Building a Hong Kong Studio Brand: Milkyway's Changing Image in Overseas Critical Reception

By Yi, Sun | Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Building a Hong Kong Studio Brand: Milkyway's Changing Image in Overseas Critical Reception


Yi, Sun, Canadian Journal of Film Studies


The transnational reception of Hong Kong cinema is characterized by a strong focus on specific genres, such as the action film, and superstars and auteurs working in those genres. The most popular films stimulate public and critical interest in-and create-internationally renowned actors and directors, from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan, and from John Woo to Johnnie To. Such names become synonymous with Hong Kong cinema, and the individual performances and styles constitute a framework for understanding the cinema. Besides a vast body of work on individual artists and their contribution to Hong Kong cinema's reputation abroad, however, scholars have offered valuable insights into organizational efforts promoting Hong Kong film internationally. Ramona Curry notes that the Shaw Brothers carried out market exploration in North America as early as the 1950s and 1960s, garnering business experiences and laying the groundwork for local successors.1 Golden Harvests venture into the United States and the US reception of its films in the 1970s and 1990s have received much scholarly attention as a fundamental step in Hong Kong cinemas globalization.2 The company's strategies to penetrate Western countries have been well discussed, among which the successful branding and promotion of Jackie Chan is seen as a prominent example of the concerted effort of local and Western film industries to raise Hong Kong cinemas international profile.3 While "no Hong Kong corporation has the global marketing mechanism of and 'brand identity' associated with Hollywood," as Steve Fore wrote in the mid-1990s, an ambition toward creating bankable and influential studio brands has nevertheless been consistent among Hong Kong film companies for decades.4 Examining the strategies for making Hong Kong studio brands recognizable outside of Hong Kong, along with local film companies' promotion of company names, is necessary to an understanding of Hong Kong cinema and its film industry.

In the mid-1990s, financial crises and economic downturns in Hong Kong and its traditional overseas markets, such as Southeast Asia and South Korea, among other factors, pushed the Hong Kong film industry into recession. Some key filmmakers in the industry, such as John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Ringo Lam, moved to Hollywood to escape the industry's decline and the looming handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. Capital withdrawal, the loss of offshore markets, and talent outflow converged into output reduction and creative paralysis. The industry, which had been the third largest in the world (after Hollywood and Bollywood), was losing its leading position in Asia. In terms of industrial structure, the industry entered a post-studio era with large companies diminishing and production shrinking, and with the emergence of a host of small-scale, independent production houses, which lacked resources compared to their vertically integrated, transnational predecessors. With its indication of drastic political change and the implications of industrial transformation, the term "post-1997 Hong Kong cinema" was coined and has been widely used to indicate a new chapter in Hong Kong film history. Critics, journalists, and scholars based in and outside of Hong Kong have developed a rich discourse about this "new" cinema, in which production company Milkyway Image played a significant role. Milkyway was founded in Hong Kong by local filmmakers Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai in 1996, on the eve of the transfer of sovereignty and when the studio system was collapsing in the local film industry. It represents the first generation of film production houses after Hong Kong's return to China, and their confrontation of the transforming political and industrial environments.

Milkyway was originally privately owned by To, went public for four years (2002-2006), and then reverted to a private company. During its twenty-year operation (at the time of writing), there were changes in terms of its nature and the scope of its business, but, by and large, it remained independent, and commercial film production continued to be a priority, if not the only business activity. …

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