Twenty years ago this July, rule over the territory of Hong Kong was transferred from Great Britain to China. To mark the occasion, this year’s edition of the Freer|Sackler’s Made in Hong Kong Film Festival began and ended with films made twenty years apart. Though they are distinctly atypical of the island’s film industry, these films highlight through their uniqueness what Hong Kong’s cinema and culture was before the handover and what it has become since.
To begin at the end, the festival closed with a film that shares its title. The first independent film made after the 1997 handover, Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong was, in both style and substance, entirely different from the kinds of movies that defined Hong Kong cinema up to that point. No jaw-dropping martial arts feats by the likes of Jackie Chan or Jet Li. No cool gangsters in sharp suits showering each other with bullets in slo-mo fight scenes a la John Woo’s underworld epics. Instead, Fruit Chan’s film looks at the largely invisible underbelly of the city, where people live in cramped apartments and turn to petty crime simply to pay their bills.
In its edgy, gritty style and pessimistic plot, Made in Hong Kong (which we presented in a beautifully restored twentieth-anniversary version, created by the Udine Far East Film Festival under Chan’s supervision) embodied the anxiety many people felt about the handover at the time. Would China really honor its promise to allow business as usual to continue for the next fifty years? And what would happen after that?
That anxiety hasn’t gone away, even as the Hong Kong film industry has expanded to take on the mainland China market that the handover opened up. Today’s blockbuster Hong Kong movies are frequently hybrid affairs—no less glamorous than the pre-handover movies, but less distinctly Hong Kong. They are often made by a combination of Hong Kong and mainland talent, aimed at the tastes of Chinese audiences with an eye toward the strict censorship that mainland authorities enforce.
Much as Made in Hong Kong stood out against the status quo of its day, Mad World, the opening film of this year’s festival, stands out against today’s. The result of a new Hong Kong government initiative to support young filmmakers addressing important issues, Wong Chun’s film plays out far from the city’s New York-on-steroids skyline, telling the story of a poor truck driver trying to care for an adult son suffering from bipolar disorder. Taking on both economic inequality and the stigma associated with mental illness, Mad World is in tune with a number of activist movements that have grown up on the island recently.
Young filmmakers like Wong are part of an emboldened generation more likely to speak their mind than their predecessors. Their outspokenness—from the 2014 Occupy protests, which recently resulted in the imprisonment of three prominent activists, to two newly elected legislators who refused to pledge allegiance to the mainland while being sworn in—may have been on the mind of China’s President Xi Jinping on the handover’s twentieth anniversary. His speech commemorating the occasion warned Hong Kongers against crossing the “red line” of undermining Chinese autonomy.
Visiting Hong Kong this spring for Filmart, its annual entertainment business trade show, was a stranger-than-usual experience. In the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center (where, coincidentally, the handover ceremony took place in 1997), upbeat sales reps from the big distribution companies cheerily hawked their latest films in eye-catching booths pulsing with music and film clips. Outside, conversations with local friends inevitably came around to the undercurrents of unrest and unease that seem to be occupying everyone’s minds.
One of Mad World’s themes is that the traditional dream of making it in Hong Kong—that working hard will lead to wealth, designer clothes, and a gorgeous high-rise apartment—is harder than ever to attain. In reality, even successful white-collar workers work punishing hours to barely afford a tiny, dingy flat a hellish commute away from their cubicle in the city’s glittering downtown. And for Hong Kong’s increasingly visible and vocal down-and-out, the situation is much worse. The decision to restore Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong twenty years after its debut couldn’t be more apt: today, it looks prescient.