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MS:

The past month were truly thriving ones for the HK film industry. Award winning success at Berlinale, a strong competition line-up at HKIFF and this year’s first “self-made” hyper-blockbuster, Ip Man 2, is still cashing-in at box offices after 1 month run. Lot of critics and industry experts claim to witness the new formation of a local film identity. A mere intimate home-approach that tries to untie with the Mainland, voicing an independent style that long has been missed.
1) How do you assess/see the recent developments within the industry?
2) Do we really witness this new formation of old values or rather a new film breed?
3) What are the main issues of recent films (theme, style, direction)?
4) What upcoming films and/or filmmakers should we keep an eye on within the month to come?

KM:

1) It would be a true development if it lasts past this half of the year. The strong line-up this year at the HKIFF is the result of products that were announced from a year and a half ago, and they only decided to roll it out at the film festival. Admittedly, a few of these films are the product of the government’s film fund, which aims to provide partial funding for mid-budget local productions – the biggest victim of the industry’s downturn. Despite its flaws that still encourages Mainland co-productions (being a loan instead of a grant, restrictions that puts new filmmakers at a disadvantage, and the requirement of partial funding already in place), it did get a few of these films produced. I’m glad that smaller films like LOVE IN A PUFF and ECHOES OF THE RAINBOW received relative success, but as IP MAN 2 proved, the HK market still relies on big-time blockbusters made on Mainland China’s rules and audience tastes. I can’t be completely optimistic about the future until I see how HK films in the second half of the year does, and I don’t mean Chinese co-productions.

2) IP MAN 2 is rehash of the old 80s martial arts folk hero formula, and a lot of its success really is due to its blatant nationalism. ECHOES OF THE RAINBOW also stems from nostalgia for the 60s, and it even got in a couple of jabs at British rule. I think the Hong Kong Film Fund is making a new set of mid-budget films in the HK market, but they’re just a revival from what we lost several years ago when HK-China co-produced blockbusters took over the market.

3) As I mentioned previously, HK films now have to cater to a Mainland audience, which means we’ll likely see more blatant nationalism and more jabs at the British rule (which ironically, made HK the place where freedom of expression in cinema is much better in the Mainland). I also see a bigger appreciation by local film buffs for local-themed films, though as the weak box office of GALLANTS proved, doesn’t necessarily guarantee a large audience.

I hope that there will be more films like ONCE A GANGSTER, which poked fun at both the triad genre films of the 90s and the Hong Kong political situations. I also hope that indie directors will see their ability for freedom of expression to make something more audience-friendly without sacrificing their artistic integrity. That means skip the experimental, avant-garde stuff and actually tell a story that would engage an audience.

4) Derek Yee will be making his return after the disappointing SHINJUKU INCIDENT with TRIPLE TAP, though I have a feeling that even this once-outspoken director is trying to balance Chinese tastes and HK freedom of expression. He was halfway there as the producer of OVERHEARD last year, and it would be good to see him find that balance with this film. I personally look most forward to LOVERS’ DISCOURSE, the directorial debut of Jimmy Wan and Derek Tsang, two of the figures that form the Pang Ho-Cheung iron triangle of scriptwriters. I would also keep a close eye on what will be rolled out this year at the Summer Pops edition of the HKIFF and the local films at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival. Hopefully, it’ll keep up the strong local flavor the March HKIFF had.

MS:

Can you elaborate a little more on Johnnie To’s Exiled, its background, why he made such a Western approach and its visual style compared to other Milkyway films.

KM:

EXILED marked a period of To’s films when he started playing with aesthetics. Anyone who’s seen Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns can see that this is To’s Leone film. It makes sense that he would take this approach because the cast is a reunion of 1999’s THE MISSION, which was about a team of triad members grouped to protect a gang boss. That film didn’t take a Western approach in style, but it certainly did so in terms of plot. That’s why it’s no surprise To would go further and take the Western route for EXILED. Much of his favorite themes with brotherhood and honor amongst thieves remain, it’s just the visual style that makes it the most refreshing.

(Kevin’s words just reminded me how brilliant To’s ‘mall shootout’ sequence in THE MISSION was)

He could’ve followed up with this style for VENGEANCE, which also takes place in Macau and has a triad-involved revenge story in the middle, but he chose to take a much drier approach to the material, going with a more slow-burn pace than the setpiece approach to EXILED. Nevertheless, one thing EXILED has in common with many To films is in the cinematography: Even though he only decides on what to shoot on the spot, his masterful use of framing and dark comedy remains spot-on, and is easily the reason why he’s one of the visual masters working in Hong Kong cinema today.

MS:

Thanks a lot Kevin!

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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, editor,  film critic for lovehkfilm.com. Follow his Twitter for updated industry news.

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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.