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.
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.