Hong Kong Stories for a Global Audience

Hong Kong Stories for a Global Audience

09.11.17

The golden age of Hong Kong cinema is long gone, and few doubt it will ever return. Cantonese cinema flourished in the 1950s, when Hong Kong had the third largest film industry in the world behind India and the US.
In the 1970s Bruce Lee popularized the kung fu genre and put Hong Kong cinema on the global map.
Local directors Ringo Lam (City on Fire 1987), John Woo (The Killer 1989), Wong Kar-wai (Chungking Express 1994) and Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer 2001) broke new ground with their unique styles and inspired Hollywood filmmakers from Quentin Tarantino to Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn.
The high point in recent Hong Kong cinema arguably came in 2002 with the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Andrew Lau and Alan Mak crime-thriller Infernal Affairs (2002), which was later remade by Martin Scorsese as The Departed, which won the best picture Oscar in 2007.
A sea change occurred with the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) in 2013, which gave Hong Kong films preferential access to the mainland market. All of a sudden, the city’s filmmakers shifted their focus to co-productions with partners from across the border.
Fast forward to today – when China’s box office is No 2 worldwide – and Hong Kong’s established directors are churning out commercially lucrative but creatively hollow films for mainland audiences, like Chow’s The Mermaid and Lam’s Operation Mekong – both snubbed at the 2017 Hong Kong Film awards in favor of low budget Cantonese films. Of last year’s top grossing domestic mainland films, more than half were by Hong Kong directors.
Bucking the mainlandization trend are a group of younger Hong Kong filmmakers who prefer to tell stories targeting Hongkongers, with films like Mad World (2016), Ten Years (2015), The Midnight After (2014), The Way We Dance (2013) and Vulgaria (2012). However, few of these local films have appeal outside Hong Kong and in order to turn a profit they have to be made for less than HK$10 million – plus most of them rely on government grants or loans. While satisfying a niche demand for local stories, these types of films won’t restore “Hong Kong’s film brand” – one of the goals laid out in the chief executive’s 2016 policy address.
There is an alternative way – Hong Kong stories for a global audience.
This doesn’t mean local filmmakers have to start producing all their films in English, but it does require a different approach to storytelling.
Chinese scriptwriters like to focus on plot rather than characters, which often results in films with cardboard cutouts for heroes, expository dialogue, illogical narratives, and reliance on coincidence to solve story problems. Hollywood writers, on the other hand, believe character development is equally important as plot.
Pioneering American filmmaker D.W. Griffith was once quoted saying the art of movie making was all about “photographing thought”. Polish director Roman Polanski, who learned English while shooting his first Hollywood film in the mid-1960s, became a master at this approach with films like Chinatown (1974) and later The Pianist (2002). Telling a story visually also increases its international appeal. One obvious advantage is the need for fewer subtitles, which makes it easier for viewers to follow a story in a foreign language.
But taking it a step further, why can’t Hong Kong make more films in English? South Korea provides a current role model for a non-English speaking country that has seen its films, and their directors, break out internationally. With a home market of just 51 million Korean speakers, the country’s filmmakers are forced to look beyond their own borders.
The Host (2006) was screened theatrically in more than a dozen western markets and director Boong Joon-ho went on to make the English language Snowpiercer in 2013. His latest film is the Netflix original Okja ¬- in Korean and English – that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
Korean zombie film Train to Busan, a huge hit in Hong Kong last year, grossed US$87.5 million worldwide despite being subtitled for international audiences. Train to Busan is also the latest in a string of Korean film slated for an English language remake by Hollywood.
A key reason why Korean films have travelled beyond their own borders is simple: better storytelling. And that means filmmakers must ask one simple question: How can we make this story as entertaining as possible for the audience. Instead, Hong Kong’s established filmmakers start with a blueprint of what is acceptable to Chinese censors, and then work from there.
There is another obstacle to Hong Kong films being able to go international: lack of global star power. Jackie Chan was the first Chinese actor after Bruce Lee to break into Hollywood. They both paved the way for Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen – all of whom have starred in Hollywood productions. But Hong Kong’s A-listers are in mainland China’s orbit now and therefore unlikely to star in any movie with a storyline that isn’t sanitized for mainland consumption.
In the absence of Hong Kong A-list stars willing to appear in films not pandering to China, one solution is to write stories that include substantial supporting roles for famous English speaking actors. However, this can backfire if audiences see it as a marketing ploy. Such casting choices didn’t work with Matt Damon in The Great Wall (2016), but worked better when pairing Mike Tyson with Donnie Yen in Ip Man 3 (2015), which received mostly favorable reviews from western film critics.
Hong Kong producers could also consider hiring Hollywood directors to ensure their films have global audience appeal.
Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who won back-to-back best director Oscars for the English language films Birdman (2015) and The Revenant (2016), once said: “Cinema is universal, beyond flags and borders and passports.”
If Inarritu, Polanski and Korea’s Boong can make the leap from their local language to international productions, there’s no excuse why Hong Kong filmmakers – most of whom were born and raised under British rule – can’t do the same.
© 2017 Dragon Horse Films Limited