View from the Golden Rock #1

MS: What are the major changes and directions the HK film has made towards the past 10 years? What was the most crucial key event and how did it influence the industry? In short what does make today’s HK film define itself towards other international cinemas? How does it stick out? Any trademarks like in the 1980s?

KM: I think a major problem with Hong Kong films today is the lack of change. After John Woo, CHow Yun Fat, and other filmmakers left Hong Kong throughout the 90s, there has yet to be a new group of stars/directors that are solid enough to take over the reins. Of course, there are a few exceptions, but the biggest draws of HK cinema today are still the big names from the 90s – Andy Lau, Sammi Cheng, etc.

The biggest change today, sadly, is market-driven. The key event was in 2004, when the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement was signed with China. Part of that included allowing Hong Kong films co-produced by Mainland Chinese companies to enter China without any quota restriction. Local-based filmmakers have been softening up in order to get their films into the China market, which offers much, much larger economic rewards. Peter Chan, John Woo, Derek Yee, Andrew Lau, Stanley Kwan – all these directors that made their name in the 90s have now shifted to making films for the China market. The result are safe films that would try to pass the censors in China and even a dumbing down of films for the Chinese audience, who in general are not as film-savvy as people in Hong Kong. In turn, people in Hong Kong have turned out to the big blockbusters, but still avoid films that has too much “Mainland” flavor. As a result of that (and piracy, of course), attendance and the number of productions have gone down in a significant rate.

There has been hope for this past Lunar New Year, as the highest-grossing film is a local comedy inspired by the old Shaw Bros. film House of 72 Tenants. Even though the film has some Mainland flavor, almost all of the humor are locally-based language/pop culture humor. That, the cameo-filled cast, and the bombardment of advertising (It’s co-produced by HK’s largest TV station) helped propelled box office.

Also, for a while, Hong Kong cinema, like Korea, relied on getting their ideas good enough for Hollywood to remake. Infernal Affairs and Confession of Pain (interestingly, made by the same team of filmmakers) have already been sold, but there hasn’t actually been anything good enough lately to appeal to the international audience. Festivals are looking for another Wong Kar-Wai, and mass audiences want another John Woo-Chow Yun Fat. Neither exists anymore.

MS: Dialog seems to be a crucial point within the HK film. Either it is absolutely removeable like in the action films from the 1980s which rather rely on phisical action and slapstick storytelling (eg. Jackie Chan, John Woo, the Lucky Star series), what made those films internationally successful due to low dubbing costs and high visual impact on Western audiences. Or dialog is brought to a tremendous “over-use” as in the action film counter movement, the Moleitau films. Films in which the dialog is not only the center but also converted into a nonsense form of story substitute.

KM: What role does the dialog play in contemporary films? Is it still exchangeable or hard to grasp at all? How deep does local culture influence the dialog or do we see a internationalization during past years?

The Hong Kong-style of Cantonese language is an ever-changing one because of its colloquial roots, and the English subtitles of Hong Kong films rarely capture them accurately because it’s impossible to. Nevertheless, dialogue plays a huge part, in my opinion, to the success of a Hong Kong film. Even today, people are still reciting dialogue from Stephen Chow films, and with a film culture so connected to pop culture here, that would happen even more so than in the United States. As mentioned in the previous question, a large part of 72 Tenants of Prosperity’s success is the local humor, much of those are language-based. Even a film like The Lucky Star series rely plenty of language-based humor. You’re right in that they don’t play such a big part in action films (there’s no punchline culture here in action films), their ability to use local language still plays a huge part to a comedy’s success here in Hong Kong.

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The email-interview with Kevin Ma is a continuous series and will be posted on a regular basis. Objective of the interview series is to provide an insight to contemporary Hong Kong cinema in order to incorporate aspects into the pending DimSum Western genre definition.

Kevin Ma is a HK based writer and film critic for lovehkfilm.com, also assisting with this years Asian film strand of the London East End Film Festival. Follow his Twitter for updated industry news.

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