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After Zach Hines´ article “How to make a Indie Hong Kong Flick” at HK Mag´s March 2010 issues I was quite shocked how the issue of independent filmmaking gets degraded and squeezed into a 11 bullet point listing that simply makes no sense at all from a filmmakers POV. Is this a joke?! Maybe, but it is one thing for sure: offensive, down grading and appalling. In short, it is misleading to people not involved in this business and simply not true.

As the HK Mag is quite an institution in this city and gets taken serious by the majority of foreigners living here, it is a shame how filmmaking gets portrayed here. Filmmaking in HK is a mere local industry with almost no foreigners participating in. I could read some vilifying undertone between those lines towards the local film culture that really fights for each dollar to keep especially independent productions running.

I live and work in this industry for 2 years by now. I am a foreigner and I have been on so many shoots that I stopped counting after 4 month being in town. Having been on all kinds of productions like professional big, medium and low budget films, commercials, TV and mostly, of course, independent as well as student projects, I feel the need to stand up and comment on this impropriety. Also, I am personally specialized as interactive filmmaker taking use of social media tools on a regular basis for my work.

First of all we have to define the term “Indie Flick”. Unlike most European countries HK has a very marginal governmental funding structure. Filmmakers can apply for funding at the HK Film Development Council (FDC) and subsidies of CreakHK if the project involves some fine art approach. The FDC was established in 2007 and 14 film production were granted funding so far. Since this fund is aimed on medium budget films from HK$8-12 million independent low budget films barely meet the requirements.  After the shutdown of Hong Kong´s two big studios (Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest) local films were facing harsh time in the 1990s. Private investors and of course the liquid money from the Mainland became the way to go. With those two financial sources backing projects filmmakers were back in the game but had to trade-off in content and story in order to meet investors expectations. This situation still exists today and hardly one director really has entire freedom on his/her project. Thus, no matter who we are talking about, none is a real independent filmmaker in a Western sense as long as they not pay all bills out of their own pocket. But who can afford that? The only filmmakers in town I saw with entire control over their vision are film students who really fund each film with their own money. I was one of them too, till last year.

So let´s go step by step through this inferior 11 point system:

1. First and foremost, tell all your friends that you’re now making a movie about Hong Kong. Bask in their encouragement. You are talented, and loved.

If you want to have 100 people on the set that have no idea about filmmaking and don’t even know what a camera looks like than this is definitely the way to go. But each minute on set costs money for the director/producer and a bunch of clumsy film-retards is simply a no-go and fundamental obstacle. Therefore, select your crew handpicked and wise. Think about WHO is the most asset to the respective project and ask them directly in person. Most people are willing in the industry to work for 1 day without payment if they are convinced on the ingenuity of your project and trust in your cinematic spirit as well as organizational talent. However, this requires a personal network of industry contacts and a constant private market research. If you haven´t done this before, start ASAP. Also, throw off the set everyone who is bored, has no task or just wants to have a look in order to kill some free time – those people are bothersome and useless!
2. Write approximately 10 pages of meandering dialogue over three weeks with no wider plot in mind. There’s a guy who just arrived, a mysterious hot Asian girl, and someone has been murdered…

Tons of dialogs are the weakest part of every no-budget production. Inexperienced filmmakers seek refuge in total unnecessary dialog, sometimes even copied from popular films and subsequently sell it as homage. Be honest to yourself. Filming talking heads is like watching a radio show on TV. Who on earth wants to see that?! A director who cannot use the tools of visual storytelling (camera movements, light, locations, …) is not worth staying in this industry. Get another job, you will be no Tarantino or Wong Kar Wai – NEVER! The hardest thing in filmmaking is to create an entire film without any line of dialog but still telling an amazingly gripping story, blowing the audience out of their seats. Can you do that?
3. Begin inquiring with friends about their interest in portraying either A) drug-addicted prostitute with heart of gold; B) evil Asian guy with unspecified martial arts skills and heart of gold or C) gweilo zombie with heart of gold (Tim would be perfect for this!)

I never met a person in my entire life that was either A, B or even C. those are all stereotypes, cliché characters drawn from some sleazy recent Steven Seagal East-Europe farce. Real life characters are never that superficial and especially in HK no one has a “heart of gold”. How long have you lived here? Get yourself out of Lan Kwai Fung for one moment and get off the booze for one day, then count the gold-hearted people around you are doing business with…
4. After no friends audition, spend a month crafting a Facebook page to advertise auditions. Re-spam the link to all your friends again.

Within this month´s period one could have finished 2 short films already and you are still spamming around on Facebook.  Creating a Facebook page about the film project is a good thing to do and it provides a lot of support. One of my films worked very well that way last year. But then the concept needs to have interactive elements where Facebook users can actively participate in your production, in real time. This needs a solid pre-production planning and conception phase. Spend the time rather on your idea development then on senseless communication rubbish.


5. Every project needs a working title: “The Flower Box”—that’s artistic, and it captures the prostitute element.

“Flower Box”, “artistic” and “prostitute element” are three words that simply don’t want to fit, especially not on film. Are we in the florist’s business or what?  Also, working titles do not make any sense on this production scale. Do you need to hide your wannabe-Oscar-winning story behind a misleading working title in order to protect your and your financier’s investments at the box office and the piracy battle front? Indie films are never secret and need every bit of attention they can get. Run it open, run it honest!
6. Oh crap—you have a camera right? Wait, I think Tim recently got a FlipCam…

Production value is always a big issue in this town. Barely anyone can afford working with professional equipment and a FlipCam does not appear as a wise choice at all. However, I had the pleasure to work on a very well organized 3-days independent short film shoot that spend HK$ 30K on the entire equipment (incl. crane, Chapman dolly, RED camera, a great deal of lights and so on). This is a more than reasonable price for a huge technical effort. The result looked accordingly – decent, professional and simply marvelous. Thus, renting out some equipment is not as expensive as expected in Hong Kong. My second advice would be a shoot with DSLR. Hong Kong people are totally addicted to photography and almost everyone spends its money on a big DSLR camera to produce high resolution pictures of their babies. Ask around and you will find at least two friends who can borrow you a D5 for a couple of days. DSLR´s doing a very good job but it needs practice and experience to handle the HD footage well.
7. Film an hour of an old lap sap lady pushing recyclables around Sheung Wan from dozens of angles.

There is so much more to Hong Kong than an old lap slap lady. Get yourself outside the Gwailo hoods and discover this amazing city by foot. Each corner holds a new setting and at least a dozen untold stories. Be creative and go where they don’t speak English, maybe not even Cantonese. I hardly experienced a place that is cinematic as versatile as Hong Kong.
8. Pay $4,500 to attend a one-day seminar on screenplay writing hosted by a real former screenplay writer from LA who now goes around Asia hosting one-day screenplay seminars instead of actually writing screenplays.

Totally useless, especially at this stage of production. What do you want to change after having completed the shoot already? If you need script advice, read the scripts from the masters. Sidney Lumet wrote amazing story structures, Coppola, Mamet for instance too. But please not those self-declared script writing gods who wrote one produced script in their professional life and went straight into worldwide seminar teaching. Ask locals who work since years, selling a script every day. HK is a small film business. Everybody knows everybody. If you don’t know anyone after 1 year it might be time to move on. I heard LA is supposed to be nice in the summer…
9. Review tapes, break down in self-loathing. Weeping (1.5-2 hours).

Well, that´s pretty close to reality but can be avoided by detailed production planning and artistic flexibility. When you are surprised to see what´s on the tape, than you made something fundamental wrong in the first place!
10. Save face by editing your 3 hours of random footage into a 2-minute trailer. Add in that Gorillaz song about Hong Kong in the background, and voila.

Not even an addicted brain-dead YouTube-zombie would go for that. You failed at this staged already for the 10th time.
11. Wrap party!! Hey, how come no one has confirmed for the Wrap Party!! Facebook Event…

Well, well, parties are essential, especially crew dinners. Show your appreciation for your crews work by giving something back. When no one showed up, then there was probably showing up on the set either. Ultimately, filmmaking is a team achievement and as a director you should know how to communicate with people and how to communicate your vision. Facebook helps to organize but cannot replace the personal contact each team member expects from you. Show appreciation and respect!

Hope that shed some real professional light into this matter and young filmmaker become more engaged in kicking off their own productions. Hong Kong is a very nice and beholden place to shoot. Millions of stories just unfold in front of your eyes every day and the production circumstances are comparatively liberal, yes I would even say free. Go for it! But keep up a decent production quality & value. Always start an idea with your audience in mind!

—feel free to comment!

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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.