Members and stakeholders of the nine film unions in Hong Kong.

Director Ivy Ho and Actress Tang Wei collaborated in the small budget local film Crossing Hennessey.

Hong Kong-based actors are known for investing their own money to support local filmmakers on small-to-medium productions. Andy Lau, for instance, both invested and lobbied for Ann Hui’s A Simple Life (2012).

Publicity still from Derek Kwok's Gallants.



Weak unions with paternalistic overtones

The traditionally weak unions in the Hong Kong film industry further undermine labor rights in the midst of mainlandization. Most below-the-line interviewees know of or have experienced labor exploitation, and most agree that their unions are not doing much to protect their rights. An assistant director complains that their profession fails even to form a union due to their transitional status (aspiring eventually to become directors) and frequent change of employment (Interview 10, 2008). Neither has affiliation with the directors’ guild ever proved helpful in industrial bargaining. John Shum, an industry leader who has been active in championing film-worker rights concur that although the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers is already trying to encourage its ten member unions to act-up, film investors have many ways to deflect the pressure of union mediation and collective bargaining. Investors can offer job conditions in a “take-it-or-leave-it manner,” because they can hire people outside Hong Kong and cut costs in all sorts of ways (Interview 6, 2010). Experienced film workers all express preference for work with Hollywood or Canadian companies, for they have better work conventions and better labor terms.

Weak unions also contribute partly to the low status of scriptwriters in Hong Kong. Even award-winning scriptwriters cannot protect their script’s integrity from the butchering of directors, who often change the scripts as they please or according to producer or investor requests. Sometimes insistent big stars join in the script-butchering. Traditionally, the director-centered production system has dominated Hong Kong film production, making collective creativity difficult. The key function of a full and complete script is to act as an anchor to coordinate different parties during shooting. In Hong Kong, often everyone has to put away the script and listen to the director’s new instructions on the spot. Speaking to such circumstances, a boom operator explained to us the inherited weakness of the director-centered production system in which directors often direct without a script, thus increasing the cost of coordinating on the spot:

“I have worked in the industry for thirty years, and have witnessed the decline of Hong Kong film, not due to copyright infringement issues, but due to the problems with the script. [A lot of times,] there is no discussion between the director [and the actors and crew] until the last minute before filming, because the original script was fake [disregarded or non-existent, just made up to secure investment]. The actors have to decide what to say in the last ten seconds. As site recording artists and boom operators, we just have to stand-by and stand-still. For example, Tsui Hark was making a big film with big, costly sets in mainland China. When the American producer came and found that he has no script, the producer felt that the whole film was unprofessional and he would rather lose a ten million contract by refusing to make the film than doing it this way.”

“With a proper script, our job is much easier. Otherwise, we don’t even know where to put the microphone. The actor might suddenly decide to loosen his tie [due to last minute script change], then we will have to ask the director to stop the actor from doing that [as it will affect the recording quality of the microphone fixed near the tie]. The director will usually respond by saying, ‘Don’t interfere, let the actor perform naturally.’ But the film is a collective creation, our input is equally important. What if they finally decide to use that on-site recording and the quality is marred? Yet if the director insists, there will be many conflicts. … In the normal circumstance, the director should shout ‘roll the sound’ first, but nowadays, directors simply shout ‘roll.’ We don’t know what he really wants to roll [sound or film or both]. This will cause wastage of film negative. It [coordination through a full script] sounds like a simple task, and yet, since I entered the industry in the mid 1970s, sound coordination has not improved at all” (Interview 11, 2009).

However, if over time Hong Kong filmmakers’ competitive advantage does not derive from improving skills and coordination, then “cost” becomes the crucial element when competing with mainland production teams. Hong Kong’s director-centered production system overwhelmingly concentrates power in the hands of a few and so it actually weakens the collective innovation capabilities of Hong Kong film-making as a whole. Only a few creative talents “in commanding positions” remain competitive within mainlandization, i.e. their skills are still in demand in the co-production regime. In our interviews with production crews above and below the line, there is a consensus that only four types of creative talents— producers, directors, art directors and cinematographers—from Hong Kong have market value in the co-production regime. All the rest, including scriptwriters are dispensable in the new co-production system.

Compared to Hollywood, we assume that a stronger scriptwriters’ union advocating for better protection of scriptwriters’ rights is one of the important factors that could “counter-balance” the director’s power. With better protection, pay and respect for scriptwriting, then perhaps, more local talent would join the scriptwriting sector. The rebirth of Hong Kong film relies on having more creative scripts with local sensibilities and cultural content. Today, compared to the position of scriptwriters in Korea and Taiwan, scriptwriters in Hong Kong continue to be outrageously underpaid, legally exploited, and subordinated in the creative process.

Unions in Hong Kong are still legally not granted the right to “collective” bargaining, an outrageous result of the postcolonial government’s reverting to an older colonial law after 1997, and union protection of film labor rights is still weak. Nevertheless, our interviews show that the film labor unions still play a critical role in protecting the rights of members, although in a paternalistic and individualistic way. When we asked the Executive Secretary of the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers on the issue of the lack of copyright protection for original scripts, he rebutted:

“You register your script, and if a person steals your idea, … you can come to me to complain. I use my position to talk to the influential big brothers, and they will remind the person who wants to steal the idea that the script has been registered with the union, and it is suicidal to go against the union … and invasion of human right is not right. … The original creator has to register the film title, and if the person wants to use the title without the original creator’s endorsement, meaning the original creator is not being paid yet, then I will not let this happen. I will remind this person that he took the ideas from a registered script and he better think twice” (Interview 6, 2010).

Relying on his own reputation, influence and status in the industry, the secretary of the federation can settle disputes individually and privately. Since filmmaking is a shrinking industry, inevitably unions become weaker. Although these paternalistic and informal ways of resolving disputes is not ideal, it nevertheless provides a last resort to uphold limited justice for creative labors.  


Notable Hong Kong “new wave” cinema directors: Ann Hui (top left), Yim Ho (top right), Tsui Hark (bottom left) and Patrick Tam (bottom right).

Mainlandization—the emerging Hong Kong-Mainland China co-production regime targeting the Chinese market—provides Hong Kong filmmakers a double-edged sword. It provides badly needed capital and market for the revival of Hong Kong film, but it also turns Hong Kong film inside out. In some extreme cases, the only marker that can be used to claim a co-production as a Hong Kong film is that the director is from Hong Kong.

In terms of censorship, content-wise, large budget co-production films need to be sanitized and censored to eliminate any hint or implication that might be taken to imply criticisms about the Chinese communist party and its institutions. Portrayal of the police and all uniformed personnel must be positive. Historical accuracy is dangerous since history can be easily read allegorically to imply suggestions about modern, contemporary, and present conditions of Chinese Communist rule. Ghost films and related genres are by default prohibited as they contain materials that promote superstition. Triad and violent films are banned or such contents are minimized as such content or style violates the central government’s policy leitmotif of “harmonious society.” All these censored genres and themes are in fact major genres and themes of Hong Kong film and have both local and global audience appeal. In contrast, sanitized Hong Kong-China co-productions find it hard to appeal to Hong Kong, Asian and global audiences. So long as censorship remains, one would likely have to make the difficult choice between the Chinese market and the rest.

Mainland China 2011 gross box office for Hong Kong-China co-productions.

Even among the limited themes allowed by SARFT, the mainstream taste of audiences in mainland China and Hong Kong differ. Thus, mainstream blockbuster co-production films that target the Chinese market often do poorly in Hong Kong and overseas. However, with a heavily controlled quota for foreign films, the Chinese audience oftentimes has not much choice but to stick to visually spectacular co-production films. Ironically, the near monopoly of Hong Kong-China co-production films in the domestic Chinese market generates super profits and so continues to lure more Hong Kong directors into this mode of production. Like Hollywood, which is basically a local film industry catering to U.S tastes that just so happens to be capable of globalization due to U.S. cultural, economic and political clout, co-production films can survive terribly well as a local film industry catering to mainland Chinese audiences. 

Finally, the “big budget for big market” mentality is also squeezing out the space for middle-budget films, which since the 1980s used to be the dominant mode of production in Hong Kong film. The disappearing of middle-range budget films means the golden opportunities to train new filmmakers also diminish. These days, uncompromised Hong Kong filmmakers have to struggle with small budget films targeting the competitive international film festival market. Chances of success are made increasingly slim.

With the changing ecology of the Hong Kong film landscape, not only veterans but also college-trained newbies face the “to work or not to work” dilemma. Either one works on very small budget local films, or becomes reconciled to play a small or compromised role in big budget co-productions targeting the mainland market.  

However, crises often come with opportunities. Reform-minded filmmakers are getting organized and starting to find third ways for Hong Kong film. A Hong Kong producer with nearly forty years of experience explains how her third way works in promoting Hong Kong local films:  

“If you make big budget films, you have to guarantee that it will make huge profits [in the Chinese market]. Then, you can use the profit to subsidize many small budget films. On average, we make ten movies per year, one film makes big money, three films break even, and six films lose money. The key is to make sure that it is the small budget films that lost money. In this way, you can nurture a bunch of behind the scene and in the lime-light film labors, and also nurture a good relationship with emerging talents and markets. … Sometimes, small films do become the next big thing. … As a producer, one wants to nurture the chances of discovering new talents and inventing new markets and trends” (Interview 12, 2010).  

More precisely, she said she sets apart one million U.S. dollars (7.8 million HKD) to support small budget films per year. She also assigns a more experienced producer to help the inexperienced filmmakers from Hong Kong. Using her personal influence to pull in resource and stars who are willing to join such projects for very low pay (as a way to show support for Hong Kong film), even these small budget local film productions can acquire more solid commercial grounds. Ivy Ho’s Crossing Hennessey (2010) starring Jacky Cheung and Tang Wei is an example.

In fact, many successful actors like Andy Lau and Eric Tsang are famous for investing their own money to support younger and/or alternative filmmakers on small-and-medium budget films with no censorship compromises. In this way, quite a few award-winning small budget films were made. For example, two small budget films directed by Ann Hui, The Way We Are (2009) and A Simple Life (2012) have won best director (2009) and best picture (2012) respectively in the Hong Kong Film Awards. Young Hong Kong SAR New Wave directors also won best pictures in the Hong Kong Film Awards with such funding sources, such as Gallants (2010) by Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng, and Cold War (2012) by first time directors Longman Leung and Sunny Luk. We believe this creative financing and idealism is the backbone behind the Hong Kong SAR New Wave.[7] [open endnotes in new window]

All in all, while providing winner-take-all opportunities for stars, producers, directors and investors, mainlandization also destroys the diverse film-making ecology of the Hong Kong film industry, forcing films with local sensibilities and cultural content to struggle for survival on shoe-string budgets. At the same time, this crisis also calls forth a new rethinking about commercial-oriented film making in Hong Kong, and can stimulate a new wave of film-making that is more experimental and genuinely new (the Hong Kong SAR New Wave). This new trend will be a major focus of examination in the coming years and we will report on our industry evaluations again in the next ten years.

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