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Hong Kong's Final Cut?

The colony's world-player film industry holds its breath, looking for hints of Beijing's policies on censorship and production after it takes over on July 1. It's anybody's guess.

June 15, 1997|Edward Wong | Edward Wong is a freelance writer based in San Francisco

HONG KONG — Pursued by police, an assassin drives higher and higher into the night-shrouded mountains above Hong Kong. The island's towering cityscape falls away below him. He pulls over to the side of the road. Lighting a cigarette, the killer gazes out at the sea of lights that has come to symbolize one of the world's most dynamic cities.

"I never realized how beautiful Hong Kong looks at night," he says. "But something so beautiful can disappear so quickly."

Those lines uttered by actor Chow Yun-Fat may seem to some more prophetic now than at any other time since the 1986 release of "A Better Tomorrow." When director John Woo's film premiered in Hong Kong, it spawned a new genre of filmmaking characterized by ultra-violent crime stories and fast-paced editing and came to influence a generation of Hollywood filmmakers. But as July 1 approaches, another new wave is about to sweep over the island--one marked not by a flourishing of artistic vision but by the unpredictable rule of Communist authorities.

On that date, the colony will be handed back to China after 156 years of British rule. And like many others, members of the Hong Kong movie industry--the world's third-largest behind those of India and the United States--are waiting to see whether they can thrive under the new regime. The questions they face are emblematic of those confronting the entire colony. Hong Kong's media outlets are grappling with issues of censorship, both self-imposed and mandated by China. But movies also mean big business, and many in the industry hope the hand-over will present new opportunities in the mainland marketplace.

"Once they open up the China market, a lot of Chinese studios will get involved with Hong Kong production companies," actor Chow predicts. "A lot of independent production houses will produce stories which will be suitable for Hong Kong and mainland China. Movies will be shown in all of China. I'm very glad that China's government will take over the Hong Kong government and open up opportunities for Hong Kong filmmakers."

At 42, Chow is one of Asia's most popular actors, his baby-face grin known from Shanghai to Jakarta. After "A Better Tomorrow" launched him to overnight fame, he became the most sought-after actor in Hong Kong. His roles in John Woo's action movies are partly responsible for elevating Hong Kong cinema to cult status in America.

So why does Chow talk about opening up more opportunities? The answer lies in the plight of today's industry. Like many of Hong Kong's institutions, its movie industry was founded out of a need to escape the mainland's poverty and political instability. Its roots can be traced to 1930s Shanghai, where a burgeoning film industry gained a reputation as the Hollywood of the East.

But as China's political tumult worsened--from the Japanese invasion of World War II to Mao Tse-tung's repressive Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and early '70s--directors either filmed government propaganda or were forced to abandon their personal visions. With intellectuals and artists often facing persecution, many filmmakers through the decades fled to Hong Kong.

It was here that Sir Run Run Shaw and his brothers, newly arrived from Singapore, set up their Clearwater Bay studio and began churning out swordplay epics. Although their work reached a wide overseas Chinese audience, it wasn't until the 1970s, with the advent of the Golden Harvest studio and its martial-arts star Bruce Lee, that the industry achieved international recognition. These action movies propelled Hong Kong to the top ranks of the international film market. At its peak in 1993, the industry produced more than 200 films.

But three years ago, audiences here simply stopped flocking to see Cantonese films. Hong Kong's Motion Picture Industry Assn. reports that local film revenues last year amounted to $85 million, a sharp drop from the $155 million of 1992. But the market share of imports has more than doubled in the past four years--to 46% in 1996 from 20% in 1992. When American heartthrob Keanu Reeves drew longer lines than home-grown matinee idols, local filmmakers knew something had gone wrong.

The dismal state has been attributed to rising star salaries, higher ticket prices and the proliferation of VCRs and karaoke bars. But many industry insiders cite another cause--low-quality movies partly motivated by the July 1 hand-over. With the future of Hong Kong in doubt, many filmmakers adopted a get-rich-quick mentality. Studios slapped together movies in assembly-line fashion, often banking on the selling power of their stars. It became increasingly difficult to distinguish conscious self-parody from unintentional kitsch.

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