Gutenberg prints money

Chow Yun-fat’s action flick rekindles Hong Kong film industry’s mojo


Project Gutenberg

Back in 2015, two makers of film props in Hong Kong were charged with holding thousands of counterfeit notes in Hong Kong dollars and other currencies without the proper permits. The authorities said that the film’s producers should have secured the approvals for the fake banknotes, which were used on the set of Trivisa, a crime thriller. The two prop makers eventually received suspended jail sentences.

This week, after the two appealed to the High Court, the judge reversed the verdict, warning the two to be more careful when handling banknotes for film purposes in future.

Ironically enough, counterfeit cash cropped up again this month when another Hong Kong production – Project Gutenberg – was the biggest box office winner over the National Day holidays in mainland China, one of the busiest moviegoing periods of the year.

The film has taken Rmb900 million ($129.74 million) since its release on September 30, accounting for over 30% of ticket sales during the week-long holiday period.

The plot, which is structured around a series of flashbacks, tells the story of a skilled forger named Lee Man (52 year-old actor-singer Aaron Kwok) who is stuck in a Thai jail before getting picked up by the Hong Kong police.

In exchange, the police want him to reveal everything he knows about the mastermind of a US dollar counterfeiting operation (played by fellow Hong Kong megastar, Chow Yun-fat, who is 63), thereby beginning a tantalising tale of cat and mouse.

The film was written and directed by Hong Kong movie veteran Felix Chong, though there is some involvement from across the border, such as mainland actress Zhang Jingchu who plays Kwok’s lover.

The blockbuster’s popularity has caught China’s cinema industry by surprise, surpassing a number of more fancied releases, including Zhang Yimou’s Shadow and Mahua Funage’s Hello Mrs Money. One reason is the strong word of mouth. On Douban, the film and TV review site, Project Gutenberg was rated 8.1 out of 10, with many netizens describing it as the best Hong Kong film since Infernal Affairs, the 2002 drama that was later remade by Hollywood as The Departed.

“After [crime thrillers] Trivisa (2016) and Chasing the Dragons (2017) there came Project Gutenberg. I’m so glad these directors have kept their distinctive Hong Kong filmmaking spirit. Project Gutenberg also shows that local filmmakers are adapting, the plot is no longer just about good versus evil, and the glorifying of human nature,” one netizen enthused.

“There is something about the way Hong Kong filmmakers shoot action sequences and the way they pace a scene that is unrivalled. The way Project Gutenberg is filmed – the crazy shootouts with bullets flying in every direction – is very typical of Hong Kong action movies,” another proclaimed.

Chong was also one of the screenwriters for Infernal Affairs and he says he was determined to prove that Hong Kong still has a place in the world of filmmaking. “People always say Hong Kong films are dead. But I’m not dead, so why would Hong Kong films be over?” he told reporters.

The success of Project Gutenberg has come at a time when the city is struggling to maintain the same kind of cultural influence it enjoyed in mainland China in the 1980s and 1990s. The momentum in moviemaking has moved northward: most of Hong Kong’s big-name directors have sought opportunities on the mainland, with the promise of bigger budgets, while changes in licencing rules have allowed Hong Kong filmmakers to co-produce with mainland partners, allowing for certification as a domestic release, which is advantageous.

At least half of the films made by Hongkongers have been co-productions in China in recent years.

Chong certainly played up the Hong Kong nostalgia in his latest film, drawing linkages with the cinematic style of previous years. One scene, with Chow wearing a windbreaker and brandishing machine guns, seems to be a homage to an earlier role as the gangster Brother Mark in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow. In the trailer, Chow is also seen lighting a cigarette with a burning banknote, which was inspired by another celebrated scene from Woo’s Hong Kong classic.

The thundering shootout at the movie’s climax is another signature moment in the territory’s filmmaking style (and one of the reasons that American director Quentin Tarantino is said to love the movies from Hong Kong’s heyday).

Industry observers have wondered whether the success of Project Gutenberg heralds a new era for Hong Kong’s film sector or – with its aging cast – reflects more of a last gasp at cinematic glory? Over the last few months, several Hong Kong films have beaten expectations at the Chinese box office. L Storm, another crime thriller starring Louis Koo, took Rmb400 million, while Golden Job, a reboot of the 1990s Young and Dangerous franchise, made Rmb300 million.

As Chief Entertainment Officer, an industry blog, puts it: “Hong Kong’s film industry has evolved from focusing on quantity to quality. After all, no one does crime thrillers like Hong Kong.”

Another reason is that there is still a strong fan base for Hong Kong films in third and fourth-tier cities in China, according to analysis from the online ticketing site Maoyan. Southern provinces in particular seem to enjoy the films made in the territory.

Up until the early 1990s, Hong Kong producers were making hundreds of Chinese-language films every year, trailing only Hollywood and Bollywood in output. Production houses like Golden Harvest launched performers like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan into international stardom. Today production has fallen to about 50 or 60 movies a year, although some film historians say the declines started in the mid-1990s (before mainland Chinese moviemaking started to boom) because of film piracy and financial constraints brought about by the Asian Financial Crisis.

Another factor was changing tastes, which saw Hong Kong audiences grow tired of triad tales and kung fu epics, preferring Hollywood blockbusters, often not in the Chinese language.

Project Gutenberg is a return to form, it seems, although the bigger picture for the cinema sector in China over the holiday period was disappointing, with box office takings plunging more than a fifth from a year ago, to Rmb2.2 billion. The number of cinemagoers also fell by almost a quarter to 61 million. Entertainment Unicorn, another industry blog, blamed a poor selection of new titles, complaining that the week-long holiday had “no box office, no audience and no quality”.

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