Monday, March 2, 2009

Survival of Hong Kong cinema rests with independent film makers

Survival of Hong Kong cinema rests with independent film makers
By Elizabeth Kerr

The concept of independent cinema is a difficult one to characterize. Most well-developed film industries comprise several tiers but few are as inherently mercenary - or independent - as Hong Kong's independent cinema can range from the one extreme to another. American filmmaker Robert Rodriguez became famous for financing his first feature, El Mariachi, with his Visa card and from the money he earned by volunteering as a guinea pig for pharmaceutical tests. George Lucas' Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace - was self-financed to the tune of $115 million. By rights, it also qualifies as an indie film.

Hong Kong's industry is partially subsidized, similar to its counterparts in Britain, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. It's common practice in most countries that don't have Hollywood's ready private capital and where filmmakers must rely heavily on publicly funded arts councils. Almost all films produced in Hong Kong are cobbled together with financing from an assortment of sources - be it governments , councils, or private business. In the wake of the first Hong Kong Asian Independent Film Festival (HKAIFF) this past November, the question arises, as to whether the independent cinema industry in Hong Kong is healthy enough to sustain, especially considering there's some doubt such industry actually exists.

In 2005, Hong Kong produced approximately 55 feature films, according to the Film Services Office - down from close to 100 a decade earlier. The way director Pang Ho-cheung (Isabella, A/V) sees it, "Since the close of Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest, the Hong Kong movie industry is mainly an independent film industry." Some of that is by choice, some of necessity. "I'm an indie filmmaker. It's not a choice. It's a vocation," says filmmaker Simon Chung (Innocent). "My films so far, have dealt with subjects that may not interest the mainstream industry, like homosexuality and drugs." That's an odd position for a director to find himself in when almost everything produced in Hong Kong is "independent." The few remaining big players, or "studios" - Media Asia and Emperor spring to mind - are tightening their production budgets. As Lawrence Wong, chairman of independent distributor Ying E Chi pointed out in this paper in November, "investors are very conservative, and they count on formulaic box office hits." That translates to lots of starlets and boy bands, when not already committed to co-producing big budget Mainland-targeted epics like Red Cliff or The Warlords.

But as is the case in any industry, experiences and opinions are often disparate. "Hong Kong has an indie film scene, but not really an industry," theorizes Chung. "The Arts Development Council regularly gives out small grants to filmmakers, which are often insufficient for feature length projects, and filmmakers have to seek out other funding sources, such as industry investment or, more often, their own money, to make their films."

Producer Rosa Li concurs with both Pang and Chung ... sort of. "(I'm) not sure if you can call it an 'industry' but yes there are independent films in Hong Kong. By 'independent' I mean independent development, financing and production," she explains with particular reference to Kenbiroli Films, the production house she co-founded with director Kenneth Bi (The Drummer, Rice Rhapsody). "Several directors we know work this way. They develop their own material and seek investors on a film-by-film basis."

The state of the industry - or scene - is another issue altogether. Chung sees a silver lining in the current cloud hovering over filmmaking in Hong Kong. "In a year when the mainstream industry is experiencing (yet another) downturn, there (were) about a dozen indie features made in 2008." There is support for budding Johnnie To's out there, chiefly in the form of council funding. Along with the Arts Development Council, there are public resources to keep the industry alive: The Film Development Fund, while not new, received a HK$300 million cash infusion in 2007 and the newly established Hong Kong Film Development Council was founded to shepherd the entire industry with a more focused eye, toward long-term stability.

But many artists still rely on their own legwork. With council money usually falling short, as Chung points out, filmmakers need to be willing and able to tap a lot more sources. Li sees a future in regional co-productions, and Kenbiroli always puts together all its own funding. Pang, at his company, Making Film, is more of a fly-by- the-seat-of-the-pants type of director. "Borrowing Chairman Mao's words, we are 'touching the stone to pass the river'," meaning he prefers crossing each production bridge when he comes to it. "I think a golden rule for independent movie makers is that they should not be limited by (others') requests to create. Instead, they should be proactive in developing projects ... so that they can control the entire production till the end."

When it comes down to it, though, making any film is pointless if there's no one willing to watch it and those who are willing are unable to. Whose job is it to ensure audiences get an opportunity to see indie films? Ironically the independent industry such as it is, relies on the same fundamentals as Hollywood, Bollywood, and beyond. "Cinemas have to make money to stay open - it won't help if we have a lot of art house cinemas but nobody goes to them. Ultimately the films have to be appealing to the audience," says Li. "Nowadays ... (when cinemas) put on an independent film and the tickets are not selling well in the first two days, they will cut the movie.

Cinema owners would rather put on the same popular movie in all seven mini theatres," Pang agrees, before warning, "Of course, they can make more money but in the long run, this is not healthy." Pang's biggest issue with that line of thinking is the negative impact it has on the local industry. There's supporting evidence to be found in the 55 features made in 2005. Most of them were vehicles for moderately-talented starlets. With a shrinking industry, Pang believes content becomes a growing problem. For viewers, a clear Hong Kong cinematic voice is lost.
Chung, however, sees a larger problem, which he calls the cultural factor. "I feel that there are fewer and fewer people who seek out unusual or out of the way movies in Hong Kong," he states. Judging from the record-breaking box office numbers over Christmas, he could be right. "The cinema culture is very much about seeing the latest blockbuster hit. In other countries blockbusters also dominate, but not so much that they crowd out everything else."

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