Established and emerging filmmakers in Hong Kong:
a generational tug-of-war

by Fangyu Chen

From 2014 to 2015, I was working in a film company in Hong Kong and busy with the production of a large-budget action film jointly produced by Hong Kong and mainland Chinese companies. We had an international core production team. The cinematographer was from the U.S., and his assistant was an Australian. Our second assistant director was Singaporean of Malaysian extraction, while the team managing the unmanned aerial vehicles came from Taiwan. Besides Hong Kong, the project was also shot in multiple locales, including Shanghai, Taiwan and Thailand. In each place, the production team was primarily comprised of a large number of locally recruited film workers, led by a small group of department heads and their assistants who were mostly Hong Kong film practitioners.

The production stage happened to coincide with the course of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, a 79-day political protest demanding universal suffrage in the elections to pick the city’s top leader. The appeal later escalated into a protest against the political interference and impaired freedom of speech imposed by the Chinese government, as well as against the constant influx of mainland tourists and immigrants. Throughout the city, the conflict between Hong Kong and the mainland became a matter of heated public debate.  

Every day after work, some of the Hong Kong staff, usually the younger ones, would pack and go to the demonstration sites, spend nights sleeping in tents there and return to work the next day. As a co-production, part of the shooting had to be done in mainland China, so no matter what political controversies were embroiling their hometown, or their personal beliefs about those controversies, these filmmakers had to travel north to work.  Later, with my increasing contact with more Hong Kong film practitioners, both established and emerging ones, I gradually perceived that the current young generation is developing their filmmaking ideas entirely different from, or even in opposition to, the previous generation of filmmakers, those who contributed to the huge successes of Hong Kong cinema in its Golden Age from the 1970s to the early 1990s. The young ones, situated in a labour market in which most of the employment opportunities are created by co-productions or mainland productions, have very complex and largely negative sentiments towards the so-called “Chinese Motherland.” The career options for some of these young people, confined to working in Hong Kong by their aversion to China’s politics or/and culture, are limited to the local labour market with scant employment opportunities, most of which are only available in low- and medium-budget productions.

This experience was the inspiration for my writing a series of papers, of which this is the first. In order to trace the contours of discrepancies between established and emerging filmmakers, in 2018, I conducted 47 in-depth interviews with Hong Kong film practitioners. Through snowball sampling, I first reached out to colleagues in the film company I previously worked for, as well as my previous classmates in the Film Academy of Hong Kong Baptist University. Later on, I expanded the search area for interviewees through referrals from these original respondents.

Demographic investigation of the respondents shows that 13 were of the generation who entered film production between the 1970s and the 1980s and are still active in the industry. In this paper, I refer them as the “established generation” or the “older generation.” Within this group, some directors are considered participants in the “Hong Kong New Wave Cinema” that occurred between the late 1970s to 1980s, whom I also describe as the “baby boomer New Wave filmmakers.”  Interviewees from the current young generation, intriguingly, can be divided into two groups, the first being those young people who have struggled in the film industry for some time, only starting to gain a foothold in this very precarious business recently. They are primarily the post-80s generation and have a relatively less radical political stance towards mainland China. These 16 young film practitioners have widely diverse occupations within the industry, including directors, producers, actors, cinematographers, assistant directors, production assistants, set coordinators, assistant editor, and more.  

The other group is younger and greener. Some are freshly graduated from film schools and have recently entered the industry, while others are working part-time in the crews while studying in film-related courses. These youngsters primarily belong to the post-90s generation and tend to have more rebellious opinions regarding Hong Kong/Mainland relations. Among the 18 young interviewees who are currently studying, some attend three universities in Hong Kong, including the Film Academy of Hong Kong Baptist University, the School of Film and Television in Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, and the Communication and Crossmedia programme (film track) in Chu Hai College of Higher Education. Their education levels vary from Higher Diploma (diploma in vocational education) to postgraduate degree. In my research, I refer to interviewees from the post-80s and the post-90s generations as the “young generation.” Some of these directors can also be classified as “Hong Kong SAR New Wave” filmmakers, a term on which I will elaborate later.

The three groups of respondents generally represent three perspectives:

These interviews, combined with data gathered from multiple resources, form the data set from which the conclusions of this paper are drawn.

I interviewed both established and young film practitioners individually in a face-to-face setting in order to yield the best information. Considering that young students may be subject to peer pressure, especially since the research topic involves each individual’s political stance, which could be a sensitive topic, a few pilot interviews were conducted with each on a one-on-one basis first. When my identity as a mainlander seemed to be hindering them from expressing themselves on questions related to Hong Kong/Mainland relations, I instead adopted a focus group model, which encouraged more open discussion and conversation. The interviews were semi-structured, with a duration that normally spanned 1.5 to 2 hours (though the longest one lasted for 6 hours). On top of 20 standard questions, more topics were developed in the course of the interview, which tended to flow naturally from what preceded. In this way, I also discovered hidden themes. Immediately after each interview, I wrote summaries and later transcribed the audio recordings verbatim. Before the next interview, these transcripts were tentatively analysed to adjust questions, and the way of asking them. In the final stage, I organized all the data with the help of Nvivo Software to link what the respondent said to the concepts and categories that appeared, thus could establish the patterns, categories and themes that follow.

To better understand the emerging young generation of Hong Kong film practitioners, I needed to draw a contrast between them and their predecessors. That older generation contributed to the prosperity and stellar reputation of Hong Kong Cinema from the 1970s to early 1990s, and they had joined the then flourishing film market and worked under circumstances that were entirely different than those of the young generation. Nevertheless, before we start such comparisons, I must also indicated the context, scope and criteria that I employ in order to justify the division into these two clusters.

Filmmakers as two clusters:
established and young generations

The filmmakers being studied in this paper are those who are generally considered “commercial” and who work in the Hong Kong cinema, deemed an industrialized business sector. In reality, it is problematic to draw a clear line between mainstream/commercial and independent filmmakers in Hong Kong, particularly after the new millennium when Hong Kong cinema entered the co-production era.

Independent film in the United States is typically considered to be work made outside major Hollywood studios. As Ortner puts it, it is “the antithesis of a Hollywood studio film” (2012:2) [open reference page in new window] and several contrasts can be drawn between the two: Hollywood films are aimed at entertaining, money making, while independent ones tend to deal with more serious subject matters, usually more political and critical; Hollywood films are normally big-budgeted whereas independent ones are low-budged; the former classically have happy endings , while the latter rarely do. But admittedly, there is no clear binary contrast between them – a Hollywood film could be low-budget and thought-provoking, and an independent one could well aim to be lucrative.

In retrospect, Hong Kong’s large-scaled film studios such as Shaw Brothers, Cathay, and Golden Harvest, dominated film production on the island city from the 1950s to the 1980s. Outside of these big studios, there remained room for non-mainstream filmmaking. Local independent productions emerged first in the 1960s, flourished in the 1970s, fell silent in the 1980s with the prosperity of Hong Kong commercial filmmaking, and were resuscitated in the 1990s thanks to the sponsorship from Hong Kong Arts Development Council, which was set up to support the development of arts in the territory (Cheung, 2010 & Cheung, Marchetti, and Tan, 2010). The established generation I refer to in this paper is the group of mainstream filmmakers that was working in the industry in the Golden Age of 1980s and early 1990s before the industry went into decline.

Outside of the world of commercial filmmaking, there exists a group of established filmmakers who have enriched Hong Kong cinema with their alternative filmmaking styles and ideologies. People such as Yu Lik-wai, Vincent Chui, Yan Yan Mak, Miu-suet Lai, Wah-chuen Lam, Yau Ching and more, came to the fore in the 1990s and often made their first independent feature films with subsidies from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. It was relatively easier to demarcate the independent filmmakers from the mainstream ones during the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema, when film production was highly commercialised. In contrast, the line dividing them now seems rather nebulous and contestable since the industry’s decline at the beginning of the new millennium.  

The very concept of “independent filmmaking” has received much criticism.  Kempton (2010) put forward a series of questions as to what independent filmmaking is: is it marked by a lack of major studio support, the film’s nonmainstream appeal, the director’s indifference to the box office performance, or the aesthetics or subject matter films deal with? Not to mention the fact that filmmaking is a teamwork with tens or hundreds of people’s efforts, and an incredibly costly activity that involves many forms of investment from governments, foundations, corporations, private investors and more. Additionally, a distribution system has to deliver the film to local and world audiences. Kempton exclaims that, “no film is an island” (2010:95). With these multiple inter-dependencies, how could a film or a filmmaker ever be called independent?

The situation is particularly intricate in Hong Kong. Some films that purportedly proclaim themselves independent were made with the help of commercial film celebrities, such as The Runaway Pistol (2002, dir. Wah-chuen Lam) (see Cheung, 2010:34). Some independent filmmakers themselves had substantial experience working in the film industry before their own independent filmmaking. Finally, some works were made by filmmakers who juggle both independent and commercial filmmaking. Fruit Chan, Ann Hui, Stanley Kwan and Herman Yau are outstanding representatives of this group of people, who are described by  Ackbar Abbas as “occupying an in-between space between art and commerce” and who while “working in the industry maintain an ‘intimate’ but ‘critical’ relationship with the commercial film culture in which they are situated” (see Cheung, 2009:8-9). Consequently, Cheung argues that, independent cinema in Hong Kong should not be understood as a totality that is self-sufficient and isolated from more commercial cinema, but instead, one should recognize that they “influence each other thematically and stylistically” (Cheung, 2009:8 & Cheung, 2010).

In the interviews Cheung (2010) did with Hong Kong independent filmmakers, they claimed the concept of “independence” was a spirit or an attitude. Yan Yan Mak said, “We insist on making our own films” and “Hong Kong audiences should start to understand the ‘independent spirit’ rather than the term ‘independent film’” (see Cheung, 2010:130), and Vincent Chui describes it as an attitude that “if you won't let me make the film, I'll do it myself" (see Cheung, 2010:130). Kempton (2010) aptly sees that this independence

“originates less from the production side — i.e., a lack of studio financing — and more from the independent community’s self-styled imaginative construction of the independent film ideal, a counterpublic embodying the so-called ‘indie spirit’ through attempts to define itself as distinct from the mainstream” (Kempton, 2010:95).

In Hong Kong, as Lee argues, the “counterpublicness” independent films perform is a “essential quality of ‘friction’ against a dominant public “ (2013:9-10) and a “site of resistance to the double hegemony of the national and the colonial that characterizes Hong Kong’s peculiar coloniality” (Lee, 2013:5). Thus, it is from the ideological level, the “independent spirit” or “counterpublicness” that independent films possess, that scholars typically draw the line between commercial films and independent films, instead of a set of more objective conditions, due to the difficulties discussed above.

Since the new millennium, it is increasingly impossible to clarify the line of demarcation between mainstream and non-mainstream films. As Szeto & Chen see it, contemporary Hong Kong cinema is facing a major ontological crisis that is causing an overall transformation in Hong Kong’s film production, labour structure, industrial behaviour and more. The overwhelming power emanating from mainland China gives unprecedented importance to the mainland film market for Hong Kong filmmakers (Szeto and Chen, 2012). The “mainlandization” of the Hong Kong film industry, as Szeto and Chen have termed it (2012:116-117), has marginalized local film production to the level that a preponderance of local productions, if not all of them, are increasingly exhibiting features that were widely considered to be hallmarks of independent filmmaking:

The outflow of Golden Age Hong Kong film practitioners to the mainland has largely left the current local film production ecosystem to the young generation, with the notable exception of the sporadic efforts made by established filmmakers who shuttle back and forth between projects on the mainland and at home. Consequently, when investigating the young filmmakers, it is difficult to discern independent ones from commercial ones, as the division between mainstream and non-mainstream filmmakers is very much blurred by the overall context of local productions being collectively marginalised in Hong Kong cinema, which makes it challenging to compare this group with the Golden Age filmmakers.

In many ways, all movies made recently bear a striking resemblance to independent films made in the 80’s and 90’s.  Thanks to the subsidies from the SAR government, a majority of current local productions have obtained celebrities for their casts, as well as theatrical releases, much as independent films previously did. Additionally with their film contents relating to quotidian life, marginal people, and the lower classes, both address many similar themes and social issues.