The old formula that made Hong Kong cinema successful decades ago no longer works in mainland China, with fewer films produced by the city’s veteran filmmakers becoming major box office hits. One sign: some big-cast productions are being trashed in online posts.
But smaller films by a new generation of Hong Kong filmmakers might have a chance as mainland tastes become more sophisticated — that is, if they can get past the censor.
A quick survey of China’s 2017 box office shows that only two films by Hong Kong filmmakers made it to the top 10: “Kung Fu Yoga,” a mainland-India co-production directed by Stanley Tongand starring Jackie Chan, grossed more than 1.75 billion yuan ($277.6 million), the fifth-highest grossing film of the year in China; and “Journey to the West: Demon Chapter,” a mainland-Hong Kong co-production directed by Tsui Hark, which grossed nearly $269.6 million.
Bigger mainland-Hong Kong co-productions such as Wilson Yip’s action pic “Paradox” and crime thriller “Chasing the Dragon,” co-directed by Wong Jing and Jason Kwan, took in more than $79.6 million at the box office.
Other films managed to range from millions to tens of millions of yuan at the B.O. That could be seen anywhere from surprising success to mediocre and disastrous, depending on the production budget.
Recent Hong Kong comedies released in mainland China have done poorly. Hong Kong filmmaker Vincent Kuk met his Waterloo with last year’s release “Perfect Couple,” and “Keep Calm and Be a Superstar,” starring Hong Kong A-list singer Eason Chan, which came out last month. “Perfect Couple” grossed $3.8 million, while “Superstar” took $6.2 million. Comedian Sandra Ng’s directorial debut, “Gold Buster,” grossed $57.6 million since its release at the end of the year, but the film had poor ratings online: only 4.7 out of 10 points on Douban and 5.8 points out of 10 on Mtime.
Zhou Jianwei, a film programmer and a committee member of the Shanghai Film Critics Society, says some Hong Kong directors might still want to make great films, but the cultural differences between the former British colony and the mainland make it difficult for them to strike a chord with Chinese audiences.
Other directors who are past their prime simply want to make money in China with poorly made films, Zhou says, or they just repeat themselves. “Take ‘Gold Buster’ for example, it was old-fashioned and repeated the old formula. It’s only consuming [Ng’s] brand. Mainland audience do not like it. Hong Kong audience won’t like it either,” Zhou says.
While many believe that the mainland’s censorship system is a major obstacle to creativity, some top filmmakers such as Stephen Chow and Peter Chan know the mainland market well and could still produce films that are embraced there, Zhou says. “77 Heartbreaks” by Herman Yau scored $11.9 million, which was seen as a success, considering that the leads, Pakho Chau and Charlene Choi, are not A-list stars on the mainland.
Chan was good at not only making his own films, but also producing films directed by young talent. Romantic dramas “Soulmate” (2016), directed by Derek Tsang, and last year’s “This Is Not What I Expected,” by Derek Hui, won praises from the audience (more than seven points on Mtime) and at the box office, totaling $26.5 million and $33.4 million, respectively.
Some low-budget Hong Kong films by new directors also had a relatively decent box office. “Mad World,” by Wong Chun, a drama about bipolar disorder with a budget of just HK$2 million ($255,700), grossed $1.5 million last year, receiving four stars on Douban. “Weeds of Fire,” by Chan Chi-fat, which told the story of a Hong Kong baseball team, took $587,005. By industry standards such results were a bonus for these two small productions funded by the Hong Kong government.
First-time director Chan Tai-lee’s “Tomorrow Is Another Day” is being buzzed as another small Hong Kong project that can be a box office miracle on the mainland if a greenlight is given by Chinese authorities. The film turns on a mother living in public housing struggling with her failed marriage and looking after her autistic and mentally challenged son.
Chan, a long-time scriptwriter (“The Way We Dance”) says trouble with financing and strong local identity have made many young local filmmakers look into telling Hong Kong stories. But whether a film can do well in mainland China will depend on the distributor and if the film could be shown on more screens. He says such films as “Mad World” could have done a lot better.
But word-of-mouth, particularly audience’s ratings online, has become a crucial factor for a film’s success on the mainland in recent years. The unexpected success of Indian film “Dangal,” which was the ninth-highest grossing film in China in 2017 and best-selling non-Hollywood foreign film, was one example, he says.
“Few people knew the cast but it had great reviews online,” says Chan, referring to the 9.1 out of 10 score on Douban.
“It shows that if the film is good, audiences don’t mind where the film comes from. But if the film is bad, word gets out really quickly and your film will not survive.”