After thirty years of filmmaking, Johnnie To is looking for a change. And a rather unlikely one: the 56 year-old Hong Kong-based director says he is going to take a break from a career making movies about gangsters and hitmen (he’s best known in the West for cops-and-triads films like The Mission and Election). Instead, he’s going to focus on romantic comedies.
In more ways than one Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, starring Hong Kong heartthrob Daniel Wu, Louis Koo and mainland Chinese starlet Gao Yuanyuan, is a departure for To. It tells the story of a mainland Chinese girl’s dilemma of being pursued by two very different (but equally handsome) Hong Kong men. But it was also made in Mandarin rather than the Cantonese used for most Hong Kong productions, a deliberate move intended to appeal to the wider mainland China audience.
The director says the plot is a metaphor for how most Hong Kong filmmakers, including himself, are now chasing the China market.
It is an interesting twist: for an extended period, Hong Kong cinema was among Asia’s most influential and dynamic (reputedly Quentin Tarantino used to carry around a suitcase containing his favourite Hong Kong flicks).
But in recent years, Hong Kong movie moguls have flocked to the Chinese market, and the potential for bigger-budget films. China’s box office hit $1.5 billion last year, making it the third-largest in the world, behind Japan and the US.
To tap the market, filmmakers like To are changing tack. He told the Associated Press that even though romantic comedy is not the most obvious genre in which to bring his skills to play, it is much easier to get the green light from censors.
“This is intentional. We need to cultivate that market. It’s difficult to do that with the kind of movies [crime-based] we typically make,” To admitted in an interview. “In order to avoid problems and excessive edits with the censors, we are making softer movies like love stories and comedies.“
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart has done reasonably well in both Hong Kong and China, earning more than Rmb100 million ($15 million) since its release in late March, says Sing Tao Daily.
The success has encouraged To to complete another romantic comedy and he told the South China Morning Post that he is also preparing to start shooting a third film geared for the Chinese market — yet another comedy of similar design starring Hong Kong singer-actress Sammi Cheng and actor Andy Lau.
Critics agree To’s strategy is a good commercial move and that other filmmakers seem to be shifting into softer-focus fare as well.
Director Lau Wai-keung, whose crime thriller Infernal Affairs was later remade by Martin Scorsese as The Departed, is about to release a love story about a Hong Kong girl and a Beijing policeman. Similarly, Wilson Yip, who directed the biopic Ip Man (about Bruce Lee’s mentor) is now promoting a love story of his own (between a man and a ghost, although presumably one that the censors will approve of).
In cultural terms, the critics are more concerned that the days of distinctively-made Hong Kong films look numbered. Local newspaper Ming Pao Daily says that, even though it’s important for the city’s film industry to tap the mainland Chinese market, filmmakers are now finding that this means that they can’t make the kind of films that made them prominent in the first place.
“Sex, violence, triads are signatures of Hong Kong films. Without these, can we still call the film a Hong Kong production?” it asked.
WiC gets the point: imagine if Francis Ford Coppola had been told to forget about making the Godfather franchise, and do something on a romance in a pizzeria instead.
As for Tarantino, forced to choose sugary commercialism over intelligent bloodlust flicks, he’d probably never make another film again.
Fortunately, a faithful few local directors are doing their best to preserve some of Hong Kong’s grittier movie qualities, including Punished, which premiered at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival in April. It tells the story of a Hong Kong businessman out for revenge for the kidnapping and murder of a cocaine-snorting daughter.
No ghostly love-interests in that one, by the sound of it, although not the sort of thing that China’s censors will approve of at all.
Unsurprisingly, the film’s distributor Media Asia say that it doesn’t expect to get a green light for distribution to Chinese cinemas. Instead, relying on a more hardened audience elsewhere, it is optimistic that Punished will sell in other markets in Asia and around the world.
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