Hong Kong film director and novelist Pang Ho-Cheung is shooting a new movie, Beyond Our Ken, and when I met him the other day, he invited me to come around and watch him work sometime. So, last night around 10, I headed out to his location—an abandoned, decrepit movie house with cracked mirrored walls, tacky ballroom chandeliers, and dust-encrusted seats: Wanchai's old Imperial Theater.
Pang reminds me a little bit of the young Pedro Almodóvar. He's 32, cherubic, smart, and funny. He wrote a cool thriller novel called Fulltime Killer and won the "Best New Director" prize at the 2004 Hong Kong Film Awards. His second film, a hilarious high-concept gangster comedy, Men Suddenly in Black (Daih Jeung Foo in Cantonese), was the best Hong Kong film I saw last year.
And I've seen quite a few. Hundreds, probably. Long before I actually set foot in Hong Kong, I fell in love with the celluloid version of the city, in classic 1990s urban police dramas by directors John Woo (A Better Tomorrow, The Killer) and Johnnie To (Expect the Unexpected), and in the comedies of Wong Jing (God of Gamblers) and Tsui Hark (A Chinese Feast).
In movie Hong Kong, people were hard-boiled to the point of riddling each other with bullets, but they weren't afraid to be heroic and even unabashedly sentimental in the clinch. The stories mixed blood and sweat, laughter and dim sum. They appealed to me because they suggested that you could be tough and urban without having to be a cynic. And as I've come to know the real city behind these films, I can see why they resonate for Hong Kongers, who work brutal 50- or 60-hour weeks without complaint and depend on a safety net of big Chinese families and friends to ease them through the rough times.
I was excited to be invited to Pang's shoot—so excited that, entering the set, I was completely oblivious to the celebrity action. That cute guy with the ponytail and the red shirt was Jackie Chan's son Jaycee Fong. He isn't in Pang's film, but he's rumored to be going out with—and you didn't hear this from me!—Gillian Chung Yan-Tung, Pang's leading lady and one half of the teeny-bopper pop duo Twins, who are rumored to be—oh, never mind. Go check out Sanney Leung's great fanzine Web site, the best source for your daily dose of Hong Kong movie star news.
Anyway, the real stars on Pang's set are his magical crew. I knew Hong Kong crews were renowned for their improvisational, seat-of-the-pants filmmaking, but to see one in action was really something. Everything in Pang's setup—lights, camera, sound gear—was portable, held and carried around by a crew member rather than fixed in position. Whenever a scene finished, or if the director wanted to do a retake with different lighting or camera angles, he'd shout out, and instantly seven or eight guys would hop to, shifting places and moving the gear with lightning-quick choreography.
"We have to go fast," Subi Liang, Pang's assistant, explained to me. "Money is burning."
It may seem strange that an award-winning director whose last movie was a big hit should have to worry over a shoestring budget. (Pang's current feature is being made for about $1.2 million.) But the last few years have been tough ones for Hong Kong film, especially for directors like Pang who make vernacular, quintessentially Hong Kong comedies. Last year, Hong Kong produced about 50 films, which is half the number that were produced in the mid-to-late '90s, the industry's heyday. American films, screened in snazzy new chain-owned multiplexes, have squeezed out the local product, and many of the old neighborhood movie houses—like the one Pang is using as a location—have shuttered. The rich investors who used to dabble in movie production have pulled back their investments as Hong Kong's economy has cooled down. Some of the best Hong Kong directors of the '90s, like John Woo, have split for Hollywood; others, like Wong Kar Wai and Fruit Chan, now aim at the international art-house market.
Last year, as SARS was hammering Hong Kong, the mainland Chinese government passed an initiative called the Cooperative Economic Partnership Agreement. CEPA was basically a bone-toss to various Hong Kong industries—it offers them small tax breaks on their imports to the mainland. But to the Hong Kong film industry, CEPA offered more: the chance for Hong Kong films to be considered "local" (as opposed to foreign) for the purposes of mainland Chinese distribution. This is a big deal, because China imposes limits on foreign films—only about 25 are allowed in each year. On paper, at least, CEPA looks to be a lifesaver for Hong Kong film.
But there's a catch—a big one—which Pang explained to me when we spoke in his office. "In order to get in with CEPA, one-third of your cast has to be mainland actors, and you have to have a mainland production partner. OK, but then, you have to submit your script to the Chinese censorship guy. And you submit your film after you make it. They have rules: You can't make movies about ghosts. You can't have sex. Forget about politics. And bad guys always have to lose; good guys must always win."
Pang's Men Suddenly in Black is about four errant husbands who go out on a yearly mission to get themselves laid. They romp through Hong Kong's brothels and nightclubs, swapping juicy Cantonese double-entendres as they go. I'm shocked when Pang tells me that this film actually got screened in mainland China. "They dubbed it into Mandarin and just wrote new dialogue over the parts that were too heavy. Like when they were in the massage parlor in Mongkok, in the new version they were just someplace waiting for a friend. I couldn't believe what I was hearing."
He sighs. "In the '70s and '80s … we always thought we had the best in Hong Kong. The richest economy, the coolest films. Now we need the mainland money to support us. Do you know the old Chinese saying, 'Fu bat gwo sam doih'? It means that fortune doesn't last for more than three generations."
Pang is doing the pragmatic thing. His current project is a CEPA co-production. He thinks he can figure out how to make a great film inside the boundaries of the mainland China censor's box.
I'm not as sure that Hong Kong, the movie version, can survive the latest shift in cultural power. But I'm hoping Pang's fortune holds.