TOKYO -- Hong Kong's once vibrant film industry is losing its vitality as the heavy hand of Chinese censorship saps its creativity and puts a growing number of themes off limits.
During its heyday, Hong Kong produced epic movies that caught the eye of film buffs around the world. Locally made martial arts fantasies starring Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan helped define the genre.
Other notable Hong Kong films include "A Better Tomorrow," a 1986 action movie directed by John Woo and starring Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung and Chow Yun-fat; "Chungking Express," a 1994 romantic crime comedy directed by Wong Kar-wai; and "Shaolin Soccer," a 2001 comedy that featured Shaolin monks applying their superhuman martial arts skills on the field.
But the glitz has dimmed of late. Last year, only 34 movies produced in Hong Kong were released, according to the Hong Kong Motion Picture Industry Association. Even taking the COVID-19 pandemic into account, the number is paltry when compared with the more than 200 films made in the territory annually in the early 1990s.
Ironically, the huge growth of the mainland Chinese film market has contributed to Hong Kong's decline. The Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement between China and the special administrative region, signed in 2003, has made it much easier for Hong Kong directors and others in the local industry to operate on the mainland.
"The number of screens in China is said to be about 70,000, 20 times more than in Japan," points out Japanese movie producer Satoru Iseki. "Directors and actors in Hong Kong started heading to Beijing in droves" following the agreement, he said.
On top of the economic challenge, Hong Kong's film industry faces growing Chinese censorship.
In April, Peter Yam, a Hong Kong-based independent film producer, asked for support from Japanese movie lovers in an online news conference as he launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for "Blue Island," a documentary about the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
The film, coproduced with Japanese partners, is unlikely to show in Hong Kong because of its politically sensitive topic. Sanshiro Kobayashi, president of movie distributor Uzumasa, hopes to screen the film at small theaters in Japan first to encourage a global release.
In another blow, Hong Kong authorities on June 11 said they would begin blocking distribution of films deemed to threaten China's national security.
The industry had a foretaste of what lay ahead when a screening of "Inside the Red Brick Wall," was canceled at the last minute in March. The documentary examines the 2019 protests at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where a group of students also took a stand for freedom and democracy.
Another casualty was "Where the Wind Blows," a thriller about corrupt police officers starring Tony Leung and Aaron Kwok. The film was scheduled to make its world premiere and open the 45th Hong Kong International Film Festival on April 1 but was pulled from the lineup three days before the opening of the event.
Organizers attributed the cancellation to "technical reasons," but many suspected the film was nixed by Beijing because of its depictions of crooked cops. In China, police are always portrayed as guardians of justice.
Japanese film critic Sozo Teruoka is worried about the effect the crackdown is having on Hong Kong's artistic spirit. He warns that filmmakers in Hong Kong will not only find it increasingly difficult to make films about the city's pro-democracy movement but will also need to be very circumspect in how they portray police and the government, even in fictional stories.
"Denise Ho: Becoming the Song," now showing in Japan, is an American documentary about a famous Hong Kong singer-turned-political-activist involved in the city's struggle to maintain its political freedom. Director Sue Williams thinks there is no way to bring the film to theaters in Hong Kong. There are many fans of Denise Ho in the territory, but they clammed up when she tried to interview them on the camera.
One ray of hope for one of Asia's most celebrated filmmaking hubs is a breed of young directors who are producing good movies on shoestring budgets. Wong Chun's "Mad World" and Oliver Chan Siu-kuen's "Still Human" were hits in both Hong Kong and Japan.
Hong Kong cinema has had global influence because of its "unique style" and "great creativity," according to Yam, who vows to continue practicing his craft.