performances, were once again the big draw, headed by Teresa Mo.

In Your Dreams, directed by newcomer Tam Wai-ching, was a polished affair about a taboo student-teacher relationship; young talent Jevons Au’s Distinction took a sensitive look at special education in a story of kids preparing for a musical; Benny Lau’s nostalgic When Sun Meets Moon offered a school-days romance; and G Affairs, from first-time director Lee Cheuk-pan, had a peculiar and arty take on crime.

Action and thriller buffs found several key films aside from Project Gutenberg and Operation Red Sea. Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy took a fighter from 2015’s Ip Man 3 and spun his story into an entertaining new yarn. With able martial artist Max Zhang in the lead and veteran choreographer Yuen Woo-ping directing, the 1960s-set film saw a Wing Chun ace take down local thugs and a major drug dealer. Donnie Yen, the star of earlier Ip Man films, took the lead in Kam Ka-wai’s Big Brother, turning his attention as co-producer to a social-issues picture linked to Hong Kong’s education system. Action fanatics may have been miffed to see all the drama, but Yen delivered the goods in fights along the way.

Golden Job, directed by action specialist Chin Ka-lok, saw a team of Hongkongers travel to Budapest and Japan when a heist they planned for humanitarian reasons goes wrong. A betrayal unfolds. Though essentially a reunion for the 1990s Young and Dangerous triad-film screen team, as a mainland co-production, Golden Job recast its key players in a more virtuous light. More overseas thriller action could be found in Jingle Ma’s Europe Raiders, an inane saga about bounty hunters in Italy trying to seize a global surveillance and weapons system. Singer Leon Lai’s Wine War, an amusingly bonkers tale that starts with French oenophile intrigue, spiralled away into runaway-train action. Notable actor Nick Cheung gave the thriller genre a shot in The Trough, an altogether mystifying hyperstylised account of a detective (Cheung) scouring a rainy, dark and futuristic world in search of a crime boss. Far more conventional and compelling was Herman Yau’s The Leakers, which combined international policing and investigative journalism in a story about a disease outbreak in Malaysia.

David Lam’s L Storm continued the midrange anti-corruption franchise with a story of graft-busting rivalries that surface while investigators tackle a money-laundering operation. Clearly gunning for the youth market, new director Sit Ho-ching delivered the techie tale Keyboard Warriors, with young internet crusaders and their police counterparts in the frame after cash is found spilled in the street. Amos Why’s Napping Kid also delved into online wizardry for an overly dense crime and social activism saga.
Few all-out local comedies appeared in 2018, something which made the success of Agent Mr. Chan stand out. Featuring Dayo Wong, the film took digs at spy-flick tropes while delighting fans of Wong’s popular stand-up comedy. More send-ups appeared in the lower-profile Keep Calm and Be a Superstar, by Vincent Kuk. The crime film follows a screen talent who clearly spoofs Jackie Chan, and it revelled in local screen references and goofy humour.

The number of supernatural stories has been reduced by the rise of co-productions, so there were slim pickings for fans of spookier fare. Fortunately, Hotel Soul Good was satisfying viewing, telling of a young woman setting up a small hostel with the help of friendly ghouls. Directed by Yan Pak-wing, the story mixed comedy and drama with a careful hand, and featured a strong local cinema vibe. Veteran musician and filmmaker Teddy Robin also offered creepy goings-on in Lucid Dreams, a modest collection of light-horror tales that unfold after a director is knocked out on a film set.

Among the lows of the year were Staycation and Iceman: The Time Traveller, two pictures which did nothing to help the Hong Kong film brand amid difficult times. Johnson Lee’s pointless comedy effort Staycation centred on a family heading off to a campsite for forgettable bonding, game-show-style antics and a run-in with a giant bird, and had scenes lifted straight from Hollywood. Raymond Yip’s Iceman: The Time Traveller picked up where the box-office bomb Iceman left off in 2014. Featuring Donnie Yen as a Ming dynasty warrior, first in modern Hong Kong, then back in ancient China, the movie looked like a mishmash that had been whacked together to close a troubled production history.

Still, 2018 was certainly a good year for directing debuts. Men on the Dragon and Tomorrow Is Another Day brought wide recognition to screenwriters Sunny Chan and Chan Tai-lee, while Agent Mr. Chan featured the first directing credit for long-time assistant director Jeff Cheung. Late in the year, a string of small to mid-sized releases showcased new talents Oliver Chan, Sit Ho-ching, Lee Cheuk-pan, and Jun Li.

The publicly funded Fresh Wave short film programme continues to be a key part of the talent development process for aspiring writers and directors, and the government’s First Feature Film Initiative, a script competition with full production budgets as the prizes, has continued an impressive run in backing quality pictures by first-time feature directors. For their part, film companies have continued to offer necessary support for new and rising talent, often backing lower budgeted works by these filmmakers alongside bigger co-productions.

Among on-screen talent, the leading Hong Kong actors in 2018 included established players Chow Yun-fat, Francis Ng, Anthony Wong, Aaron Kwok, Louis Koo, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Nick Cheung, Donnie Yen and Philip Keung. Younger talents with notable works in 2018 included Ng Siu-hin, Tony Wu and Ling Man-lung. Among actresses, the year recorded fine turns by locals Teresa Mo, Stephy Tang, Kara Wai, Carina Lau, Charmaine Sheh, Catherine Chau, Jennifer Yu, Chrissie Chau, Kathy Yuen and Cecilia So. But as in previous years top female roles in the major co-productions often went to mainland actresses.

2019 began on a mixed note for Hong Kong cinema. In the months before the new year, a slowdown in new co-productions occurred in the wake of a mainland crackdown on film-business tax evasion. Then, at the Lunar New Year, Hong Kong filmmakers didn’t triumph at the national box office as they had in the previous year. But at home, at least, the festive season saw a diverse line-up offering several key attractions. Five Hong Kong films opened for the holiday week, and beyond the mainland-set The New King of Comedy co-directed by Stephen Chow, four of them could easily be classed as very local in their themes, locations and casting.

Such films included the freewheeling farce Missbehavior from Pang Ho-cheung, and the top performing Integrity, a slick anti-corruption thriller directed by Alan Mak. Hong Kong cinema’s long-running challenges may be far from over, but those hoping for a fresh show of confidence from the city’s filmmakers could find one as the Lunar New Year got started.
Tim Youngs