Hong Kong Film Needs More Women. What’s Stopping Them?

The number of women stepping behind the camera in Hong Kong is increasing, but a lot remains to be done to highlight those voices. Consider the case of Erica Li, whose experience directing her first feature film was less than egalitarian. While discussing her debut, the romantic drama Just 1 Day, Li recalls a level of casual chauvinism and disrespect on set that first-time male directors with less experience than her would never encounter.

Li’s credits include scripts for the HK$530 million-grossing Shock Wave (2017), its 2020 sequel that earned three times that, and the popular rom-coms 77 Heartbreaks and 77 Heartwarmings, based on her own novels, which scored a total of HK$120 million in just Hong Kong and China. After the success of Heartbreaks, Li recalls thinking she’d earned her first shot at directing for its sequel. Come production, however, she was passed over in favour of longtime collaborator Herman Yau, who directed the first. “It was status quo,” she says. “I was sure it was over – I was never going to be a director.”

When she finally got to helm Just 1 Day, she was frequently ignored during principal photography, and simple courtesies extended to most filmmakers—like being offered an umbrella during a downpour—were absent. Adding insult to injury, Li had to secure some funding prior to getting a green light from the production company that finally took on the project. Li did find allies along the way, including the Emperor producer that advocated for her, and renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who offered up his services. But it wasn’t easy.  

“I think things are getting better. If you count the numbers, then, of course, more directors are male than female in Hong Kong, as in Hollywood,” says Li. “I hope I’ll have more chances to speak for women. The power of women is increasing, but there’s still a long way to go.”

Relay that story to emerging actor-director Yuyu Kitamura, producer Alicia Sing and cinematographer Katie Lau, and their reaction is a colourful one. The Hong Kong-born trio, each in their mid-20s, is the creative force behind Invited In, Kitamura’s short film about quarantine and mental health, which was shot over two weekends in March with a predominantly female cast and crew. The idea for the film grew partly from a desire to explore the terrain we’ve all been navigating for the past 18 months, and partly in response to Kitamura noticing that film festivals worldwide were requesting films with a Covid angle. After premiering with private screenings in Hong Kong, the film is making its international debut at the New York Asian Film Festival, running through August 22. But the seamless, ahead-of-schedule, under-budget and—for lack of a better word—loving atmosphere during production inspired the three to consider creating a female-forward film collective that would highlight films by women and advocate training and hiring.

“It’s hard to find motivation within yourself and direction when you don’t see yourself where you want to be,” says Sing. “When everyone above you is, well, male, it’s difficult.” 

While recognising the scattered nature of the industry, Kitamura explains it’s hard to connect with other professionals for advice and mentorship—though she wants to, and is confident other women do too. “Hong Kong is a little behind on some social trends that are sweeping the world,” she says. “You have to wonder why people like Erica Li are struggling when she’s so prolific. And it’s because there hasn’t been a large collective of voices demanding to be heard, and to be counted.” Kitamura, Sing and Lau would like to change that.

Punching above their weight 

On the surface, there have been a number of banner years for women-identifying filmmakers in recent times. In 2019, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, and global juggernauts Frozen II co-directed by Jennifer Lee, and Captain Marvel, co-helmed by Anna Boden, were all among that year’s top earners at the box office. Last year, despite the distribution challenges caused by Covid, Chloe Zhao (Nomadland), Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman), Jia Ling (Hi, Mom), Cathy Yan (Birds of Prey) and Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman 1984) all had strong showings. But these successes obscure the fact that the vast majority of films are still made by men. According to the Directors Guild of America (DGA), one of the world’s largest arts labour unions, only 12 percent of the 651 films released in 2017 that earned at least US$250,000 in box office were directed by women.

All of this comes on the heels of massive social shifts around the world that have included demands for greater inclusion of women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ communities and anyone who has been marginalised throughout the course of history. Since #MeToo and Time’s Up! vaulted onto the scene in 2017, organisations like the DGA have actively sought greater inclusion of women. Still, as of June 2021, just 18 percent of the directors among its 18,000 members were women—still low but up from an average of 4.8 percent between 2007 and 2019, according to data from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

This year started out strong. Julia Ducournau won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for Titane and Hongkonger Tang Yi won for the short All the Crows in the World. But lest we need reminding, women still have work to do. In late July, superstar Scarlett Johansson sued behemoth Disney for breach of contract and lost bonuses when Black Widow went to its streaming service, Disney+. Disney countered with what Time’s Up! activists called a “gendered character attack” painting the actor as insensitive and “weaponising her success.” Chances that the House of Mouse would try that with Iron Man 4 are relatively low.

While there may be no high profile litigation looming over the industry in Hong Kong, the landscape for women filmmakers is decidedly uneven, and not just from a representational perspective. Since the so-called New Wave of the 1980s, more and more women have stepped into the director’s chairs and boardrooms, largely following in the footsteps of Ann Hui (Night and Fog), Angie Chen (My Name Ain’t Suzie) and Mabel Cheung (An Autumn’s Tale), who comprised most of the female voices during that creative boom. Some of those include actor-director Sylvia Chang (20:30:40), Heiward Mak (Fagara), Barbara Wong (documentary Women’s Private Parts), Oliver Chan (Still Human) and Norris Wong (My Prince Edward), of which the latter two took home 2019 and 2020 Hong Kong Film Awards Best New Director prizes, after Kearan Pang (29+1) earned the nod in 2018. Nonetheless, of the 275 members of the Hong Kong Film Director’s Guild, just 28—a hint over 10 percent—are women.Golden

Even during the New Wave, “there were a lot of action movies, and the industry was a bit chauvinistic,” says producer Amy Chin. She studied cinema at the only place for it at the time, Baptist University (BU), where a grand total of two women were enrolled. She cut her teeth as a production manager and line producer on films for Sammo Hung and John Woo before she eventually focused on the creative side of the industry, penning Dante Lam’s Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone and producing Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After. “The numbers were against us but that’s not the case anymore. It’s actually more dynamic now,” she says. “The world has changed a little bit, and there are more opportunities for women.”

Along with BU, City University and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts also offer film studies. More and more young women are graduating from these programmes, but where they show their work becomes the next question. Films and their distribution are treated like consumer products that need to find their market. Without a dedicated festival, it’s up to the women currently in decision-making positions to pick up the slack and find consumers for these products. But Mandy Lam, distributor Edko Film’s general manager of film booking for Hong Kong and China, doesn’t actively look for work by women. “Film booking or programming can be classified as a sales job, and our major duty is to sell the right movie [at the] right time and location to the right [audience],” she reasons. 

That said, she applauds when stories about local women make it to screens, as in Tomorrow is Another Day, My Prince Edward or Fagara. Cheung sees that audience as a deciding factor, particularly in results-driven Hong Kong. She doesn’t expect her new documentary, tentatively titled To My 19-Year-old Self, tracking a group of girls from age 10 to 19, will meet that commercial threshold, so she financed it herself. “Women tend to make intimate, emotional films based on relationships and those don’t sell as well,” she says. “Women—not all—but women gravitate to films that tell their stories and move audiences and not so much ‘bang bang,’” she theorises. “If there was a female Andrew Lau or Johnnie To and she directed a successful cops-and-robbers thriller I’m sure she’d get plenty of opportunities to make more.”

Golden Scene founder and CEO Winnie Tsang has put her distribution power towards greater diversity – albeit unconsciously. “I just look for good films, but subconsciously I think I tend to look for films about women,” says Tsang. Regardless, she isn’t convinced support for women filmmakers needs to be mandated. “There are actually a lot of women working in the industry right now: screenwriters, production designers, and other posts in production, post-production, and distribution as well. A lot of women hold managerial positions, and there have been more and more female directors among the young generation.” 

The goal is to have more women’s stories on screen, an issue that causes a fair amount of hand-wringing. Women weren’t well represented in Hong Kong in 2020, with only three features directed by women released that year, and none so far in 2021. As with Tsang, Cheung isn’t entirely sold on the need for special spaces for films by women, arguing that programmes, festivals and policy targeting women further marginalises them. “I want women to win based on merit and not policy,” she says. “I welcome equal competition.” Chin agrees. “I think it’s a fair world. Whoever has the ability, and the script, will get a fair chance,” she says.

Building a platform

Hong Kong women are better represented than their counterparts in other Asian film industries, and for that reason, stumping for women filmmakers doesn’t feel as pressing here as it does elsewhere. “Women have more or less equal status in the industry, and we like to celebrate different voices,” says Hong Kong Arts Centre programme director and producer Teresa Kwong (Napping Kid). “I’m quite happy with the representation and levels of respect. I get to do a lot of exchange projects in other parts of Asia and I’d say Hong Kong women are quite privileged that way. Women in decision-making positions are not unusual—which it is in Japan or South Korea, for example.” 

For Kwong, nurturing more female filmmakers is not a zero sum game, and she dismisses gender absolutism as unhelpful. She aligns with Cheung in clustering women filmmakers as tending towards smaller, more intimate stories about relationships, family, trauma, and excelling at experimental and documentary films. Yet the notion of “women’s film” suggests a division of power, and that action films by women such as Kathryn Bigelow, and emotional stories by men like Pedro Almodóvar and Stanley Kwan, are the exceptions that prove the rule. 

It could be the greatest difference is not in subject matter but in the way women run their crews, says Kwong. “We use a different skill set to lead teams—and tell stories.” Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down co-director Kate Reilly describes her independent production as crewed by “very talented Hong Kong people who frequently work on films by people of marginalised genders and sexualities, including women.” That brought an innate diversity and support system to the project. Sing calls Invited In one of the most seamless and collaborative films she’s ever worked on.

As a biological non-essentialist, Reilly is of the mind people of all genders can potentially tell any story, but she recognises that most of us have spent our cultural lives exposed primarily to art by or for men, against which there is now pushback. For Reilly, good filmmakers need to be imaginative, empathetic, curious, and need “the confidence to welcome other people’s contributions.”

“Should Ang Lee only direct films about Asian men? Of course not,” echoes Kitamura. “But there’s a fine balance in telling stories that you know and understand, and those you don’t.” Research doesn’t equate with experience, and films that include authentic insights into aspects of life unique to women, that welcome those contributions by others, make for better films and a healthier industry.

Despite many holding tightly to the belief that Hong Kong is a pure, market-driven meritocracy, Erica Li’s experience of being sidelined and slighted would seem to counter that. And as Sing states, “I have felt undermined on male-dominated sets, and so Invited In was a project I was keen to support. Anyone who’s ever said [on-set sexism doesn’t exist] has never had that experience.”

For her part, Reilly welcomes more professional bodies and events for people from “all marginalised groups,” including women. “Structural inequality can only be redressed through structural countermeasures,” she says. “People in power won’t share that power unless they have to.” 

Kitamura agrees. “No one wants to get a gig purely because they’re a woman. That doesn’t help in terms of progressing the industry and the talent we’re trying to cultivate. But at the same time we need spaces for people to grow and flourish and work and do their jobs.” As she sees it, an advocacy organisation like Women in Film and Television (WIFT) or Women Make Movies (WMM), or a specialised festival along the lines of the Seoul International Women’s Film Festival (SIWFF), would be a bonus for Hong Kong. “You don’t know the effect cultivating community can have,” she says.

She’s not alone. “It would be great to have a professional body like WIFT,” says Lam, although she fears a women’s festival will only attract women. Kwong says she would “love to work with or see an organisation” that encourages women artists and filmmakers.” 

And Li sparks to the idea. “There are no organisations like that,” she says. “But now you say it, maybe I’ll do it.”

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