The cinema of Hong Kong (Chinese: 香港電影) is one of the three major threads in the history of Chinese language cinema, alongside the cinema of China and the cinema of Taiwan. As a former British colony, Hong Kong had a greater degree of political and economic freedom than mainland China and Taiwan, and developed into a filmmaking hub for the Chinese-speaking world (including its worldwide diaspora).
For decades, Hong Kong was the third largest motion picture industry in the world (after Indian cinema and American cinema) and the second largest exporter. Despite an industry crisis starting in the mid-1990s and Hong Kong’s transfer to Chinese sovereignty in July 1997, Hong Kong film has retained much of its distinctive identity and continues to play a prominent part on the world cinema stage. In the West, Hong Kong’s vigorous pop cinema (especially Hong Kong action cinema) has long had a strong cult following, which is now arguably a part of the cultural mainstream, widely available and imitated.
Economically, the film industry together with the value added of cultural and creative industries represents 5 per cent of Hong Kong’s economy.
Unlike many film industries, Hong Kong has enjoyed little or no direct government support, through either subsidies or import quotas. It is a thoroughly commercial cinema: highly corporate, concentrating on crowd-pleasing genres like comedy and action, and relying heavily on formulas, sequels and remakes.
Hong Kong film derives a number of elements from Hollywood, such as certain genre parameters, a “thrill-a-minute” philosophy and fast pacing and film editing. But the borrowings are filtered through elements from traditional Chinese drama and art, particularly a penchant for stylisation and a disregard for Western standards of realism. This, combined with a fast and loose approach to the filmmaking process, contributes to the energy and surreal imagination that foreign audiences note in Hong Kong cinema.
In 2017, the box office gross was HK$1.85 billion compared with HK$1.95 billion in 2016. 331 films were released in 2017, dropped from 348 the year before.
According to McDonald, a star system emerged in Hollywood as talent scouts, coaches, and publicists were involved with finding performers and making them into stars. In the vertically integrated Hollywood film industry of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, these responsibilities were all undertaken by the studios themselves. The studios made the stars and, due to notoriously restrictive terms imposed by exclusive services contracts, the studios also owned the stars (McDonald, 2000). As is common in commercial cinema, the industry’s heart is a highly developed star system. In earlier days, beloved performers from the Chinese opera stage often brought their audiences with them to the screen. For the past three or four decades, television has been a major launching pad for movie stardom, through acting courses and widely watched drama, comedy and variety series offered by the two major stations. Possibly even more important is the overlap with the Cantonese pop music industry. Many, if not most, movie stars have recording sidelines, and vice versa; this has been a key marketing strategy in an entertainment industry where American-style, multimedia advertising campaigns have until recently been little used (Bordwell, 2000). In the current commercially troubled climate, the casting of young Cantopop idols (such as Ekin Cheng and the Twins) to attract the all-important youth audience is endemic.
In the small and tightly knit industry, actors (as well as other personnel and π, such as directors) are kept very busy. During previous boom periods, the number of movies made by a successful figure in a single year could routinely reach double digits.
Films are typically low-budget when compared with American films. A major release with a big star, aimed at “hit” status, will typically cost around US$5 million (Yang et al., 1997). A low-budget feature can go well below US$1 million. Occasional blockbuster projects by the very biggest stars (Jackie Chan or Stephen Chow, for example) or international co-productions (“crossovers”) aimed at the global market, can go as high as US$20 million or more, but these are rare exceptions. Hong Kong productions can nevertheless achieve a level of gloss and lavishness greater than these numbers might suggest, given factors such as lower wages and value of the Hong Kong dollar.