Tammy Cheung’s July is a record of the massive public demonstrations and protests in Hong Kong in July 2003. Such work cannot be made in Mainland China, as filmmakers there have to avoid political subject matters.
Xiao Wu (Jia Zhangke, 1997)
Platform (Jia Zhangke, 2000). “Sometimes they [PRC indie filmmakers] may cover topics like the city but their central focus is still the people instead of other more abstract subjects. Jia Zhangke, for example, has always focused on the more concrete life of people even if he is trying to capture city life.”
Secondary School (Tammy Cheung, 2002). The case of Tammy Cheung highlights the dilemma of independent cinema in Hong Kong. Even though Secondary School is critically recognized, she is unable to get enough funding for her next project because it doesn’t sell very well.
Koji Wakamatsu appeared in the 30th HKIFF, 2006.
HK Arts Centre’s Independent Short Film & Video Awards has been a cradle for local independent filmmakers.
Co-organized by Broadway Cinematheque and Ying E Chi, the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival screens mostly independent films from Asia.
HKIFF, HK Arts Centre and Broadway Cinematheque are some of the places for local indie movie lovers. Yet independent cinema has not had a significant impact on the general public.
What are some of the constraints of the independent cinemas in the PRC and Hong Kong?
Ou: One minor point first: PRC independent films have a bigger international market, while Hong Kong independent cinema doesn’t have one. But the major point is that censorship is a big problem restraining the development of independent film culture. For example, the Film and Television Bureau in Beijing recently imposed some rules on DV films, which are now officially considered a specific type of film. Independent DV filmmakers, like 35mm filmmakers, have to get their films censored before they can be publicly shown. Without proper registration of your film—say if you enter a festival competition without reporting to the officials—you will get yourself into a lot of trouble. You may be fined and penalized, and you wouldn’t be allowed to make DV films for three years. After you have been blacklisted, your DV films can never be shown publicly in the PRC. Another serious constraint is that the independent film culture is always underground, which means that these films can only be viewed individually at home in VCD/DVD format. Also, it’s very hard to raise funds for independent film production in the PRC. I don’t see any significant constraints on independent cinema in Hong Kong. It’s always a problem with their vision. Even the PRC independent filmmakers have similar problems with their vision. Although they have benefited a great deal from the democratization of the filmic medium, they haven’t realized that films can be mobilized as a vehicle for building a civil society. Films, even DV films, in this sense, could be political, but not many filmmakers or artists understand the broader implications of filmic politics.
Wang: If you want to make an independent film in the PRC, you have to know how to deal with censorship and the grey area of filmmaking. For example, you have to avoid subject matters related to politics. The concept of politics in the PRC can be very tricky. Independent film production like Tammy Cheung’s July (2004) could never be made in the PRC. If the officials found out that you produced or circulated something like July, it would surely be considered politically subversive and you’d be in serious trouble.
Are there interactions between the independent and the mainstream cinemas in the PRC and Hong Kong?
Ou: Independent cinema is like the backup of the mainstream cinema in Hong Kong. There are significant interactions between the two seemingly unrelated or oppositional cinemas. Since the Hong Kong film industry is a well-established one, it has a mechanism to incorporate film talents outside the establishment for its own development. Andy Lau and Eric Tsang always support the new film talents and help independent filmmakers establish their careers within the mainstream. In the PRC, since there are already serious problems in the film industry because of the changing social context and the declining demand, the mainstream does not have a dynamic interaction with independent cinema. Yet, things are changing quickly these days. For example, the Shanghai Film Studio has been carrying out a number of reforms and incorporating the ‘Sixth Generation’ filmmakers like Wang Xiaoshuai, Jia Zhangke, and Zhu Wen. Independent cinema and mainstream cinema are like neighbors living next door to each other, seemingly separated by a wall. However, when you investigate this wall thoroughly, you can find holes in it, which allow the independent filmmakers to sneak into the mainstream.
Ping: In Hong Kong, interaction between the independent and the mainstream is possible. In the PRC, it is very difficult. The phenomenon where underground filmmakers like Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai were reincorporated into the mainstream filmmaking earlier in 2004 has been misread by many as a sign of interaction between the independent and the mainstream. It looks as if there have been revolutionary changes in the structure of PRC filmmaking because of the vibrant independent film culture. However, the whole picture is not like that at all. It has to be noted that Jia and Wang graduated from the Beijing Film Academy, so they will always be part of the film production establishment. To paraphrase it, they will always belong to the mainstream. Those who do not graduate from the Beijing Film Academy and do not belong to the film establishment are excluded from the mainstream filmmaking scene or the established filmmaking network. The truly independent filmmakers are always the outsiders of the state filmmaking system. Compared to the situation here, the film industry in Hong Kong is an open one. It welcomes others to come in. But the PRC film industry is a closed one, and without a proper permit you cannot enter the field.
What are the major differences between the independent cinemas in Hong Kong and other cultural contexts?
Yang: The quality of Hong Kong independent films is much better than that of the PRC ones. The PRC independent directors who come from the Beijing Film Academy can of course make good films, but others who are outside of the state film production system are not able to make anything good. The independent film directors in Hong Kong, on the other hand, are either former film critics or film school graduates. Since the level of film appreciation and film viewing are generally better in Hong Kong, the works produced in such a context are inevitably better. The independent film practitioners in Hong Kong are exposed to more films of good quality and classic films, so they have a better understanding of the medium and what can be expressed through films. You may see 400 films one year in Hong Kong while we only see 40 in the mainland. That’s the major difference. Also, the variety of independent films in Hong Kong is greater. The subject matter, thematic concerns, and cinematic styles vary from director to director. This, I think, is also related to how much you have been exposed to other film cultures.
Hu: The major differences between the two independent cinemas are their thematic concerns and subject matter. There are a variety of topics—like gender, gayness, or urban life—covered in Hong Kong independent cinema. The PRC independent cinema always focuses on how to portray marginal people. Sometimes they may cover topics like the city but their central focus is still the people instead of other, more abstract subjects. Jia Zhangke, for example, has always focused on the more concrete life of the people even if he is trying to capture city life. Another point that has to be noted is that, in the landscape of PRC independent filmmaking, nearly all the independent film directors are trying to establish themselves as a cult figure in the media. Fame is very important for the independent filmmakers in the PRC. Directors hate each other, and their fans also attack other directors on the Internet. There was a big debate in 2002 between the Jia Zhangke camp and the Wang Chao camp over Wang’s The Orphan of Anyang (2001). Jia made some remarks on this once, saying that he hates this kind of independent film culture.
Ping: Independent filmmaking is a promising business in the PRC, because a single film could be sold at US$50,000 in the foreign market. Since it is a good business, many people have entered the field and claim they are independent directors. These people don’t enjoy independent filmmaking at all, they are not responsible for their works and they just see their works as a business opportunity. Most of the so-called underground or independent films produced in the PRC are not personal expression or an articulation of the artist’s vision. These filmmakers deliberately pick up some taboo, sensitive, and provocative issues like prostitutes, AIDS, and blood-selling, and the story is always set in a shabby and gloomy environment for no reason. They just want to establish themselves and sell their films in the foreign market. In their work you don’t see any sympathy or understanding of the subjects that they are portraying—all you can see is superficiality and hypocrisy.
Wong: In Hong Kong, there is no established market for a truly alternative film culture and hence, alternative filmmaking. In France, there is an established arthouse circuit and arthouse films could be shown throughout the year. Like Jia’s films—they were shown in France for more than a year…every single one of them. But in Hong Kong we can’t even find a single truly arthouse cinema. That’s why no film practitioners are willing to make independent or arthouse films as their livelihood. Even the Hong Kong Film Archive has been just restoring the oldies and reconstructing the history of Cantonese and Chinese cinema. Some believe there is independent cinema in Hong Kong. But this discussion is more like a game in a small circle, because the circulation of these works is not good, and not many people have seen them.
If you know the Ying E Chi people, you would see that they are in fact working in different fields, some in a very commercial realm. You see, Vincent Chui has already made a film Fear of Intimacy (2004) funded by a private investor and he is OK with his present situation, because he is finally able to make a film which is to be shown in the commercial theatre. Another example which highlights the dilemma of independent cinema in Hong Kong is Tammy Cheung. Even though her Secondary School (2002) is such a critically recognized work, she is unable to get funding for her next project because her work doesn’t sell very well in the market. That’s why she also has to take up some advertising jobs or to shoot concerts. Hui Kwok-ming in Macau also faces a similar struggle. How can such financial condition in independent filmmaking support one’s creation and livelihood? Even high art is subjected to market forces. Without a proper market and industrial support, maintaining a filmmaker’s independence is hard.
Lau: I think that the independent filmmaking scene in Hong Kong is pretty similar to those in other cultural contexts. It depends on how good the director is. Some good independent directors who have made feature films, I would say, are Carol Lai and Yan Yan Mak. But they do not shoot independent films anymore, as their previous works were recognized by other producers and investors who have confidence in investing in their present projects. Independent film practitioners’ ultimate aim is to shoot feature films in 35mm with proper funding and distribution. I guess that no one likes to embrace the label ‘independent filmmaker’ in Hong Kong because it’s just a stepping stone in the process of recognition of their talents. Independent filmmaking—on the production side—is in fact attached to mainstream film industry. It has supplied film talents to the industry to invigorate production in the mainstream.
But the whole landscape of independent filmmaking has not brought significant impacts or changes to the Hong Kong general public. Only a certain percentage of those who go to places like the Arts Centre, Broadway Cinematheque and the film festivals have an interest in [Hong Kong/Chinese] independent cinema. Its future is not optimistic. I don’t think that independent cinema reemerged in the mid-1990s. There are always people shooting independent films, for example, people like Allen Fong in the ‘80s, and the members of the Hong Kong Film Culture Centre. The number of experimental films and indie films in the ‘70s and ‘80s was smaller and they have never been made into DVDs and VCDs. That’s why people have forgotten these films. One point has to be emphasized: before the prevalence of DVDs and VCDs, there were already some small-sized film groups which gathered a number of film buffs, and they did indie production together. They have existed the whole time, only that they are not as visible as the indie production today, because of the developments in media technology in recent decades. But in the ‘90s, these film groups ceased to exist, because film buffs had more access to the filmic equipment and other people’s films because of the affordable prices of digital film equipment, DVDs, and VCDs. I don’t think a comparison of indie productions can be made fairly because the social conditions of these indie films and the constraints involved in film production in the ‘80s and ‘90s were totally different. In the ‘90s, we saw large scale, centralized film competitions and annual indie film screenings being organized and publicized. We also had VCDs and DVDs circulating indie works in the market. But we didn’t have any of these for indie productions in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Do you see any potentialities in the independent cinemas in the PRC and Hong Kong?
Hu: Since the commercial Hong Kong cinema has been fully developed for the last twenty years, the areas in Hong Kong cinema that could be further developed are the alternative ones. The decline of the Hong Kong film industry in the mid-1990s also means the rise of other forms of Hong Kong cinema. The openness and international status of Hong Kong could help the development of local independent film culture.
Independent filmmaking in the PRC is too constrained and a promising development is not likely. The quota system and the centralized filmmaking system have constrained all modes of filmmaking. Films which avoid trouble in censorship are inherently boring, because of the ridiculous censorship. For example, in a ghost film, there could be no ghost. How could suspense and horror work without ghosts in a ghost film?
Ping: No matter what the context is, I’m pessimistic about the idea of development of independent cinema. First, independent film production is always funded by limited resources. Second, there is no strong market for these independent films locally and globally. If an independent filmmaker stays forever in independent filmmaking, they could not further develop their career cinematic creations.
What they should aim for, I think, is to be an alternative within the industry instead of staying outside the industry. The film talents should always opt for legitimized filmmaking so that their work can be shown to the public. What is the most important is that they should create something different. Quentin Tarantino, for example, is a mainstream director, but can you say his works are completely commercial? The influence of a filmmaker always comes after his films. If your films are not shown publicly, no matter how critically acclaimed you are, you cannot get anywhere.
Postscript: some updates
In the above interviews, one of the most interesting observations is about the different patterns of independent filmmaking in Hong Kong and the PRC. While censorship in the PRC has for some time forced filmmakers to seek overseas financial support and opportunities of exhibiting their films, some of them have started to open up formal and direct channels of communication with the domestic audience in mainland China. Jia Zhangke’s more recent films such as The World (2005) and Still Life (2006) were attempts to engage with the local audience, no matter whether the films were well-received or not. One might even say that he has moved from the realm of the underground to that above the ground. This move shows us that the scope of the cinematic public sphere depends very much on the ways in which filmmakers define it through the process of producing and distributing their films. It, however, does not necessarily reflect their compromises with official ideology, collective consciousness, and commercial consideration, giving rise to popular reception and commercial success. Jia’s The World, for example, had only a box office record of US$125,000 while Feng Xiaogang’s The Banquet (2006) had raked US$12.5 million.
In the case of Hong Kong independent cinema, what has not been mentioned in the interviews is the diversity of independent filmmaking in Hong Kong cinema. While the critics are right to observe that some of the Hong Kong independents aim at becoming mainstream industrial practitioners, quite a few of them traverse between the independent and mainstream terrains so as to secure their spirits of autonomy and personal vision. It can be observed that some well-known industrial filmmakers such as Ann Hui and Stanley Kwan have made documentary films which were not profit-driven, fitting in the common criteria of independent productions. [open notes in new window] Another more “dramatic” example would be Fruit Chan whose earlier reverse path from the mainstream to the independent terrain in mid 1990s has now become an oft-quoted example of the possibility of crossover. His productive oeuvres of making a series of independent productions have inspired other filmmakers to follow suit. In terms of sources of funding, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council has played an important part since the mid 1990s to fund film projects. Bryan Chang’s After the Crescent (1997) and Vincent Chui’s Leaving in Sorrow (2001) are two representative productions. In 2006, financially supported by Focus Film, Focus: First Cuts featured six films made by new film talents in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the PRC, Malaysia, and Singapore. Focus Film is a company helmed by Hong Kong film star Andy Lau who is dedicated to nurturing independent vision and discovering new directors. He has been continuously sponsoring new and experimental directors to produce and distribute their debuts. Among them, with a small budget, mainland Chinese young filmmaker Ning Hao’s Crazy Stone (2006) surprisingly hit the PRC box office nearing 15 million RMB (about US$2 million). These cross-border interactions among Hong Kong, mainland China, and other Asian cities will chart new trends and directions which define the ways in which we understand the nature of independent filmmaking in the global context.