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Interview

Outspoken Hong Kong actor keeps up support for pro-democracy protests

Chapman To criticizes film industry for abandoning local culture in favor of China

Hong Kong actor-director Chapman To's controversial political positions have made him an outcast in the mainland China movie industry. (Photo by Yasuo Awai)

HONG KONG -- For at least one actor in this city famous for the glorious pursuit of wealth, making movies is not only about the money.

Chapman To Man-chak is best known in Hong Kong for his advocacy of Cantonese-language films and outspoken support of pro-democracy protests. In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, the 45-year-old actor and director criticized other Hong Kong film industry veterans as "too busy shining China's shoes" and "not giving way to younger filmmakers" in Hong Kong.

In recent years, To has become a controversial figure in Hong Kong cinema by insisting on producing local Hong Kong movies and speaking up for regional democracy movements. As a result, he has been exiled from mainland China's robust film market -- a market with box office totaling $8.6 billion in 2017, according to ComScore, a U.S. data service company.

The self-taught director said "filmmaking shouldn't be all about money," while faulting established Hong Kong filmmakers for abandoning the Cantonese market as they "flock to dig gold in mainland China."

"The movie industry in Hong Kong is filled with snobbish old people who don't love movies anymore. They only see movies as a tool to rack up money for their retirement," To said, adding that many filmmakers simply produce "whatever the mainland audience may like" at the expense of story quality.

He said that while film investors in Hong Kong have little confidence in rookie filmmakers, industry veterans are reluctant to nurture or offer chances to young talent because there is not a financial incentive. That has led to an aging film industry that finds it difficult to lure new blood.

"It is pathetic that all opportunities have been hogged by people who are no longer passionate about movies," To said.

To has been nominated for best new director at this year's Hong Kong Film Awards, which will be held on April 15. His film, "The Empty Hands," a martial-arts drama, has been nominated for six awards.

He made his directorial debut two years ago with "Let's Eat," a Malaysian-produced comedy.

In a career that spans more than two decades, To has become one of Hong Kong's most recognizable actors, with roles in the award-winning "Internal Affairs" trilogy (2002-2003) and "Isabella" (2006).

Unlike many prominent actors and filmmakers in Hong Kong, he sacrificed the lucrative mainland Chinese market when he publicly expressed support for the Sunflower Student Movement in Taiwan and Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement in 2014 -- the former opposed closer economic ties between Taiwan and mainland China, and the latter protested against Beijing's decision to vet candidates for Hong Kong's leader.

His support for both movements enraged some mainland audiences, who soon called for a nationwide boycott of To's movies in retaliation, causing two films in which he starred, "Let Go for Love" and "Aberdeen," to perform poorly at the Chinese box office that year.

According to ComScore, for every $100 earned at the box office in the world last year, $21.50 came from China, making it the world's largest film market after the U.S. As a result, taking a strong political stance is rare among celebrities, given that offending audiences in mainland China could potentially hurt a film's box office.

That presents a dilemma for some Hong Kong filmmakers who have to decide whether to prioritize China over the local market. "If you are looking for money, you shouldn't be doing films," To said, adding that he does not plan to re-enter the mainland market for now.

To's movies depicting "authentic Hong Kong culture" have been hits among local audiences. "Vulgaria," a raunchy comedy that relies heavily on Cantonese slang, profanity and local sensibilities, ranked second among locally produced movies at the Hong Kong box office in 2012.

Following the Umbrella Movement, To produced 2016's "The Mobfathers," in which gangsters compete to be the leader of the underworld. The movie's election plot was seen as an analogy of Hong Kong's political situation and stirred much discussion in the city.

Still, To does not expect all young filmmakers in Hong Kong to follow in his footsteps -- he said he supports filmmakers seeking opportunities in mainland China, even though the content of movies, as with all media in the country, are stringently censored there.

He believes producing movies in mainland China and Hong Kong are not "mutually exclusive." Filmmakers can "come back and take care of the local audience after they have secured a decent income in China," he said.

"It is a social responsibility to contribute back to your origin by producing Cantonese movies featuring local culture."

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