Another Kind of Co-Production: The Future of Hong Kong Film

To most casual observers, now would not seem to be the ideal time to start a new film production and distribution house, not with ongoing protests, the newly introduced national security law and an economy crippled by the pandemic. But that’s what Hongkonger and filmmaker Wong Fei-pang is doing anyway. Wong and a few silent partners from the film industry founded Tonikaku Pictures in 2019, and on June 25, they released their inaugural feature, The Murders of Oiso

The film isn’t just any Hong Kong indie: Tonikaku was created with the aim of finding a way to tap the resources and opportunities afforded by co-production—a model that has become nearly standard in film industries worldwide, from Hollywood to Argentina to China—and apply them to films that usually fall outside the mainstream. As a result, The Murders of Oiso is a landmark of sorts for Hong Kong’s indie scene.

“The reason we’re doing this now relates to Tonikaku’s name,” says Wong on the opening day of his film. He is sitting in the playground beside Broadway Cinematheque. “Basically the phrase means ‘no matter what’ in Japanese. We heard it a lot while on location in Japan. ‘Just shoot it, no matter what the trouble might be.’”

Hong Kong’s film industry is beset by problems, from a lack of funding to talent bleed, and Wong doesn’t want to sit idly by. “I want to make changes and take action,” he says. “And that involves more pitching and going abroad for co-productions.”

The scene of the possible crime at the heart of Japanese director Takuya Misawa’s unconventional thriller, The Murders of Oiso

There is something miraculous in the mere existence of The Murders of Oiso. A Hong Kong-Japan-South Korea co-production, its first kernels were formed when Wong, director Takuya Misawa and the film’s sound designer, Cyrus Tang, met at the Busan International Film Festival’s (BIFF) Asian Film Academy in 2015. The trio was casually hanging out and floating the idea of collaborating. Misawa was coming off his debut film, the previous year’s Chigasaki Story, and Wong had just completed work on 2015’s Ten Years segment “Season of the End”; some of his other shorts include 2013’s An Odd-fish and Martika in 2017. 

While Wong wouldn’t try to compare Tonikaku’s work with co-productions on scale done by multinational entertainment companies, such as Warner Asia working with Huayi Brothers, the fundamental process is the same, and ideally it produces the same results. Co-productions are as much about cash—still a crucial factor—as they are about exchange of art and ideas. “Without a Hong Kong producer, there’s no chance a Japanese film like this plays on screens in Hong Kong,” says Wong.

The widow Chisato (Natsuko Hori) and Shun (Koji Moriya) as a small Oiso’s oddest couple in The Murders of Oiso

Wong also agrees with Oliver Chan Siu-keun’s notion that the world is a very big place and there are more markets available to Hong Kong filmmakers than they think. Co-producing can help reach those markets, which is where the future lies. Citing the overseas success of Chan’s film, Still Human, as well as ongoing buzz for Ray Yeung’s Suk Suk, the current crop of indie films from Hong Kong are challenging the belief that a geographically focused story is a hard sell for distribution. “Human emotion and relationships are not only about where you come from, or who your parents are,” he says. “As long as a filmmaker focuses on the characters and story it will connect everywhere. Local topics are global topics.”

And it is those story-driven filmmakers Tonikaku hopes to reach: great directors without enough technical, distribution, production or resource support. As a filmmaker-based organisation Tonikaku understands those frustrations and wants to lend a hand. “That’s what co-production means.”

To that end, The Murders of Oiso looks Japanese on the surface, yet brims with touches that reflect its collaborative DNA. The film unfolds in a sleepy coastal resort town in Kanagawa, Oiso, renowned in the past as a magnet for Japan’s elite. Those days are long past, and the city feels like a dead end. Dealing with this dead end are Kazuya (Yusaku Mori), the equivalent of the town’s one percent elite, and his friends Tomoki (Haya Nakazaki, who starred in Misawa’s first film), Shun (Koji Moriya) and Eita (Shugo Nagashima), all of whom work for Kazuya’s uncle. The quartet makes up something of a gang, with Kazuya the ringleader (he can get any of them fired) and something of a bully. Among his random targets are horticulturalist Yoshinori (Hong Kong actor Lo Chun-yip, No. 1 Chung Ying Street)and Eita’s girlfriend Saki (Ena Koshino). When Kazuya’s uncle shows up dead in his backyard one day, it puts all of them, as well as the widow Chisato (Natsuko Hori) and Kazuya’s grandmother (Kuniko Yae) on an emotional collision course.

Hong Kong actor Lo Chun-yip as the bullied Yoshinori  in The Murders of Oiso

All of this makes The Murders of Oiso sound like the conventional mystery thriller it is not. “There’s no murder in this murder mystery,” laughs Wong. “I was thrilled not to be able to predict the next scene and guess at the murderer. It’s basically a character drama. Even I wondered what was going on when I first watched it. It was a new experience.”

Oiso is methodical in its examination of memory and reality, and understated in its condemnation of privilege and casual sexism. Kazuya is the untouchable rich kid who tramples everyone in his path, and like too many women Saki finds herself muzzled after an assault. Misawa refers to the film as a reflection of Japanese society and its gender and workplace issues, but one that is “subtle and delicate,” says Wong, in order to give audiences a chance to recognise themselves. The quiet pace and cinematographer Timliu Liu’s muted images that put the focus on impermanence (rail lines, seasonal foliage) lend the film a fluid, dreamy quality and singular language that only emphasises the mystery of the characters’ lives and how to they relate to each other. Misawa is more interested in the state of mind of the aimless, disaffected young men. 

There is a body count, and how many are homicides remains in question to the very end – and afterwards, too. Misawa also plays with sound (BIFFs Asian Cinema Fund helped get that done at Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong’s post-production house), which is in turns lulling, distracting and ominous. It’s precisely the kind of experimental indie film Japan used to produce in greater numbers—before its exports shifted to the tepid romances of the past decade—and which Hong Kong is heading back to. What’s fresh is how the film came together. Wong isn’t evangelical in the belief a film needs a single voice, and he doesn’t think co-productions muffle them anyway.

“I don’t think a film needs to be purely of one place. On this film the cinematographer comes from Hong Kong, there are some Mongolians on the crew, and they all add a new flavour to a Japanese film,” he says. “Communication during shooting was crazy. We were speaking in Japanese, Cantonese, English, there were translators. Language itself doesn’t work anymore so we used another method. Because we didn’t always understand each other the crew just went ahead and tried new ideas and processes.” 

Wong recalls the broad experimentation that marked the production, such as when the lighting crew made their own creative decisions based on Liu’s physical demonstrations and Misawa’s descriptions. That freedom was new to Japanese crews trained to never waver from strict orders. “This kind of creativity is awesome. Everyone took part, and everyone injected something new.” Its not going to be for everybody, but at the very least The Murders of Oiso succeeds in innovating.

In some ways, the film’s release date is a good one. If there’s any sort of silver lining to Covid-19, it could be the lack of Hollywood tentpoles cluttering local cinema screens, leaving space for films that fall outside the mainstream to find an audience. Without competition, as of June 21, Suk Suk and Norris Wong’s My Prince Edward have managed to earn approximately HK$3 million each, putting them neck-and-neck with heavy hitter Disney’s Onward. That may be a far cry from Still Human’s success but those receipts are based on roughly half the tickets available for sale due to social distancing requirements. They could also get more time in theatres without Wonder Woman or Tenet opening any time soon. Wong is confident there are audiences out there, everywhere, for thoughtful, innovative, current cinema if they can find it – and the early numbers seem to support that conviction. 

In that regard, Tonikaku is walking the walk. It currently has three films in development, including Wong’s first feature, A Burning Worm, with assistance from Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Project Promotion and Korea’s Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival NAFF; feature documentary Dear Immigrants: What Was Your First Meal?, selected by CannesMarché du Film: Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HKAF) Goes to Cannes programme; and a second documentary tentatively titled Remedy in the Wind. Wong expects to be busy at the upcoming HAF and for the rest of the year.

“We hope there will be more of this kind of project,” says Wong. “Maybe we’ll go back to Japan, maybe the next film will come from Taiwan. It’s not always about money; it’s about new methods of production. That’s the spirit of no matter what. If you don’t try then you’ve surrendered.”

The Murders of Oiso is now in theatres.

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