Powerful fumes waft through the halls of the Golden Scene Cinema (GSC) as contractors put the finishing touches on the granite floor. The odour transcends that “new car smell” – or in this case, a new theatre smell. But it’s right after the Lunar New Year holiday and the air will be clear by the time the city’s newest cinema—and the first in Kennedy Town in years—opens its doors on February 18.
To that end, Golden Scene founder and managing director Winnie Tsang is on site, parked in an auditorium most of the time, but keeping an eye open if any fires need putting out. Best known as an independent film distributor and sales agent, and increasingly as a producer, Tsang has had designs on operating a theatre for over half of the company’s 23-year history.
“It wasn’t the endgame,” she says, perched on one House 4’s 79 seats. Tsang is decked out in her traditional black, the only splash of colour being bright red nails and an auburn tint to her hair. She’s youthful and composed – and very filmy. “The idea of a theatre cropped up when Golden Scene was about 10 years old,” she says. “People asked me what I wanted to do next and I started thinking about a cinema. I drew some inspiration from Mrs. Henderson Presents,” she finishes with a laugh, referring to the film starring Judi Dench as a woman who converts a theatre into a World War II-era performance hall. The space now occupied by the new cinema was formerly a church. “The landlord decided to change it when they bought it,” she assures. “We didn’t throw them out.
Tsang took something of a circuitous route to becoming a movie mogul. She downplays her position within the Hong Kong film industry but her impact is undeniable. A partial autodidact, Tsang’s general studies in university led her to the secretarial pool at her first job with Golden Harvest—it was that or RTHK—in the early 1980s. “I didn’t study anything to do with film, but I always enjoyed films, and my father was constantly bringing home movie magazines. And at Golden Harvest I managed to do everything: sales, promotion, distribution.”
After Tsang had spent 20 years at Golden Harvest, the company exited the distribution business, and she found herself without a career – or in the perfect position to start a new one. Working without Golden Harvest’s long-standing partnerships meant Tsang needed an alternative edge. “When I started as a new distributor, I didn’t have that many choices. I couldn’t get studio films as a new company. And I grew up with Hong Kong films, so I decided I’d focus on those too,” she recalls. “I learnt by experience. I went to my first Cannes in 1982, and realised I wanted films that were thought-provoking, had good messages and were socially aware.” She went with that model for Golden Scene and with rare exception has stuck with it.
Golden Scene released its first film in 1998, Lee Chi-ngai’s Japanese-Hong Kong crime drama Sleepless Town, and from there the brand has carved out a distinct niche as the go-to distributor for films by the likes of Fruit Chan, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Kim Ki-duk, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Hany Abu-Assad, Miranda July, and Steve McQueen. Most crucially, it has been an active supporter of local talent, including Jevons Au (Distinction), Ying Liang (A Family Tour), Ray Yeung (Suk Suk) and Norris Wong (My Prince Edward). And like any good distributor, Tsang has cultivated long-term relationships with emerging filmmakers and guaranteed audiences could see their follow-up films. More fiscally minded choices (Rush Hour 2, Scary Movie 3, Twilight) have helped keep the lights on.
In between duties as a distributor, work on the Hong Kong Trade Development Council Entertainment Industry Advisory Committees and founding the Motion Picture Industry Association, Tsang steered Golden Scene towards pre-production distribution agreements that would set the table for straight production. The company’s early experiments included Chan’s The Midnight After, Amos Why’s Dot 2 Dot, animated adventure The Great Detective Sherlock Holmes – The Greatest Jail-breaker, and Adam Wong’s The Way We Dance. A cinema seemed the next logical step.
Whereas antitrust laws have long prevented film producers from owning movie theatres in many North American and European countries, no such laws exist in Asia. In Hong Kong, Media Asia (MCL), Edko (Broadway Circuit, including MOViE MOViE), Mandarin (Cinema City), Emperor and Golden Harvest all operate exhibition chains. Production giant CJ Entertainment owns CGV Cinemas in South Korea, and the practice is just as common in Taiwan, Malaysia and Japan.
“There’s just no rule here, or in Asia, and it is a bit unfair,” Tsang admits. “A producer will play their own films in the best slots. Obviously we’ll play other people’s films as well, but our programming team will consider indies first. I think that will help smaller films. We want to engage with audiences and give them as much choice as we can.” Ironically, the American antitrust laws that prevented vertical integration between production and exhibition was struck down last August, paving the way for Asian-style synchronicity in the US.
To casual observers, now might not be the time to open a new cinema, given the recurring waves of Covid-19 restrictions. But attendance numbers had started to uptick in 2015 after years of decline. According to Hong Kong Theatres Association and Hong Kong Box Office, the SAR is currently home to 298 screens spanning 63 theatres, including the four at GSC, up from 237 and 53 in 2018. Production has stalled at around 50 films annually, but ask Tsang if she believes Hong Kong cinema will endure in the face of market and streaming challenges, her answer comes quickly.
“Absolutely,” she states emphatically. “There are many young directors emerging and a lot of veterans are returning. I have confidence the industry will rebound because we haven’t seen pure Hong Kong films for a long time. Younger artists are rediscovering filmmaking and they’re studying film.” She cites the First Feature Film Initiative as sparking an indie boom that’s recharging the industry and drawing crowds. “It’s been a long time since Hongkongers embraced Hong Kong films, and I hope they continue to come back. The idea of ‘Hong Kong’ has been lost for a while, and people are reclaiming that identity.”
The idea for the cinema truly blossomed in 2019, when Tsang found a landlord with goals that complemented her own. “When I met with them we realised we had similar ideas about changing, or contributing, to the community,” she says. She was looking for a location like Kennedy Town, a district with an authentic Hong Kong feel that would be in line with Golden Scene’s outside-the-box, local brand. Sitting on the corner of Catchick and North streets, the cinema is a rare street-facing facility, making it one of the few theatres not located inside a mall.
“We’re sitting on a street corner. We have an obligation to connect to the community,” says Monotype Studio’s Jackey Ip, who with partner Hysan Lee designed the space. When filmgoers went in, he says, “We wanted [them] to effortlessly get a sense of familiarity. We wanted to echo the feeling of collective memory of Hong Kong.” With its curving 1930s-style black-and-white frontage—a Tsang hallmark—deep grey tones, colonial terrazzo motif, fluid interiors and dearth of barriers, GSC is the physical manifestation of the connective nature of cinema. “We wanted a ground floor entrance. We wanted a neighbourhood movie house,” says Ip.
GSC’s four houses, holding a total of 283 seats, will open with The Way We Keep Dancing, the sequel to Adam Wong’s 2013 hit, and the winner of multiple awards at last year’s Golden Horse Film Festival in Taipei. It reunites stars Cherry Ngan, BabyJohn Choi and Lokman Yeung in a multi-layered story about artistic integrity and gentrification of industrial Kowloon. The opening bill will also include Herman Yau’s pandemic-delayed Shockwave 2, Pixar’s Soul, and some films whose theatrical runs were cut short by Covid: One Second Champion by Chiu Sin-hang and Man Lim-chung’s Keep Rolling among others.
Trailer “The way we keep dancing”
Beyond that, audiences can expect future retrospectives on directors Ann Hui, Stanley Kwan and Naomi Kawase, collaborations with the Hong Kong International Film Festival, Golden Scene’s own Kids International Film Festival, and ultimately presentations of new films by Adam Wong and Kiwi Chow, whose Beyond the Dream was the second highest grossing Hong Kong film of 2020.
The Golden Scene Cinema will have bells and whistles to entice new attendees along the lines of local craft beer, real homemade siu mai and local hand-made ice cream at the candy bar. “It’s still going to be a tough year, and we can only have 50 percent capacity,” says Tsang. “But we’re not in a rush. We want to get it right and create a good cinema experience.” She is already eyeing other locations. “I’d like to have one in Jordan, and maybe one in the New Territories,” she says. But we have to make this one work first.”