A scene from "Aftershock", a mainland China-Hong Kong co-production that was the highest grossing Asian film in 2010
Koreans, mainlanders should learn from Cantonese filmmakers' mistakes'
Hong Kong cinema's golden age waned as it saw too many movies featuring the same stars and stories. "South Korea is going through the same thing, and I fear the mainland will soon, too".
By Lee Hyo-won
HONG KONG - In the South Korean remake of "A Better Tomorrow", Song Seung-heon made a point of wearing dark shades and a long camel-colored raincoat for the part immortalized by Chow Yun-fat.
Hong Kong cinema saw its heyday in the 1980s and the iconography of such gangster action classics lives on. Though produced by John Woo himself and invited to the Venice Film Festival, the Korean revival failed miserably, however, and not just because of its inherent flaws - maestros like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino made successful adaptations of Cantonese works, but such style of movies is no longer in vogue even in Hong Kong.
In the early 1990s the neighboring industry was whipping up as many as 300 films each year, but the figure plummeted to just 51 in 2007. Things should be better again, hopes Roger Garcia, the new head of the Hong Kong International Film Festival.
Cantonese films are eyeing a comeback as if to say it's more than the stuff of past legends, particularly with the opening of mainland China's immense market.
The industry's "rebirth", however, does not come without certain artistic compromises, which serve as a point lesson for Korean cinema which was destined to follow a similar fate.
In discussing Chinese films, it used to be convention to label it as either Cantonese or Mandarin. Hong Kong was the homeland of the former, namely John Woo-style action flicks that fed moviegoers in Taiwan to Korea as well as Bruce Lee-addicted Hollywood. On the other end of the spectrum, mainland China pumped out grand period epics a la Zhang Yimou.
What awaits Sino cinema now that the two markets are merging?
An increasing number of Hong Kong studios have been cooperating with mainland partners, and the 2004 Closer Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) completely lifted restrictions for islanders to permanently settle and set up their own companies in China. In the mainland, a cinema boom took place - in 2010 alone the market jumped 13 percent thanks to some 200 million moviegoers.
For the island's producers, who had always been dependent on exports, such a market is quite attractive, while the nascent Chinese film industry benefits from Hong Kong's know-how in commercial entertainment: Among last year's top box office-ranking Chinese language films, eight out of 10 were co-productions. Of these Feng Xiaogang's earthquake blockbuster "Aftershock" became the highest grossing film in Asia that year. Tsui Hark's "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame", which attracted attention among both critics and fans, weaves Andy Lau's high-flying Hong Kong-style martial arts into an ancient dynastic setting typical of mainland works.
But prospects aren't all rosy in the censorship-heavy mainland market.
Staple cinematic elements such as ghosts are deemed taboo, while there is no set age-ranking system. Thus filmmakers play it safe with family-friendly movies. One solution manifests in the form of romantic comedies that break away from the Leon Lai love stories that once defined Hong Kong cinema. Even Johnny To, who set the template for Hong Kong thrillers, opted for a sugary story, "Don't Go Breaking My Heart",to open this year's Hong Kong Film Festival. While the film sheds light into the island's urban exoticism, it was not complete without casting mainland stars such as Gao Yuanyuan and featuring a grand finale in Shanghai.
Prominent filmmaker Jia Zhangke, who is originally based in Beijing but had been long collaborating with Hong Kong studios due to censorship problems at home, fears that Cantonese cinema is losing its identity by catering to Mandarin tastes. "Many Hong Kong filmmakers are compromising their authentic 'flavor', and this concerns me", Jia said during an interview.
To make sure that Hong Kong retains some originality in movies, the government set up a $300 million HKD fund in 2007. Among the 16 medium-sized projects supported by the program, "Echoes of the Rainbow" won the Crystal Bear at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival and also did well in the local box office.
This marks a striking change in the production process: For decades Hong Kong filmmakers had made works on their own - state intervention was a foreign idea - since exports to other Asian countries proved lucrative. The success attracted investors from near and far, but this resulted in unwarranted side effects: too many movies were being made featuring the same cashable stars and stories.
"At the time I was myself a producer. It was normal for me to produce three films at the same time. It's no wonder the quality suffered". Wellington Fung Wing, secretary general of the Film Development Council, said about the situation in the early 1990s. While quality went down, costs went up as the demand increased for the same movie stars.
"The stories were all the same, starring all the same actors. The films didn't do well and so the investors left. South Korea is going through the same thing, and I fear the mainland will soon, too. But we're trying to get things back into a healthier direction", he said.
Production is on the rise and more than 70 films have made each year recently. Yet problems persist - Hong Kong has simply become too expensive.
This is a struggle that even major studios such as the legendary Shaw Studios must deal with. Over the course of the 20th century, the company shaped the local cinematic landscape as it produced over a thousand titles. But as Hong Kong's cinema entered a recession the studio turned to television.
Shaw, however. is trying to reenter the film scene with newly furbished, high-tech production and post-production facilities.
"Our studios are considerably more expensive to rent than those in the mainland or Taiwan, but we're relatively cheap compared to Hollywood per se while being equipped with state-of-the-art facilities", said Llyod Chau, director of Shaws' business development and marketing. "We're slowly getting back into production. Recently we shot five Cantonese films for Hong Kong and Guangdong regions, and we're producing projects targeting Singapore and Taiwan markets".
The studio houses some of the world's few sound- and earthquake-proof, immaculately climate controlled sound stages. Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" and the U.S.-Canada film "Push" were filmed here, along with Tran Anh Hung's "I Come With the Rain", co-starring Lee Byung-hun and Josh Hartnett.
A tour of the venue also saw the construction of what will be the world's largest sound-mixing studio. A notable development is Shaw Active Sound System, which make movie theater seats vibrate at low frequencies. The Grand Cinema at Elements shopping mall in Kowloon benefits from this technology.
"The Shaw Brothers used to have 200 screens but now we have only 12. But we're trying to make a comeback through the development of such new cinematic tools. Shaw Active Sound System applies the principals of a recording studio to cinemas", said Chau.
Moreover, there are efforts to restore and archive Cantonese films. Recently Shaw Studios oversaw an unprecedented project to remaster some 700 titles in just five years, for its film library. Storing films is another trying task in Hong Kong's humid climate - for films both old and new since some 80 percent of movies are still shot on 35-millimeter film. Shaw Studios has some of the region's largest storage areas while the Hong Kong Film Archive holds more than 9,000 Cantonese titles.
Korea also suffered from the influx of investors under the impression that casting a hallyu star in an epic war drama would ensure ticket sales. But filmmakers and television producers can easily learn from Hong Kong's example, or even with a quick peek at the local box office, where small stories about teenage pregnancy ("Re-encounter") or senior citizens falling in love ("Late Blossom") have become sleeper hits. Song Seung-heon may sell to a handful of middle-aged Japanese female fans, but even this superstar can only go so far with an awkward script.
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