Ups and downs of Hong Kong cinema after 1997 handover

Since Hong Kong's return to China in 1997, there have been heated debates about whether Hong Kong films would go downhill. In order to revitalize the past glory of Hong Kong films, the city's filmmakers began seeking cooperation with their mainland partners to co-produce films.

Helped by the cooperation, Hong Kong filmmakers are exploring a new way to make films that can combine the elements of both the mainland and Hong Kong after they overcame the difficulties including the stricter censorship rules and unsatisfactory box office returns in the mainland.

Tough times around 1997

In the 1970s, the commercialization of filmmaking in Hong Kong helped the city earn a reputation as the "Eastern Hollywood". In its heyday, more than 300 films were made in Hong Kong which has a population of 7 million, with the production of some films only taking seven days.

However, the high degree of commercialization of filmmaking foreshadowed the decline of Hong Kong films. "Mainland people may not know that their favorite films like New Dragon Gate Inn were reproduced," said scriptwriter Wan Youli, an apprentice of Hark Tsui, who is one of the directors of New Dragon Gate Inn. Because of lack of innovation and low production cost, the film industry of Hong Kong withered, said Wan.

In 2001, Tsui staged a comeback with his special effects-driven film, the Legend of Zu. Wan spent nearly two years in writing the play of the film. Unfortunately, the film met its Waterloo due to the bad story line. Wan later attributed the failure to the fact that what he wanted to show in the film was too complicated.

Before the breakout of the Asian financial crisis in 1997, there had been media reports predicting the death of Hong Kong films. In order to bring Hong Kong films to life, Hong Kong filmmakers began seeking partnership with their mainland counterparts to co-produce films considering the big mainland market and the huge investment.

CEPA offers help

In 2003, the central government and Hong Kong signed Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA), lifting restrictions on the import of Hong Kong films to the mainland and allowing co-productions to be screened in the mainland.

Wan said that Infernal Affairs III is the first film co-produced by Hong Kong and the mainland that is screened in the mainland. The box office returns surpassed 20 million yuan two weeks after the film's premiere, Wan noted.

CEPA has brought many benefits to Hong Kong films. The box office returns of China in 2016 amounted to 45.7 billion yuan, 7.9 billion yuan of which were contributed by the six films co-produced by Hong Kong and mainland that reaped the most box office returns.

Cooperation with mainland

Encouraged by the implementation of CEPA in 2003, many famous Hong Kong filmmakers including Hark Tsui, Peter Chan and Derek Yee began seeking cooperation with the mainland.

At the beginning, these Hong Kong filmmakers had no idea about how to make co-productions. "Initially, they added a mainland actress or shot a scene in the mainland," said Barbara Wong, a Hong Kong directress. Later they tried to combine mainland elements with Hong Kong elements, according to Wong.

Li Jianxin, a veteran actor and a member of the China Film Association, revealed that many actors from the mainland were not used to the unfettered shooting style of Hong Kong directors when the cooperation just started. "Some Hong Kong films had no screenplay, so some mainland actors did not know how to act," Li added.

Currently, there are about 50 co-productions made every year.

Wong also hailed the fast development of the Hong Kong films produced and screened locally, saying that many of them have gained box office returns reaching the HK$ 10 million mark. "It is a marvelous achievement if it is calculated by the small population in Hong Kong," Wong said.

But Wong stressed that the locally produced films are absorbing more essences from the best Chinese films.

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