Shoot the film you have always wanted on a shoestring budget or sell out and make a blockbuster? It is a dilemma Hong Kong directors frequently face as mainland China’s lucrative movie industry beckons.
Now, with concerns growing about Beijing’s increasing influence on Hong Kong, some filmmakers are defying commercial and political pressures to produce homegrown movies with a local voice — and inject new life into the territory’s cinema scene.
Hong Kong once pumped out at least 200 films a year, from Bruce Lee’s (李小龍) 1973 Enter the Dragon to Wong Kar-wai’s (王家衛) 2000 In the Mood for Love, via countless cop and gangster thrillers.
However, in the past decade the local industry has slumped and just dozens of films are now produced in Hong Kong annually.
One major factor is the booming Chinese movie sector, offering both experienced directors and recent graduates more money and opportunities.
Yet, for some the pendulum now seems to be swinging back, as the desire for freedom of expression outweighs mainland mega-bucks.
“With new films, everyone asks: ‘Could it be released in China? Can you cooperate with the Chinese side?’ That’s how [investors] earn back their money,” said Hong Kong director Derek Chiu (趙崇基), 54, who has a string of local feature films under his belt and has worked on the mainland.
He said he has struggled to find backers for his forthcoming drama Chung Ying Street, which focuses on riots against British colonial rule before leaping to the present-day protest movement.
Chiu said Hong Kongers and mainland bodies have rejected his funding applications.
A private backer has also pulled out over concerns his investment could impact his business interests in China, he said.
“Maybe if I do Chung Ying Street I cannot work in China, but I will not give up this one,” Chiu said. “I need some creative control and freedom, and China cannot provide that.”
Some Hong Konger directors have turned to crowdfunding to raise cash but maintain their independence. Celebrated cinematographer Christopher Doyle, a long-term Hong Kong resident best-known for his work with Wong, used the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform for his most recent politically sensitive project, raising more than US$100,000.
Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled, Preoccupied, Preposterous, released last year, is based on interviews with three generations of Hong Kongers. One section is dedicated to mass pro-democracy protests that brought parts of the territory to a standstill in 2014.
“You can only say certain things in China, so you’re making period dramas and you’re making action films, as opposed to more socially relevant films,” Doyle said. “Here, we have to do the opposite. We have to go smaller budget, we have to be more concerned with the very few freedoms we still have left.”
Doyle said the shift from securing mainland funding to prioritizing freedom of expression has happened “very quickly,” and is the biggest recent shift in Hong Kong cinema.
The critical and commercial success of last year’s locally made Ten Years — a series of shorts painting a grim picture of life in Hong Kong in 2025 — is testament to the mood change.
“I think because of the social and political situation in Hong Kong, directors are more concerned with local topics,” said Andrew Choi, one of the film’s coproducers.
However, despite the new energy in the Hong Kong industry, some said the territory’s cinematic glory will be hard to recapture in the face of an ascendant China and growing global competition.
“When big names were discovered in the 1980s, the market and the world were less crowded,” said Shi Nansun (施南生), a veteran Hong Kong producer who oversaw the 2002 hit thriller Infernal Affairs and has served on the jury of the Cannes film festival.
Many filmmakers will still be drawn to mainland or Chinese co-funded productions for the bigger budgets and greater exposure, she added.