You may define your own banner on the settings page.
FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
Soh Yun-Huei
Dave Chua
Brandon Wee
Wong Lung Hsiang
Felix Cheong
Foong Ngai Hoe
Adrian Sim
sieteocho
Chris Khoo
O Thiam Chin
Lau Chee Nien
Sinnerman
Ambient Noise
Drakula
daface
Sarhan Rashid
Ying Wuen
Liverbird
Ellery Ngiam
Toh Hai Leong
Toh Hai Leong, Auteur
Wong Kar Wai
The Seduction of Wong Kar Wai
Tsai Ming Liang
Lav Diaz
Mikio Naruse
Leslie Cheung
Jonathan Foo Interview
Chinese Ghosts
Assassins in Asian FIlms
Sex in Asian Cinema
Erotic Cinema of the Shaw Studios
Homosexuality in Chinese Films
My Left Eye Sees Creativity
Hollywood Remakes
Comic Book Superheroes
One League of Social Consciousness
Emerging Trends in East Asian Cinema
Postwar Korean Cinema
Decline of Hong Kong Cinema before 1997
Bollywood
Rise of Afghan Films
Singapore's Mini Cinema
Creating A Singapore Cinema
Why Cinema is Important to Singapore
Singapore Film Industry
Rites of Passage
Replying to Critics
Daniel Yun Interview
Singapore International Film Festival
Bangkok International Film Festival
Tokyo International Film Festival
Toronto International Film Festival
Writer's Block
15
19
2046
Acacia
All Tomorrow's Parties
And Also the Eclipse
Another Heaven
At Five in the Afternoon
Audition
Avalon
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Bangkok Haunted
Barking Dogs Never Bite
Batang West Side
Battle Royale
Bear Hug
Beautiful Boxer
Beijing Rocks
Bend It Like Beckham
Best of Times
Betelnut Beauty
Big Durian
Big Shot's Funeral
Bird Man Tale
Blackboards
Blissfully Yours
Blue Kite
Bounce Ko Gals
Brighter Summer Day, A
Butterfly
Cafe Lumiere
Cat Returns
Chinese Odyssey 2002
City of Glass
City Sharks
Clean
Color of the Truth
Color Blossoms
Confucian Confusion
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
Dark Water
Desire
Destination 9th Heaven
Divine Intervention
Dolls
Double Vision
Dumlings: 3 Extremes
Enter the Phoenix
Era of Vampire, The
Eye, The
Eye 2, The
Eye 10, The
Face
Fat Choy Spirit
Floating Weeds
Fog of War, The
Formula 17
Friend
Full Alert
Garuda
Gemini
Ghost in the Shell
God or Dog
Golden Chicken
Golden Chicken 2
Goodbye, Dragon Inn
Grudge
Guru, The
Hana-Bi (Fireworks)
Harold and Kumar
Headlines
Hero
Hidden Blade, The
Homerun
House of Flying Daggers
House of Fury
House of Sand and Fog
Howl's Moving Castle
Hypnotized
I Not Stupid
In the Mood for Love
Infernal Affairs
Infernal Affairs III
Innocence: Ghost in the Shell 2
Install
Iron Ladies 2
Isle, The
Jan Dara
Jealousy is My Middle Name
Joint Security Area
Ju-On: The Grudge (2003)
July Rhapsody
Khakee
Korban Fitnah
Koroshi
Kung Fu Hustle
Lan Yu
Last Life in the Universe
Last Samurai, The
Legend of Zu, The
Liang Po Po
Love/Juice
Love Letter
Lucky Number
Marry a Rich Man
Me Thao
Medallion, The
Metropolis
Monrak Transistor
Moveable Feast, A
Munna Bhai M.B.B.S.
Musa the Warrior
My Left Eye Sees Ghosts
My Neighbors The Yamadas
My Sassy Girl
Naked Weapon
Name of a River, The
New Police Story
Nobody Knows
Nobody Knows How to be a Film Critic
One Leg Kicking
Ong-Bak
Perfect Blue
Phone, The
Ping Pong
Pirated Copy
Princess D
Quill
River, The
Road Home
Romance of Book and Sword
Runaway Pistol
S Diary
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine
Samsara
Scent of Green Papaya
Seoul Raiders
Sepet
Seventeen Years
Shall We Dance?
Shanghai Knights
Shaolin Soccer
Shower
Shutter
Singapore Gaga
Skywalk is Gone
So-Called Friends
So Close
Someone Special
Song of the Stork
Spider Forest
Spirited Away
Spring Summer Fall Winter Spring
Stories About Love
Storm Riders
Summer Holiday
Sumpah Pontianak
Super Size Me
Surprise Party
Swing Girls
Tale of Two Sisters, A
TalkingCock
Tears of the Black Tiger
Teenage Textbook Movie
This Charming Girl
3-Iron
Three: Extremes
Tokyo Raiders
Touch, The
Tree, The
Truth or Dare
Twelve Storeys
Twenty-Four Eyes
Twins Effect
Twins Effect 2
Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors
Visitor Q
Volcano High
Warriors of Heaven and Earth
Waterboys
Way Home, The
Welcome Back Mr McDonald
Wesley's Mysterious File
When I Fall In Love With Both
Wishing Stairs
Wolves Cry Under the Moon
Woman is the Future of Man
Women's Private Parts
World Without Thieves, A
Zombie Dog
A Time to Live A Time to Die
e-mail me


   Decline of Hong Kong Cinema before 1997  



 

THE DECLINE OF THE HONG KONG CINEMA -- Before 1997

by Toh Hai Leong

In the early 1980s when I was reviewing Hongkong films for the Sunday Times in Singapore, I had the opportunity of viewing more than my fruitful share of films by New Wave luminaries like Allen Fong, Clara Law, Mabel Cheung, Ann Hui, Stanley Kwan, Jacob Cheung, Fannie Fang, Tsui Hark, Cheng Tokening, Patrick Tan, Yim Ho, most of whom cut their teeth making socially concerned cinema vérité for television before branching out into cinema. The Hongkong film industry was then a force to be reckoned with, artistically and commercially.

The revitalizing movement was carried on its slowly ebbing momentum until as late as 1993. Of course, since the New Wave films, being more intellectual, are meant more for the local yuppies and for Western tastes and international film festivals, the Hongkong triads were particularly interested in their productions. The highly commercial and lucrative films were, however, in their purview and close-guarding. The triads would go to all lengths to ensure that the superstars under their control in the 1980s (apparently, some well-known actresses were even gang-raped and videotape to force their compliance in acting for the sensational Category III sex films) work nonstop, with no respite and sometime he or she would hop from one set to another without so much as a change of fresh clothing!

Now the local triads have fanned out to Chinatowns overseas, largely due to the fact that when Hongkong is repossessed by the People's Republic of China, the death penalty for their activities -- from grand larceny to money laundering under the so-called film company's cover -- is mandatory in post-1997 Communist-dominated Hongkong.

Domestic movie ticket sales since 1993 have shown a drastic halving -- from 33.6 million admissions (the Colony's population is about 6.2 million) to 14.1 million in 1995. When I was in the Colony in 1993, ticket prices averaged at Hong Kong dollar 40.00 (US dollar 5.20) compared to this year's average at Hong Kong dollar 55.00 (US dollar 7.15). In 1989, official figures showed a sale of 44.8 million tickets compared to 24.3 million in 1995.

The above figures are proof that the Hongkong film industry is in dire straits. In spite of several prominent movie moguls' prediction that business would pick up after 30th June 1997 with China's vast but largely (cinematically) untutored market to tap in, their statements sound hollow and the future looks grim.

To substantiate my pessimistic outlook, already Singapore's Eng Wah Film Organisation, touted as the leading distribution and exhibitor of Hongkong films since the booming 1980s, has shunned bringing in those Cantonese Mandarin-dubbed movies except for Stephen Chow's mo-lei-tau (nonsensical comedy) films and Jackie Chan's mega-hits, Rumble in The Bronx (1995) and First Strike-The Story of the CIA (1996). Even then, Chan hailed as Asia's last action hero, is aging and he has expressed desire to go behind the camera to direct. Chan's last two monster box-office hits were brought in by a new distribution and exhibition player in the Singapore film scene -- Golden Village Entertainment, a joint-venture between Raymond Chow's -- Jackie Chan's Golden Harvest (Hongkong) and Village Roadshow of Australia. Eng Wah have become a second, if not the third leader in the distribution and exhibition of Hongkong movies here. The strongly emerging second player is Overseas Movie Pte Limited, once a leftist film Organisation with strong ties to Mainland China. The new management, however, has switched to a decidedly commercial orientation, bringing in more independent small-budget Hongkong movies. The only box-office draw to date has been Andrew Lau's triad youth films, Young and Dangerous I, II and III (1996).

Audiences have even been staying away from Andy Lau's romance films, Moment of Romance III, directed by ace filmmaker Johnny To who made the Story of Ah Long.

Maybe the decline is due to the Colony's exodus of its most famous mavericks -- John Woo who has absconded to Hollywood and made two action flicks there, Hard Target (1993) and Broken Arrow (1996); Tsui Hark, Asia's George Lucas and Ringo Lam. The charismatic Chow Yun Fat of A Better Tomorrow fame may soon be seen in Hollywood action movies perhaps with Sharon Stone -- meanwhile Chow is polishing up his English for his new working environment.

Even the infuriatingly oblique Godard of the East, Wong Kar Wai (Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express) has been wooed by Quentin Tarantino, who has expressed his admiration for John Woo and Wong.

Hongkong art films -- Yim Ho's Homecoming (1986) and The Day the Sun Turned Cold (1995), Mabel Cheung's trilogy, The Illegal Immigrant (1985), An Autumn's Tale (1988) and 8 Taels of Gold (1990), Allen Fong's docudrama films, Father and Son (1981), Ah Yang (1984) and Just Like Weather (1987), Clara Law's Farewell, China (1991), Stanley Kwan's Rouge (1988), et al -- have been stretched to their artistic limits and very few good ones have been made after 1993 except for Yim Ho's 1995 achievement which was nominated for the Oscar's Best Foreign Language Film (but did not win) and Ann Hui's last year's back-to-form film, Summer Snow which won for its gentle veteran, Josephine Siao Fong Fong, the Berlin Film Festival's Best Actress award.

One of the best Hongkong films made in 1996 was Shu Kei's Hudumen, a sometimes charming comedy about a successful opera star (Josephine Siao again) beset with a defiant lesbian daughter, a cantankerous husband obsessively wanting to emigrate to Australia and longing for his lost son. Maverick Wong Kar-wai has stretched himself thin with his Fallen Angel (1995) and he looks westward now to refresh his preoccupations with jaded hit men out of step with the fast changing times.

Two concomitant factors contributing to the decline of Hongkong cinema are first, the crushing weight of rampant video piracy and second, the rise of the home entertainment system, owned by virtually all middle-class Hongkongers who prefer to watch films on videotape and laserdisc (and soon the remarkable DVD) at home.

Video piracy is the biggest headache that the filmmakers now face. The more blatant kind is the pirate attends an afternoon matinee, usually with very few people present, points his handycam at the screen and tapes the film off the screen (especially the Category III). It is that simple. With this master tape, he or she duplicates the movie by the dozen on slave VHS units. The sound quality is atrocious, with sometimes a cough here, a squelch there, or someone munching on biscuits, or somebody crossing the length of the front row with his or her head silhouetted against the screen. With video libraries dotted in every major sectors of the city, it is normal for a thrifty person to borrow several tapes and laserdiscs and make good quality copies of their favorites and share the cost among friends, without the hassle of going to the cinema.

In addition, home viewing is also encouraged by the cheaper price of original local Hongkong films on video of every conceivable genre. From a hefty and prohibitive price tag of Hong Kong dollar 800.00 (US dollar 104.00) to Hong Kong dollar 500.00 (US dollar 65.00) for first-time releases, one now can get well-made films like Remains of a Woman, Daughter of Darkness and other adult titles (Category IIB and III, the equivalent of the US NC-rating and X respectively) on video for as little as Hong Kong dollar 99.00 (US dollar 13.00) to Hong Kong dollar 140.00 (US dollar 18.20). Action-oriented video, can be bought at Hong Kong dollar 200.00 (US dollar 26.00) apiece, even for well-known titles.

So while Hong Kong's Jackie Chan or Ching Siu-Tung's fantasy martial arts films are attracting audiences all over American and Canadian Chinatowns in droves to the cinemas, audiences are deserting the local cinemas in equal numbers. Thus it is very difficult for studio-backed producers to come up with Hong Kong dollar 10-15 million (US dollar 1.3-2 million) to make a movie now, with big and established names like Andy Lau, Leon Lai, Stephen Chow who are not abashed to ask over Hong Kong dollar 40 million (US dollar 5.2 million) in fees. In reality, this figure is a conservative estimate -- the cost of production has escalated to twice the amount -- up to Hong Kong dollar 30 million (US dollar 3.9 million) and with no guarantee of breaking even. Unless, of course, it is Jackie Chan and his favourite director Stanley Tong who are producing, directing and starring in the film.

This is a cold, harsh reality -- there will be no more days as in the glorious '80s when John Woo's A Better Tomorrow (1986) grossed Hong Kong dollar 30 million (US dollar 3.9 million) and outgrossed Hollywood imports. Now, the highly entertaining and popular Hollywood films grab the top spot. In late 1995 and 1996, the only Hongkong film to beat the Hollywood mainstays were the three sequels of The Young and Dangerous These three films were so successful that critics were inclined to equate this breakthrough with hope for local film production. There is an irony in this. Three good apples in a basket full of rotting ones do not make change in the already dying Hongkong cinema.

Undoubtedly, the heroic trio of films reflect the anxious, jittery times and spirit, especially of the youths, caught between the crossfire of hope and uncertainty about the Colony repossessing by the Big Brother, well-known for brutalization and repression of freedom and democracy. Perhaps because of the fresh cast of young faces, their naivety and easy exploitation by the triads, the collective Hongkong psyche is in full identification and sympathy with them.

There is a symbolic boxer's film Somebody Up there Likes Me (1996, directed by the master of melodrama, Johnny To) which tells in a schizoid mix of machoism and femininity the tear-jerking story of Ken, a talented kickboxer (Aaron Kwok). Critic Li Cheuk-To summed up this film most succinctly and yet alarmingly: From his training to his miraculous success to his demise, his rise and fall mirrors the development of Hongkong cinema from the eighties to the present day. This suggests that To's contemporary cult film seals the final fate of Hongkong films and its industry with the death of Ken, the boxer-hero who takes on all the odds, even against the Japanese champion, and like a mythical Sisyphus struggles on, and defeats him before giving up the ghost.

There is no denying the Hongkong golden goose has laid its golden eggs in the 1980s. Like a lost love, the good times have gone and there can be no looking back.

This article first appeared in Kinema 1997.