At previous in-person editions of Filmart, Hong Kong’s major film companies, including Edko Films, Emperor Motion Pictures (EMP), One Cool Group, Universe Films and Media Asia, always anchored the trade show floor with huge, elaborate booths promoting the latest Hong Kong films, animation and TV series.
Despite a difficult few years, during which they’ve had to navigate Covid-related cinema closures, stringent travel restrictions and Hong Kong’s political upheaval, all these companies and more are re-erecting their stalls at the first physical edition of Filmart in three years, and even have some good news to share.
Just last week, Edko Films’ legal drama A Guilty Conscience, starring Dayo Wong as a sharp-tongued barrister defending a single mother against ruthless tycoons, became the first Hong Kong film ever to gross more than HK$100M (US$12.7M) at the local box office. The film is also currently topping the mainland China box office, after opening there last weekend, with a take of more than RMB80M (US$11.6M).
The directing debut of screenwriter Jack Ng, the film toppled the record for highest-grossing Hong Kong film ever set only last year by One Cool Group’s sci-fi epic Warriors Of Future, which in turn beat a record set last summer by Edko Films’ ensemble comedy Table For Six.
Edko Films Executive Director Bill Kong says he didn’t expect such huge results for a mid-sized legal drama. “I’ve spoken to some of the audience who say it’s the story that is attractive, as they haven’t seen a story like this for a long time,” says Kong, who is known internationally as the producer of big-ticket films such as Fearless and Lust, Caution. “Word-of-mouth is also helping as people have been telling their friends and family to see the film.”
As another legal drama, Ho Cheuk-Tin’s The Sparring Partner, was also a hit last year, grossing HK$39.4M (US$5m), some industry watchers have speculated that this is a genre that resonates with Hong Kong people because their own legal systems are currently undergoing massive change.
But Fred Tsui, founder of festival and sales consultancy Moebius Entertainment, says it goes beyond that to a worldwide craving for stories about social justice and the ultra wealthy getting their comeuppance: “Films and series like Parasite, Triangle Of Sadness and The White Lotus are all addressing similar themes. They’re not anti-government necessarily, just anti inequality or call out rich people abusing their privilege.”
Meanwhile, a string of other Hong Kong films in other genres have performed beyond expectations over the past year, including family dramas Mama’s Affair and Hong Kong Family, comedies Table For Six and Chilli Laugh Story, and award-winning social issue dramas, The Sunny Side Of The Street and The Narrow Road.
They continue the trend of the past few years to diversify Hong Kong’s output beyond the cop thrillers and action comedies that it’s known for internationally, towards stories about ordinary people and families just getting through life in difficult times.
Many of these films are also directed by first-time filmmakers, revealing the industry’s willingness to back new talent. In some cases, this has been made possible through funding from the Hong Kong Film Development Council, which announced before the pandemic that it was increasing film industry support to HK$1BN (US$128M). Local companies such as Edko Films, EMP and One Cool Group have also played their part.
Golden Scene’s Felix Tsang, who handles international distribution of many new wave Hong Kong movies, says they also tap into the desire of Hong Kong people to see their own lives represented on screen: “The films we’ve seen over the past year have been specifically geared towards the Hong Kong audience, the dialogue and humor is very geared towards the Cantonese language, and the audience has really appreciated that.”
He adds that, before the pandemic, Hong Kong cinemas were usually dominated by US studio movies and local producers often focused on the much larger mainland China market rather than specifically serving audiences in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, none of the global streaming giants have invested in Cantonese-language series or other types of content, which means Cantonese movies are filling the gap.
But while it’s encouraging to see Hong Kong films perform well in their home market, it will always be a comparatively small market, so what are the prospects for these films outside of Hong Kong? A Guilty Conscience is a rare incidence of a smaller Hong Kong film being distributed in China, where usually only the bigger Hong Kong-China co-productions get a release. Hong Kong’s traditional exports markets – Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia – also tend to go for the bigger action movies (although A Guilty Conscience again bucked that trend by topping the box office in Malaysia).
There are, however, new audiences for these films among the communities of Hong Kong people who have moved to the UK, U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand since the imposition of the National Security Law in June 2020. Magnum Films recently released A Guilty Conscience in 34 cinemas in the UK, where an estimated 150,000 Hong Kongers have relocated in the past few years, while Trinity CineAsia scored a hit in the UK last year with Mama’s Affair, which grossed US$170,000.
“Last year proved there’s a market for Cantonese-language movies in the UK,” says Trinity CineAsia’s Cedric Behrel, who also released The Sparring Partner and Chilli Laugh Story. “We’ve built confidence that we can deliver a good opening weekend to cinemas with the right film.”
Trinity CineAsia is also finding success with mainland Chinese movies – Lunar New Year blockbuster The Wandering Earth 2 recently grossed close to $1m in the UK, making it the biggest Chinese-language film released there since Lust, Caution. But the mainland films tend to attract mainland Chinese students, while the Hong Kong films, not surprisingly, appeal to audiences who are from Hong Kong.
While the current results, both in Hong Kong and overseas, are encouraging, Hong Kong filmmakers are a pragmatic bunch and realize there are no guarantees for the future. Hong Kong films may lose ground at the local box office as the supply of Hollywood movies starts to pick up, and Hong Kong producers may switch their attention back to making films for mainland Chinese audiences now that market is starting to re-open.
And while Hong Kong has been slow to embrace the streaming revolution, more local talent may move into series now that ambitious new entrants such as PCCW’s Makerville and Peter Ho-sun Chan’s Changin’ Pictures are starting to ramp up. But whichever way the market develops, there’s a new generation of Hong Kong filmmakers out there – some working in their home city, others who have moved out with the diaspora to the UK or North America – who should be interesting to track.