JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

A prime example of Mainland China’s state censorship: Painted Skin, a Hong Kong-China co-production, was initially banned by the SARFT because of its portrayal of “ghosts.” The film was later able to pass SARFT censorship by arguing that it did not portray “ghosts” (gui guai), but rather “spirits” (yao mei).

Election, with its explicit triad subject matter and overt reference to Hong Kong-Mainland politics, is effectively banned in Mainland China.

Without per-diem and with the burden of a family, many below-the-line film workers in Hong Kong find border-crossing work in Mainland China less than appealing.

 

To work or not to work

For Hong Kong film labor, this new and improved opportunity to return to film production has its dilemmas. To work or not to work in Hong Kong-China co-production films is often a struggle. We have documented these struggles below in more detail.

Censorship with budget versus freedom of expression without budget 

The most common compromise that Hong Kong producers and directors have to face in Hong Kong-China co-productions is State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) censorship. To qualify for Hong Kong-China co-production status, film scripts must pass SARFT censorship before shooting, and final cuts must pass censorship again to acquire screening permission. This implies that such films must tailor content to official SARFT parameters and even preemptively self-censor to avoid last minute cuts, bans and other release uncertainties. For example, a young Hong Kong director (Director A) tells us his dilemma in making a typical kungfu film under the co-production regime:

“First, [co-production films] cannot show an assembly of people that might mislead the audience into thinking of them as ‘gang members’. You cannot show one kungfu master and pupils enter another kungfu master’s hall to challenge the other, [the martial arts challenge being a typical kungfu genre motif] because that is considered the behavior of gangsters. In any case, no assembly of people, no group fights.”

“Second, [the Chinese authority] thinks that our film doesn’t have mainland elements, so they require us to shoot one-third of our film in mainland China. Moreover, we need to cut down on Hong Kong elements, so no Hong Kong police uniform should appear on the screen.”

“I rewrote the script many times [to pass censorship], and when I did the third rewrite submission, they [the Chinese authority] want me to change a dialogue that is very crucial to my film, which I did a lot of research on. That’s the most interesting point I want to make, which makes my film different from the other films in the same genre [kungfu films]. It’s a brand new language that I really want to introduce in my film. But the authority insists that I change, and their feedback reads, ‘In China, this is the rule all along [the authorities have the right to change dialogues]’. In the end, I reached a consensus with my producer that this is but a low budget film, and if we cannot even have this tiny little bit of freedom of creativity, why bother shooting the film at all? So, we decide not to go for co-production. But this decision will make us suffer a lot, because the budget will be halved [due to some withdrawal of investment]. We will have to shorten the actual shooting to around ten days. The crews will suffer because we cannot afford to hire stunt people… so on and so forth. 

“Then, we discover that if we partner with a local ‘left-wing film company’ [pro-Beijing film company] in Hong Kong, they can help us deal with all the paper work. Through changing the film title, they can help us file our project as a separate new application… and get the permission to film in a month! That’s a miracle, because even though on paper it is a co-production film, there is no mainland element in it” (Interview 5, 2010).

This is a lucky case, as Director A finds a “creative way” to both secure a reasonable—but still small—budget from Chinese investors in the name of co-production while also defying censorship through “creative paper work” with the help of a pro-Beijing film company. However, this case illustrates the dependence on mainland investment needed to make Hong Kong films nowadays. This new dependency forces most Hong Kong filmmakers, who insist on their freedom of expression and inclusion of Hong Kong cultural sensibilities and socio-political content, to go through similar struggles. From film labor’s standpoint, to not make such compromises results in losing a sizeable investment from China and thus having to produce a film on an unreasonably low budget. The latter option means everyone working on the film suffers tighter schedules and lower payments. This often means a compromise in quality as well. That is the dilemma for Hong Kong filmmakers today.

However, not every Hong Kong director “suffers.” Some simply see mainlandization and the emergence of talents and the film market in China as inevitable, a given and even a good thing for Hong Kong film. Peter Chan, a very famous and successful Hong Kong director and producer with many successful co-production films selling billions in RMB under his name once, told us:

“China has enough money enough talent and enough people to watch Chinese films, and with these three ‘enoughs’, it’s gonna become very strong… Then, Chinese film will become the alternative to Hollywood film.”

“The ten biggest cities in China account for populations of about 150 to 200 millions, that’s the population of Japan. … If you make Chinese language films with China as your base audience, you would be able to make films that continue the tradition of Hong Kong. There are still other ideas that ... you have not even dared to dream about ... in Hong Kong, because of location and budget. China is a big new arena. No matter where you make the film, it’s still a Hong Kong film” (Chan, H.S., Peter 2008).

Thus, Director A’s dilemma is Peter Chan’s opportunity. Chan insists that his identity is still a Hong Kong director and not a Chinese director. The only thing that changes for him is that the film is not “made in Hong Kong” but “made by Hong Kong” (Chan, H.S., Peter 2008).

Bifurcation in the labor market:
winner-take-all versus wage-benefit cuts

This co-production model allows experienced, above-the-line producers and directors to make it big beyond Hong Kong, often faring better in China. Their survival and success however, actually depends on sacrificing Hong Kong junior and below-the-line laborers as jobs migrate to China. This bifurcation between “above- and below-the-line crews” has exacerbated a “winner-take-all” phenomenon in the Hong Kong film industry. A gradual hollowing-out effect in the Hong Kong film-making community has resulted in the shrinking of the local labor market and the tarnished dream of upward mobility for young film graduates.

As in other industries in Hong Kong, the shift of parts of the production process up north to China, which is part of a large-scale trend in outsourcing in search of lower production costs, means that investment going north will bring with it only the irreplaceable chief creative talents and labor functions that film producers cannot find in China. As a result, Hong Kong jobs that can find cheaper and comparable labor in China will be lost. Thus, below-the-line workers will need to take pay cuts and travel north to compete, or they have to leave the industry all together. It is now harder to find work in Hong Kong as large budget co-productions have moved north and small budget productions are infrequent and badly paid.

Wage and benefit cuts for the section head  

A young production assistant remarks that many people have left the industry because companies begin to cut over-time pay, hire less people to do the same work and cut the daily per diem for jobs outside Hong Kong. Even when the head of each craft section was hired to go north, their wages and benefits have all been cut over the years, especially with increasing competition from their Chinese counterparts. Such cuts are rationalized by senior Hong Kong producers and filmmakers in the following manner, as John Shum explains: 

“Per-diem has been canceled for a very long time. Why? Because in the past, going out of Hong Kong to shoot is real [i.e. going to foreign countries other than mainland China]. Therefore, we have per-diem for that time. Today, we go to mainland China frequently, and if you ask for per-diem [every time you cross the border], then you are dead [because of the cost]. So, I’d rather not employ you [thinks the boss]. Then the person [Hong Kong film laborer] will have to choose to give up his/her per-diem, in exchange for continued work in mainland China” (Interview 6, 2010).

In another interview, a boom operator describes the predicament of sub-contracted labor. These days, such craftworkers are paid a flat amount for a unit of work: salary, equipment rental, equipment maintenance and insurance inclusive. Due to their work’s “contract manufacturing” nature, they have to bear all the risks of production. Sometimes companies refuse to wait for the processing time to import equipment properly from Hong Kong into China and would like the craftworkers to smuggle the gear in. These technicians would rather not take such risks. If caught, their equipment would be confiscated. If hired in a sub-contractor role, they would need to absorb the loss. In addition to taking the risk, their unit pay has been declining from HK$5000 per nine hours to per fourteen hours (Interview 7, 2009). 

Job replacement for technicians 

If the section heads suffer cuts when they get jobs in Hong Kong-China co-productions, then their subordinates fare worse. They have no chance of getting hired in the new regime of co-production. As a lighting master and gaffer with thirty years of experience in the industry explains:

“These days, when we compare the technicians from Hong Kong and from China, you can say that Hong Kong technicians are not as hard-working and not learning fast enough. Therefore, when Chinese technicians are willing to learn faster, and are much cheaper to employ, why would anyone want to hire any Hong Kong technicians [to shoot in mainland China]? … In the eyes of the bosses, if they can make you hire two [mainland] technicians for five thousand dollars, why would they spend thirty thousand to hire one Hong Kong technician? … [A quick follow-up question by us: ‘But the thirty thousand dollars Hong Kong technician has more experience, isn’t it?’]…Yes, he might have more experience, but the bosses won’t care about this. They just need to hire an experienced head [of lighting like the interviewee to lead the inexperienced Chinese technicians], and thus, the experienced [Hong Kong] technicians are considered dispensable” (Interview 8, 2009) .

Clearly, below-the-line Hong Kong film workers have limited chances in the co-production regime. They are lucky to get hired in co-production films at all. And they do get hired when it is actually a locally made film (with mainly Chinese investors), or it is part of a co-production film with shoots in Hong Kong, thus requiring a Hong Kong team B.

Family and lifestyle issues in cross-border jobs 

Many experienced film workers are aged thirty to fifty, and many section heads have just started a family. If they choose to spend more time with their newborn children and young families, then going north to work on co-production films becomes a challenge. When the production is in Hong Kong, they can at least go home everyday after long hours of shooting. But when production moves to China, and the whole production period extends from one month to even half a year, which is a common situation, this becomes a serious challenge for “family men and women,” especially those with infants and young children. With shrinking budgets and fewer films made in Hong Kong, how can such film careers survive without the film labor willing to work in the mainland?

An award winning art director explains:

“Because I want to be with my kid, so I reject a lot of big budget co-production films. ... If I take up a job, it often means half a year away from home.”

“Apart from film making, I also work [as an art director] in MV [music video] production, advertisement, theater and music concerts. As many filmmakers also cross-over to do other jobs in Hong Kong [as an alternative to filmmaking in mainland China], they will ask me to work with them [on their non-movie platforms]” (Interview 9, 2009).

For those who are single or those who have resolved family issues, working in China is still not an easy task. Cultural differences in language, craftwork conventions, food and lifestyle in general are not easy to cope with. Many local Cantonese-speaking film labors speak heavily-accented Putonghua. Thus, Hong Kong workers face difficulties communicating with mainland filmmakers and crews. Working abroad is difficult in general, requiring strong motivation and adaptability to cultural differences. To put it bluntly, the job and the pay have to be worth the pain. This is unlikely, except for the most passionate film lovers. As most young Hong Kong film graduates prefer relatively stable jobs and working in Hong Kong, many have moved into advertising, television or other media-related work. Since bifurcation in production organization is clearly disadvantageous for below-the-line crew, the Hong Kong film industry is facing severe succession and sustainability issues.

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