A scene from "Beautiful 2013 (Indigo)," a quartet of short films… (From Mabel Chung )
HONG KONG — When Mabel Cheung, one of this city's leading directors, shot her historical-political drama "The Soong Sisters" in China in the mid-1990s, the nature of the exchange for the co-production was simple: Beijing provided inexpensive manpower, and professionals from the British colony's highly developed movie industry provided the expertise.
Hong Kong cinema, after all, had been enjoying a golden age for close to two decades — celebrated directors such as John Woo and Wong Kar-wai had helped the city's filmmakers garner a global fan base. Raymond Chow's studio Golden Harvest had created cultural icons including Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Tsui Hark. Hong Kong movies often successfully walked the line between commercial and art-house fare.
"[China] was open to Hong Kong directors and stars," recalled Cheung, speaking at the chic industrial headquarters of the Hong Kong Film Directors' Guild during the city's international film festival, which wrapped up last week. "They really wanted to learn."
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Now, though, the dynamic has changed politically and economically: Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Local film productions have plummeted, from nearly 200 annually in the mid-1990s to about 50 today, as Hong Kong audiences have flocked to Hollywood blockbusters and the city's filmmakers have increasingly aimed their fare at the mainland, a tactic that has turned off audiences at home.
The mainland is now the world's second-largest movie market, behind the United States, with box office takings reaching $2.74 billion in 2012 and the country adding about 10 screens per day last year. It's also become a key source of funding for bigger and bigger productions, both homegrown and foreign.
The role reversal has cast a cloud of uncertainty over the future of Hong Kong film. Directors, producers, stars and fans in this city of 7 million are wondering whether the unique sensibilities of Hong Kong film — including its use of Cantonese (rather than Mandarin), its freewheeling politics, and its populist edge — can be preserved as the mainland's might grows.
"Now China is paying the bill, and they are boss," Cheung said. "And now we are working for them."
Film has become one battleground in a larger cultural conflict rooted in the "one country, two systems" structure that defines the political relationship between Hong Kong and China's leaders in Beijing. Hong Kongers enjoy greater political and artistic freedoms than their mainland brethren, and have chafed recently at attempts by mainland authorities to assert greater control in areas such as education. Many residents of the former colony also blame an influx of mainlanders for a variety of problems in Hong Kong, including skyrocketing housing costs and a decline in public civility.
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The tensions came to the fore cinematically in February, when Beijing-based journalist Jia Xuanning won the Hong Kong Arts Development Council's inaugural critic's prize for her scathing critique, "Gazing at the Anxiety of Hong Kong Film Through 'Vulgaria.'"
A hit Hong Kong comedy directed by Pang Ho-Cheung, "Vulgaria" was one of the city's top grossing non-Western films of 2012 and features local slang and dirty humor. The film also touches on topics such as pornography that would run afoul of censors in the mainland but are fine in Hong Kong, which does not have a film censorship program.
Jia's essay criticized "Vulgaria," saying it presented the "narrowness, opportunism and pretentiousness of Hong Kong society" while portraying mainlanders in a derogatory fashion. (In the movie, a mainland gangster pays for the production of a Hong Kong porn film.) Jia touched a nerve by saying bluntly that mainlanders had risen from being simply "[Hong Kong's] poor relatives to today's rich."
The critique turned Pang into something of an emblem of artistic freedom and resistance to mainland cultural hegemony. Responding to Jia in an online post, Pang said: "Hong Kong spirit is embodied in freedom of speech."
But some Hong Kong directors say financial realities are prompting more and more of the city's filmmakers to make compromises to do business with the mainland. Hong Kong-made films are not subject to China's film quota system, which allows just 34 foreign movies to screen in mainland cinemas a year. But Hong Kong films must pass muster with mainland censors to play in mainland cinemas, so some directors are changing their scripts to clear the bar.