A new China syndrome?

Mike Walsh

Day and Night

Day and Night

What does the Australian film industry have in common with that of Hong Kong? This year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) suggests that our futures may both become increasingly tied to a rapidly emerging cinema industry in mainland China. Not only is the production of feature films in China increasing at a rapid pace, from 100 in 2002 to 212 last year, but the bulk of these films are co-productions, opening up possibilities for potentially rich connections with other regional industries. While the talk in Hong Kong, like here, is of doom and gloom for local production, this is always accompanied by an emphasis on the possibilities of expanded links with the mainland.

The big breakthrough at the HKIFF 2005 was a Chinese Renaissance strand, featuring the year’s major works from the Peoples’ Republic of China. There has typically been a dearth of new Chinese films at the HKIFF, due to the division that existed in China between officially sanctioned films and works made without government script approval and distribution arrangements. The PRC government now seems intent on repairing that breach and bringing the underground film movement into the mainstream. Leading Sixth Generation director Jia Zhangke noted while introducing his new work The World at the HKIFF that it was the first of his films to receive government support for screening at international festivals (the film had its Australian premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival in February). Although several commercial romance films were included in the Chinese Renaissance program, many continued to mine the miserabilist tradition of the Sixth Generation. This involves a critique of the dead heart at the centre of an economic transition which has not been accompanied by any equivalent transformation in social values or institutions.

The most impressive of these films was Jia’s The World, about an amusement park on the outskirts of Beijing in which all the world’s tourist attractions are replicated in miniature, including the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids and Manhattan complete with Twin Towers. Despite the park’s global reference points, the people who work there remain trapped in an extremely small world of limited possibilities.

Wang Chao is another established filmmaker (The Orphan of Anyang, 2001) whose work centres on the psychical and material poverty of the new China. His coldly beautiful Day and Night shows the ways in which a low-fi grunge cinema can develop given access to higher budgets. The other highlight was Yang Chao’s debut Passages, which details the cross-country journeys of a young couple who discover just how much perseverance and imagination is needed to leave the social world.

While a new and more assured cinema is emerging in China, what have been the effects on Hong Kong cinema? The fact that most of the acceptance speeches at this year’s HKIFF Film Awards were made in Mandarin rather than Cantonese gives an indication of the degree to which Hong Kongers are looking northwards.

Several of the year’s more commercial films thematise this turn to the mainland in provocative ways. Cheang Pou-soi’s Love Battlefield tells the old, old story of a mainland gang who hit the SAR (Special Administrative Region) with a bad attitude and a small arsenal. In the process, though, the intensities of their family loyalties provide a lesson in the ferocious nature of love to a couple of Honkie yuppies. There are places in the world where love is still a matter of life and death. Derek Yee’s One Nite in Mongkok takes up similar themes with 2 of Hong Kong’s biggest stars, Daniel Wu and Cecilia Cheung, playing northerners who hit the streets of Kowloon looking to make a killing–literally. Hong Kong has a thankless position as the pot of gold at the end of the Chinese dream. National fantasies about the quick buck being what they are, things go wrong very quickly.

The vice-director of China’s Film Bureau recently claimed that although his country now rates as the third largest producer of films in the world, “problems still exist in China’s film industry. We have very few good films, for example.” He explained these remarks by saying that only 3 features (House of Flying Daggers, Kung Fu Hustle and A World Without Thieves) had been financial successes last year, accounting for nearly 60% of China’s box office.

It is worth noting that these 3 films had 2 things common: all had Hong Kong stars (Andy Lau and Stephen Chow), and all had postproduction done in Australia. As big budget Chinese films become increasingly reliant on Australian postproduction facilities, it may be that the fates of the Australian and Hong Kong industries become increasingly tied to each other, and to mainland China.

Hong Kong International Film Festival, March 22-April 6

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 20

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2005