The Hong Kong film industry used to be one of the greatest cultural exports coming out of Asia, and for twenty years, Hong Kong was a formidable force in the global economy, earning the name Pearl of the Orient. But as Hong Kong faced increasing competition from neighboring countries, its influence naturally started to wane, and by the late 90s, the film industry was already dwindling.
In the television program Doh Yik Yau Doh <導亦有道> aired on Macau’s TDM Ou Mun, Hong Kong director Cheang Pou-soi (鄭保瑞) openly shared his thoughts about the current state of the Hong Kong film industry, and admitted that the film industry has already abandoned its audience.
“It is karma,” he said. “We couldn’t fix the wrong that we’ve inflicted. We made a lot of mistakes, and that is why the audience feels like we have abandoned them.”
From Career to “Interest Class”
The golden years of the Hong Kong film industry spanned twenty years between the late 70’s to the mid 90’s. Based in a community of only 7 million people, the Hong Kong industry has always relied on overseas audiences to meet box office expectations. Hong Kong movie stars achieved popularity all over Asia, and Hong Kong films were also high in demand in western countries due to their large Chinese diaspora.
“All of Asia was watching Hong Kong films,” said The Monkey King <西遊記> director. “Now that is what you call a career. It’s hard for a little fish in a small pond to raise such a large industry.”
But as Hong Kong faced increasingly larger competitors followed by little to no self improvement, the film industry started to shrink. More and more movie starts started to migrate to mainland China, where its movie industry is now booming and earning billions by the year, becoming the second largest film industry after Hollywood.
And in a film industry as small as Hong Kong’s, that would be hard to compete.
“Many like to believe that if a film earns around ten million in the box office, that would be considered a success,” said Cheang. “But that’s a flop. You’re still losing money, even if that was a very cheap film to make.”
2018’s Still Human <淪落人>, regarded as one of Hong Kong’s most recent box office miracles, is an example of a film that had its success over-glorified. “It’s a great film, and it’s deserving, but I believe that if there is to be a second one, I highly doubt that the production team would be paid the same price.”
Still Human had a small production budget of only HK$2 million. It was able to achieve such a small budget because its lead star, Anthony Wong (黃秋生), opted to do the film for free.
“If you’re always asking for help, then that’s not a career anymore,” said Cheang. “If you’re doing it for free, then [acting] has just become an ‘interest class’, something you do for fun.”
Even a budget of HK$30 million would not be enough money to produce a few scenes, let alone an entire film.
“If you spend HK$30 million to make a film, you would need to gross at least HK$100 million in the box office to make a profit. How many films can do that in Hong Kong? There’s The Avengers, but Hollywood films costs hundreds of millions in USD. When a director says he has to sell his house or sell his car to make a film, how can you consider that to be a healthy industry?”
Defending Louis Koo’s Choice to Work in Mainland China
The Hong Kong film industry may be losing money, but many of its filmmakers are still passionate about filmmaking. The Hong Kong film industry would have died five years ago if film producers were not being versatile with their investments.
“Louis Koo (古天樂) knows that you can’t earn a living by doing just Hong Kong films,” said Cheang as he was asked to comment on the criticism that Louis was using RMB to fund Hong Kong films. “If he hadn’t found footing in the mainland film industry, then where would he get his money to make Hong Kong films? People like to criticize him for filming mainland movies, yet they don’t bother to spend the time to understand what’s happening in the Hong Kong market.”
“We’ve Made Mistakes”
Unable to catch up to its competitors, it is difficult to make a living out of an industry that only has 7 million people. Cheang said, “We were successful in the past because we made sacrifices. The movies did well back then not because there were more people in Hong Kong at the time, but because those movies were profitable overseas. Can we say the same for the movies we’re making today?”
The Hong Kong film industry has been dying since the late 90’s, but not many people in the industry would like to verbally admit to this fact. “It’s true that the film industry hasn’t improved. We have to admit that. It was our mistake to give up on our audiences.”
Fortunately there is still time to fix the mistakes, but it would be like trying to win an impossible battle.
“It’s like escaping from one prison to another prison,” said Cheang. “The road of atonement feels worse than death itself, and that is what the Hong Kong film industry is going through right now.”
This article is written by Addy for JayneStars.com.