Hong Kong finds a slice of world cinema

Written by By Malika Abdullah, CNN Hong Kong

Some might even say Hong Kong cinema is coming into its own at a moment of unprecedented cultural output from a city where much of the creative output of its former colonial master has been heavily censored.

In the pre-Castro era, “The Adventures of Tintin” and Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy faced legal and political roadblocks to a late ‘80s release. But Hong Kong film theatres have been the top destination for international content ever since, thanks in large part to the popularity of local cinema hero Jackie Chan.

But recently, the lines between online content and the “commercial zone” — generally defined as listed theatres — have begun to blur. While the Internet is available for free, most films and TV series are not.

This year alone has seen the arrival of local cinema offerings such as “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” Marvel’s “Venom” and Ridley Scott’s celebrated science fiction flick “Blade Runner 2049.” Last weekend saw Hong Kong — and Asia — host the first of four Back to School movies from Hollywood behemoth Disney.

When three of these films won awards at the Hong Kong International Film Festival — or, as festival organizers now call it, “the movie festival awards ceremony” — it was evidence of something far more than the curiosity of some Asian cinephiles about big-budget film franchises.

It was a sign that Hong Kong may have made real progress toward Chinese-style “openness” toward international art-house titles.

“We have set the bar much higher,” says writer-director Jannatly Ho, whose Hong Kong-set murder mystery “Mo Koy” screened at the festival this year. “And I think I’m proud to be a Hong Kong filmmaker who can make a film of international importance. It’s our grand achievement.”

Although Ho admits her new film is “epic,” “funny and light-hearted,” “it has a Thai angle, the flavor of a small community,” an urban Southeast Asian community in today’s Hong Kong, she said.

A foot-stomping disappointment

This new entrant into the Hong Kong cinema scene has played itself out disappointingly in ordinary theaters. The most recent of these? A big-budget crime thriller “Nameless City,” starring China’s top box office draw, Xu Zheng, and Zhang Ziyi (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”).

Courtesy Hong Kong International Film Festival

“Nameless City,” which opened on July 28, played for just five days in any of the pre-overseas Chinese movie theaters. Largely received poorly, it failed to raise the box office.

A few weeks after its release, the film was pulled. But, as the canny Chinese state-run media outlet Oriental Outlook reported on July 30, the film was pulled by its distributor, Phoenix TV.

The same report, a veritable day-by-day account of the bizarre events that led to the film’s surprise disappearance from theaters, is relevant in Hong Kong because it highlights the foggy thinking and policymaking processes that have effectively stifled Hong Kong’s cinema industry.

Arrests of posters and tickets

Phoenix TV’s withdrawal, which came one day after the movie’s premiere, was the result of orders from the mainland government and the broadcasting regulators of mainland China, Hong Kong’s main land market, according to local online gossip site hollywood.com.

“[The authorities] claim that the film has pornographic content, which is illegal in China,” says Ho, who was not the film’s director and was not involved in the production process.

“But that’s only one reason. The film was delayed before the mainland censor completely censored it,” she added.

The Hollywood report also points to a failure to clear the censorship with Beijing.

“The Chinese government’s review was a useless exercise,” said Ho. “They only sent us a list of, ‘Sorry, you need to do this, this and this.’ And, in the end, we were imprisoned.”

After it was played, for a short time, in Hong Kong cinemas, “Nameless City” was pulled. The film then returned to mainland screens, which were operated in Hong Kong under the supervision of mainland authorities.

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