Change of Scenery; Hong Kong's Top Filmmakers Are Heading to China in Search of Fresh Material and New Viewers

Article excerpt

Byline: Alexandra A. Seno

When Hong Kong film director Tsui Hark yells "Aaaactionnnn!" the 100 or so people on the set of "Seven Swords" fall silent. Actors dressed as ancient Chinese farmers scramble about in rehearsed chaos amid sheep and horses. They are filming a key scene in this story about seven kung fu fighters: the evacuation of a village. "Ccccuttttt!" screams Tsui, bundled in a down jacket against the bone-numbing temperature of Xinjiang province, in far western China. Some local children, recruited as extras, waddle around in olive green People's Liberation Army winter coats, the hems pinned up so they don't drag on the ground. The air smells like dung from the camels on standby--and like fine tobacco. Waiting on the sidelines for his turn in front of the cameras, Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen puffs on a Cuban cigar. "There isn't much else to do except stay warm and smoke," he says.

Yen may be cold. But for Hong Kong actors and filmmakers--even those who have made the jump to Hollywood--China has become the hot place to be. While Hong Kong stars have occasionally crept over to the mainland, now an unprecedented flood of the biggest names--from Jackie Chan to director John Woo--are heading to China to make movies. In the process, they hope to inject new life into their hometown film industry, which was once Asia's most dynamic but has been ravaged in recent years by rampant piracy and competition from Hollywood and cable television. "Hong Kong film talents have to move to the mainland," says Lau Kar-Leung, a veteran Hong Kong martial-arts director who is starring in and choreographing "Seven Swords." "It's bound to happen because the market is here."

Increasingly, the talent is there, too. The Guangzhou-born, Hong Kong-raised Woo, who directed "Mission: Impossible 2" and "Face/Off" for major Hollywood studios, is preparing to shoot an ambitious historical thriller about warlords, "Battle of the Red Cliff." Wong Karwai, the art-house-film darling who made "In the Mood for Love," will break with his habit of using only Asian actors to work with Nicole Kidman in a drama called "A Lady From Shanghai" filmed in Shanghai, his birthplace.

The new spirit of cross-border collaboration is also stronger than ever. Top Hong Kong actors now jump at the chance to star in high-profile productions for mainland directors; leading man Andy Lau not only played the main character in Zhang Yimou's "The House of Flying Daggers" last year, he also took top billing in the blockbuster comedy "A World Without Thieves" by China's most bankable director, Feng Xiaogang. Art director Tim Yip and cinematographer Peter Pau, who both won Oscars for their work on "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," are teaming up with renowned mainland filmmaker Chen Kaige on "The Promise," a story about gangsters in the 1930s. And the list goes on.

Clearly, the main draw is the vast potential market. Though the high costs of distribution and marketing--and the abundance of pirated videos--make it difficult to turn a profit in China right now, many believe perseverance will pay off in the long run. Thanks to illegal satellite-TV connections and the pirated-film industry, nearly all Hong Kong films find viewers across the border. "China doubles the market," says Ada Shen, an independent Beijing-based producer who has worked on several international films. "Economically, it makes a lot of sense. And it is easier than trying to anticipate what works in Hollywood, since it is a closer cultural fit."

Even so, Hong Kong filmmakers are not guaranteed instant success in China. Thanks to an economic agreement, Hong Kong productions are given preferential entry into the mainland; films made by Hong Kong companies don't have to compete for one of the 50 or fewer slots Beijing allots to foreign films each year. …