What’s Next for Hong Kong Film? Creativity in the Face of Hardship

As they sit in a meeting space in Kwun Tong, awaiting the arrival of Alan Fung, Ricky Ko and Erica Li chatter away like the long-time friends and colleagues they are. The trio is gathering on a drizzly morning to contemplate what it means to be a filmmaker in Hong Kong in 2021. Despite what many see as looming challenges for the industry—nothing new for local filmmakers—the mood is jovial. As it turns out, prolific cinematographer and filmmaker Herman Yau, is revealed to be Hong Kong’s own Kevin Bacon, who can jokingly be linked to anyone in Hollywood in fewer than six credits. By contrast, Yau is more integral to the local film industry than anyone could have guessed – far fewer than six degrees separate Ko, Li and Fung.

Gathering around a boardroom table, Li takes centre stage, holding court in an amiable fashion and looking directly through stylish horn-rimmed glasses at everyone who speaks. Ko slings a relaxed arm over the back of his chair, throwing out occasional quips in Cantonese and English. Fung is a little starstruck in the presence of the seasoned pros, displaying a subtle deference that neither Ko nor Li expect. But they’re equals on this day, all there to discuss their debut feature films. 

With lyrics to over 800 songs, 60 novels and nearly 30 screenplays (for directors including Chapman To, Stephen Chow, Pang Ho-cheung and over a dozen Yau films) among her writing credits, Li is the elder stateswoman. Ko, a veteran second unit and assistant director, left a career at TVB to work in cinema. His first gig as a script supervisor in 2009 eventually led to work on films like Yau’s Ip Man: The Final Fight (2013) and 77 Heartbreaks (2017) – both written by Li. The freshman of the group is Fung, a media and culture student in Sydney who did a three-month stint at TVB before throwing in the towel to learn the filmmaking ropes in the Hong Kong Arts Centre’s Fresh Wave programme. His mentor: Herman Yau.

Fung’s film, Elisa’s Day, is an examination of the cycle of poverty, violence and crime that young women can find themselves trapped in, often stemming from a lack of resources and under-education due to pregnancy; its title in Chinese is Wai4 Ngoi3 (遺愛), literally “legacy.” In it, a cop revisits an old case when he arrests the daughter of a woman he investigated years before when she was suspected of drug dealing. Ko takes his first seat in the director’s chair with Time, a black comedy in which an elderly couple and their chauffeur assist other seniors who wish to end their lives. Li finally gets to direct one of her own scripts, an adaptation of her novel Just 1 Day, a “girly” romance about a young artist with a terminal illness and the banker he’s carried the torch for since high school, set against the backdrop of Hong Kong’s vanishing heritage.

Immersion in films as kids is another bond the trio shares. Fung recalls waiting for the animated Dragon Ball to come on television when he was a kid and discovering it had been replaced. “First, I remember wondering why it was on at midnight, and then one day it was finished and they started playing classic movies,” he says. “One night it was La Dolce Vita. It was amazing. I was 13. All I could think was ‘What is this?’ So I kept watching and discovered Fellini and Kubrick and Antonioni.”

Ko’s breakthrough came from more practical experience. After regularly going to cinemas with his father as a child, he ended up spending a decade in a variety of production roles at TVB, none particularly creative. “They didn’t provide what I needed. It was standard and rote,” says Ko. “So, I contacted Herman to get into film. It took about ten years for him to finally call me back.” 

Li had a simultaneously circuitous and direct route to filmmaking. By the time she got married in her 20s, she was already a published author and song lyricist, with her first script produced in 1994 (Raymond Lee’s Fatal Obsession). But then she had her first daughter. “A married woman in Hong Kong still faces a stigma if she works,” she says. “She must be divorced, or her husband is in financial trouble. I had to overcome that. I just wanted to write. I’ve always written to express myself. I didn’t have a very good childhood, and I needed some place to escape to. Movies are always a haven.”

Despite each taking early cues from Yau’s commercial profile, Elisa’s Day, Time and Just 1 Day (the latter two of which were selected to screen as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society’s touring Hong Kong New Talents programme, currently at the Udine Far East Film Festival), have the texture of the personal, independent cinema that has quickly become a hallmark of Hong Kong films. 

The stories are reflections on Hong Kong life wrapped in varying packages. Fung harkens back to the glory days of the police procedural for Elisa’s Day, though “I didn’t want to focus on the violence,” he says. The film is based on a news story Fung read that detailed the statement a young drug offender made to a judge, thanking them for jail time, which removed her from the same traps her teen mother got caught in. “I was interested in how, 20 years on, the tragedy basically repeated itself. We didn’t learn from what happened to these women in the past. I wanted the audience to think about that.”

For Ko, the appeal was in the broad appeal of Ho Ching-yi’s script. “What attracted me to the project was that it’s a black comedy,” he explains. Actor-producer Gordon Lam (Trivisa) offered him directing duties, but it was the story about lonely, marginalised elderly people that got his attention. “In the past few years, social issues in Hong Kong movies have become commonplace, but for me it’s also important to see that from the audience’s point of view, and package the issue in something entertaining” he says. For every heartbreaking sequence following chauffeur Chung (Lam Suet) in his quest for emotional connection, there’s a riotous—if geriatrically inflected—kung fu fight. 

Li was in the relatively privileged position of coming off a recent hit—77 Heartwarmings, the sequel to the 2017 crowd-pleaser 77 Heartbreaks—with Yau in her corner as producer. Just 1 Day is an old-fashioned romantic tearjerker rooted in memory, and which pivots on a one-day couple roaming the city’s oldest quarters and basking in the nostalgia of a rich heritage being lost to so-called progress.

Each faced varying degrees of difficulty in getting their films in front of cameras. Li’s status didn’t insulate her from what she calls “industry chauvinism” – a level of disrespect her male counterparts would never be subjected to. On top of that, she had to lobby to direct the film adaptation of her own book. Then came the job of getting a budget together. 

With film production in Hong Kong reimagining itself yet again in the wake of new directives from censors, Fung, Ko and Li took very different paths to get their films completed. Fung’s budget came entirely from CreateHK’s First Feature Film Initiative (FFFI). Li also won Arts Development Council funding (though she steered clear of the FFFI to leave those grants for true newcomers), which she needed to get the ball rolling with distributor Emperor. Ko’s film was produced with help from established production companies like Edko Films and Sun Entertainment, with Lam leading the charge. Li and Ko were able to call in favours and tap resources like stars Patrick Tse, Petrina Fung, and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, but Fung didn’t have that luxury. He did, however, get a profile boost for the film when his producer, Wong Yat-ping, managed to secure popular actor Ronald Cheng to star. 

Still, limits exist. “In terms of funding, mine wasn’t a low as Alan’s, but this is in no way considered a high budget film,” notes Ko. “One thing I learnt from Herman is that a lack of budget forces you to figure out a way to do things differently.”

And differently is how Fung, Ko and Li see the industry moving forward, be it in how films get financed or in the culture of production. Fung says industry shrinkage is among the biggest challenges facing Hong Kong filmmakers. While admitting new technologies and distribution channels can help indie filmmakers, cinemas are still the cornerstone of moviemaking, and in a post-Covid environment, they’re under financial pressure.

“For someone in the creative industries, the new regulations and censorship are really hard to navigate, and generating box office for local films is challenging,” Fung reasons. “It’s easy to earn tens of millions of dollars for a Hollywood film, but that’s a lot harder for a local movie.” As he sees it, a glossy entertainment with international stars and top shelf effects justifies a ticket that costs more than HK$100 – but a local indie film is a harder sell. He believes audiences can be slow to accept new styles and content. “So the industry is shrinking, and not just in terms of creativity because of regulation, but in box office and talent. I actually find it quite painful.”

Ironically, it’s the veterans that are more optimistic. Li agrees with Fung from an intellectual standpoint, but notes that art is also an emotional endeavour. “That’s the rational analysis, but for the spiritual part, or the emotional part, I look to the minor miracles in my life. My grandmother said I’d never get into university, and I got into university. I was ill when I was younger and my doctor told me my optic nerves would be damaged and I may not have children. When I was pregnant, I found tumours on the uterus and was told I might have to terminate the pregnancy. My maternal instinct kicked in, and now she’s 19 years old. So I have to drop rational analysis sometimes and work on the faith that things will work out.”

Ko cites the creative output in the Iranian film industry as a prime example of art managing to maintain a crucial voice under difficult circumstances. For all its new hardships, he is confident that will be the case in Hong Kong as well. 

Li is always working and Ko is heading to Beijing in July to start shooting his second feature. Fung is currently trying to write a comedy. “A creative person in essence is a rebel, so as a rebel you need to look for innovation,” says Ko. “And as a creative person, you need to keep the faith.”

Stills: Elisa’s Day courtesy Panasia, Just 1 Day courtesy Emperor Motion Pictures, Time courtesy Homemade Entertainment

Elisa’s Day is now showing. Time opens July 15. A release date for Just 1 Day is to be confirmed.

 

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