For many years, the mission statement of Hong Kong’s Filmart was to introduce the world to China’s rising film industry. But anyone who’s ever read a framed mission statement in a corporate foyer knows, writing something down doesn’t automatically make it true. However, the Hong Kong Trade and Development Corporation and other organisations that help stage the four-day trade show have done more than wax lyrical. They’ve put years into laying the ground, and after years of what looked like empty rhetoric (and quite a bit of hard work), 2014 saw Filmart’s mission not only come true, but become an unqualified success.
China produces around 700 films per year, though only about 200 of those are actually released. What foreigners hope to get out of the booming Chinese film industry is the opportunity to participate in co-productions. Unlike most foreign films, such as Hollywood hits like Titanic 3D which have to be considered by China’s strict quota system that only allows distribution for a handful of non-Chinese films, co-productions by virtue of their Chinese financing bypass the quota. Everyone wants a part of the action and hence films like Iron Man 3 where Chinese stars like Fan Bingbing are sutured into the film to merchandise Western blockbusters to Chinese audiences.
The record increase of over 6,500 visitors to Filmart and the wider spread of countries staging pavilions is testimony to the rising international interest. Italy joined up last year, the Russians were the major new recruits this year and China, Japan, Korea and France increase the size of their pavilions every year.
Korean film producer Lee Joo-ick knows how Filmart feels about the event’s delayed success. “Ten years ago,” when Lee began working on Chinese/Korean co-productions, “people said there was no future in it. Now they tell me I was right.” With a long list of Chinese-related features to his credit (Together, Seven Swords), Lee nevertheless warns about becoming too enthusiastic about the Chinese boom. In Korea, we liken things that heat up very quickly to an aluminium kettle. Like an aluminium kettle, the Chinese film industry heated up very quickly and it could cool down very quickly too.”
Lee reminds people about the era when Japanese corporations like Sony were buying up Hollywood studios like Columbia. When Japan’s bubble economy burst, it unravelled very quickly. Lee’s ultimate warning when it comes to film producing is that unless, the Chinese film industry and those who foreigners who wish to capitalise on it, are mindful of quality, an audience – local and international – will turn their back on it, no matter what the volume is.
For Hong Kongers, the boom of China’s film industry is a double-edged sword. Vice Chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Film-makers, Cheung Chi-sing, points out that on the one hand, stars and technicians nurtured by Hong Kong’s film industry have increased revenue and work opportunities since the local industry took a pre-Handover nosedive in the early 1990s.
The problem with the Hong Kong to China braindrain is that the local industry is losing its independence both culturally and politically. (Parallels with Australia and the US are worth noting.) “Because of the difficulty of financing films in Hong Kong without Mainland Chinese money, less than 20 percent of films are locally funded.” Cheung says. “On the whole, I don’t like to talk about Hong Kong’s film industry. It’s too depressing.”
Cheung also points out that the oft-quoted statistic about 10 movie screens being constructed in China every two days may also be overly optimistic. “It fails to take into account the fact that China’s box office growth is not keeping pace with the building of screens. In other words, the more screens being built in China, the more likely it is that the profits will decrease not increase.” Cheung believes that when other factors came into play – such as real estate value and competition from other entertainment platforms – as well as general maintenance costs, that if China’s film industry hits an unforeseen slump, the whole industry could be in for a shock.
Chen Bin, Vice President of china production company, DMG Entertainment is however, unrepentantly upbeat. He believes that even if there is brief slump in China box office, cinemas will not disappear and that any production slump would be filled by the 500 odd Mainland films that currently do not receive a commercial release in China.
Statistically, it seems inevitable that China will increasingly dominate international movie screens one day, but the Chinese need to nurture their own industry for international – not just Mandarin speaking – audiences. While Chen celebrated the references to acupuncture in Iron Man 3, the film is still essentially American and won’t do anything to cause a spike in feng shui classes in Nebraska. If the Chinese film industry is not careful, stars like Fan Bingbing getting cameos will remain second banana while Hollywood stars will stay the main attraction.
Hong Kongers do more than passively take a cut as money change hands at Filmart. One of Filmart’s major sidebars is the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Fund, generally known as HAF. The competition had 23 projects in contention, from over 300 submissions from across Asia this year. But even when Hong Kong wins it loses it seems. When it was announced that celebrated local actress Carrie Ng (City on Fire and Hong Kong Film Festival’s 2014 opening night film Aberdeen; pictured) had won the top prize at HAF for her project Angel Whispers, many visitors looked askance. To some, the idea of one of the city’s top stars winning a $HKD150,000 (around $AUS21,000) was like middle-class welfare. But the reality is that while the big money stayed local, most prizes went to a variety of other Asian countries, including Taiwan (Private Eyes to be directed by Chang Jung-chi, The Solitary Pier, to be directed by Jack Shih), China (Love is Speaking, to be directed by Shu Haolun) and Afghanistan (Hip Hop Kabul, a documentary to be directed by Fazila Amiri).
For a market derided as a local show, where nothing of significance happens because it is situated between Berlin and Cannes, Hong Kong’s Filmart has given former naysayers reason to investigate. What once seemed a futile effort to position itself between emerging and established film industry giants is now vital. Filmart was right about its role all along. The stars (and the producers) have truly come into alignment.