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‘No ghosts. No gay love stories. No nudity’: tales of film-making in China

As Hollywood continues its courtship of China, it can learn all about cultural differences and censorship from the Hong Kong film-makers who went there first

China is the future in cinema terms at least. As Hollywood expansionist strategy makes clear, most film-industry insiders believe that China is where the money is, and will be. Despite a recent dip in takings, the Chinese box office is expected to outgross the USs in 2017 for the first time: projections suggest that Chinese cinemas will earn $10.4bn, as opposed to $10.2bn in the US. In February, the huge totals for the Stephen Chow film The Mermaid helped Chinas monthly gross $1.05bn surpass that of all of North America (including Canada), which was $790m for the same period.

China is moving towards Hollywood, too. In an effort spearheaded by billionaire Wang Jianlin, the Dalian Wanda Group has been investing in anything that is for sale in Tinseltown, including Batman producers Legendary Entertainment and the cinema chain AMC, and is currently angling to acquire Paramount. Meanwhile, Hollywood increasingly has to comply with Chinas written and unwritten regulations, and make countless compromises, to produce audience-pleasing blockbusters that satisfy the censors. And in order to bypass the quota that China sets for foreign movies (34 a year), US studios have started to make co-productions with Chinese ones adapting further to Chinas requests, censorship and regulations in order to do so.

Trailer for the box office record-breaking Stephen Chow film The Mermaid.

It is an exercise fraught with unexpected consequences, as the Hong Kong film industry until recently one of the most productive and vibrant in the world knows only too well. If Hong Kongs experience is anything to go by, it will mean that, according to the director Johnnie To, the type of films that the public will be able to see will shrink. To, one of Hong Kongs most famous and established film-makers, who is best known in the west for his Election series, adds: Everyone who makes expensive films will have to make compromises, because China is where the money is. Its that simple.

Hong Kongs pre-eminent position in the Chinese-language film industry dates back to Chinas civil war in the 1930s and 40s, between Mao Zedongs communist forces and Chiang Kai-sheks nationalists. Whole studios emigrated from Shanghai (formerly Chinas film-making centre) and settled in what was then a British colony. Hong Kong produced Mandarin- and Cantonese-language movies until the 1960s; gradually thereafter, Cantonese began to dominate. But language seemed almost irrelevant: Hong Kong cinema had entered its golden era, and, as Shu Kei, film critic and professor at the Academy of Performing Arts in Hong Kong, recalls, actors would be busy on nearly 10 sets in a single day.

The golden era had an output of up to 250 films a year, and the slowdown only started in the 90s, says Kei. Quality was problematic, but the craze was such that cinemas were screening movies at a slightly faster pace, in order to squeeze in one extra show, while film directors and actors just improvised with no script. Profits were so high that organised crime became an active part of the industry.

Brigitte
Brigitte Lin in Chungking Express (1994) Photograph: Ronald Grant

But in the late 90s, just at the point at which audiences became more discriminating and DVDs started to eat into profits, China began opening up, changing the game entirely. Hong Kongs movie stars were highly attractive and recognisable, but to remain relevant, Hong Kong cinema had to shift its attention to mainland audiences, and cut back on some of its more eccentric traits. When Wong Kar Wai shot Chungking Express in 1994, Brigitte Lin was dressed up in a wig, sunglasses and a raincoat because she was busy on a period movie set, and had no time to go through makeup and costume again. But it worked! says Shu Kei with a giggle. That era was soon over.

The first movie I shot in China was in the 80s, and I required no permits to film there. I didnt need to submit my script either, recalls Mabel Cheung, another of Hong Kongs most important auteur film makers. I needed to shoot in China for my trilogy on illegal migrants, and the only issue was people crowding the set as they were so excited to see Hong Kong film stars. Sammo Hung was the male lead, and that meant we were followed around all the way into the hotel, and filming was a challenge.

Some years later, Cheung was back in China filming a major historical drama, The Soong Sisters (1997), based on the real-life story of three sisters married to three of the most important men in modern Chinese history the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, Chinas first president Sun Yat-sen, and HH Kung, Chinas first finance minister. It was a co-production with the Beijing Film Studio. I had to submit the script and get permission, but the Chinese film industry at the time was not strong: money had to be entirely provided by us, and they supplied the crew and the film studio. But when we submitted the film to the censorship bureau, we were told we had to go to the Important Affairs Commission, since it was a historical movie.

It ended up with Cheung losing the last 18 minutes of her movie, in spite of her long pleadings with the censors office: I never got my ending back. I had to reconstruct an ending I could live with from leftover material they agreed to return. They said it was not possible for Soong Mei-ling and Soong Ai-ling to hug, because one was married to a nationalist and the other to the father of the nation; so we had an argument about history. But I managed to get my film, and [Chinese] mainland distribution. While waiting however, Cheung filmed Beijing Rocks (2001), about the Chinese capitals booming underground music scene. That got banned, she says, but I could take it to Hong Kong, and after that I could go back to China. At the time they banned the movie, not the person.

Like any foreign territory, Hong Kong was also subject to a yearly quota. Then, while the former colony was recovering from the devastating economic effects of the Sars epidemic in 2003, Beijing announced the establishment of the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement, or CEPA, a free-trade agreement which granted preferential access for Hong Kong films to the Chinese market. It proved a watershed moment for Hong Kong cinema.

Infernal Affairs (2002), directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak.

However, as Chinas economic clout grew, the censors got more confident. In 2002, Hong Kongs filmgoers were queuing up to see Infernal Affairs, co-directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak the beginning of a double-agent cop trilogy in the greatest tradition, with an exhilarating succession of twists. To break into the mainland market, it had three different endings for the censors to choose from. In a mainland China movie, you cannot have a bad guy who gets away with his crimes, explains film-maker Jevons Au. Multiple endings to suit the mainland market used to be OK. No more. Now, if you want to distribute in China, you must have only one approved ending worldwide. You can step on the line. But you cannot cross it.

Au knows all about being banned: he is one of the five co-directors of Ten Years, a politically uncompromising dystopian tale which imagines Hong Kong under an ever-more repressive regime. All five have been banned from China, despite Ten Years winning best film at the Hong Kong film awards and being feted in critics circles as the harbinger of a local renaissance in small-budget productions that talk to local audiences, and are not geared to grossing millions in China.

For us, it is complicated, says Au. The uniqueness of Hong Kong is our freedom of speech, of creativity, of expression. You can do and say anything you want. To make a co-production with China, you have to follow ever stricter rules: half of the cast and crew has to be Chinese. The censors have the last word. Crime stories cannot have too many details. Stories of corruption must end with the bad guy behind bars. No ghosts. No gay love stories. No religion. No nudity. No politics He counts on his fingers. Its kind of a trap. The moment you fall into it, you change. You hurt your creativity.

Other films suggest, however, that obstacles can stimulate creativity, and not necessarily crush it. Director Stephen Chow shifted his operation to China, and had enormous box office success. The Mermaid became the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time. And it got around the prohibition of films about the supernatural by reclassifying itself as a science-fiction movie. Likewise, Barbara Wong Chun-Chun, who started her career as an independent film-maker with thought-provoking movies such as Womens Private Parts (2000), a documentary discussion of female sexuality, has now abandoned small-budget productions to make some of the most successful Chinese movies. Her film The Secret (2016) is a love story among what seem to be ghosts, but could get into theatres thanks to its final line: when one of the characters wakes up from a coma, she asks if she dreamed it all.

Was it all just a dream? The Secret (2016), directed by Barbara Wong Chun-Chun.

You have to try to understand Chinas censorship, says Wong. In Hong Kong you have category I, II and III movies. In China, there is no such system. So you must make movies that a five year old can watch without feeling scared. Can you make a movie with a bad cop in it in China? Of course. But then he has to end up in jail. Can you have much blood? No. A kid is going to see it. Foreigners who want to make movies in China need to understand the country first.

Say you want to make a film about corruption, Wong continues. Its a sensitive theme. But the regulations are blurry, you can tackle things in a different way: shoot a film where the corruption is in America, not in China. Then its OK. As an artist, you must find ways of getting around it.

Another limitation is established by Chinese moviegoers own tastes. Roger Garcia, executive director of the Hong Kong film festival, says: In China, you are making either a romance or a big special-effects movie. If you want to do horror, or other genres, you cannot be in China. You can make a budget sci-fi movie in Hollywood, but Chinese audiences will not like that. They like huge, costly productions. So I think that China should not be the total sum of everything, it is a mistake. It is limiting. For Hong Kong, it was a mistake to obsess about China. And things are changing now that Hollywood is doing the same.

Johnnie To agrees that film-makers are presented with a difficult choice: You have to recognise that China is way more open now. The first film I shot there was in 1978 the change is obvious, very big. Milkyway Image, his production company in Kwun Tong, the movie district of Hong Kong, has produced films that have been allowed into the mainland, as well as others that were banned like the recent Trivisa (2016), co-directed by Ten Years Jevons Au.

First of all, says To, you must ask yourself: can China accept this movie? We are different in Hong Kong, we are free, we can do and say what we want. Not them. So, you must be prepared to accept their point of view. But you cannot escape this fact: today, if you want to make a big budget movie, you can no longer make it only for Hong Kong.

Trivisia (2016), directed by Johnny To and Jevons Au, has been banned in China.

Does it mean compromises? Yes, very many. But the alternative is no movie in China. There are many political issues that China is still stuck with, because it has an old-fashioned system of government, and even if there is more freedom than there used to be, the Communist party is unable to relax. Yet you see it very clearly everybody is ready to shut up to make money.

Despite Tos high profile, some of his films were denied a release in China. Neither Election (2005) nor Election 2 (2006), which deal with power struggles in a triad gang, made it. I am going to wait until I am 65 to make Election 3, says To, now 61, as I already know that, after that, I will be banned from China. But it will be OK: Ill be able to really describe the rot in our government through that film.

While film industries from Hollywood and Italy to the UK and India continue to court this booming source of revenue, To is not optimistic about cinema. To make it really big, a film has to be one the Chinese censors can approve, he says. The range of films that the world will get to see will be restricted.

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