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Independent Views
There's life after Jackie Chan

Talking Pictures

High-speed action, explosive stunts and the power of celebrity. It's a mix that the Hong Kong movie industry relies on to bring in the crowds. Over the past few years, though, the old formulas have steadily lost potency at the box office. Even action star Jackie Chan isn't quite the draw he used to be. Who Am I?, his sprawling adventure flick about an amnesiac cop, took in a mere $8 million in the SAR -- less than a third of the $26 million it cost to make. But for film buffs, this decline had a positive side -- it makes room for smaller, highly individual movies.

Prime examples are showcased in The Age of Independents section at the city's annual film festival this month. Among them: You Le's Suzhou River and Blue August by Alex Lai, who began his career in video production. Both films represent a new strain of Hong Kong cinema, says festival programmer Jacob Wong. August explores the difficulties of young love in the SAR while River juxtaposes the creek that flows through Shanghai against the hurried lives of the residents. Though often starkly simple, such productions have nonetheless been able to present moving portraits of human relationships. "Anyone with an open mind can get something from these films," Wong says.

He explaining the shift: "The basic structure of movie-making in Hong Kong has changed." A succession of big-name, poor-quality movies since the 1980s turned off large sections of the audience. Accelerated by thriving film piracy, cinema attendance fell, and along with it output from major producers like Media Asia and Golden Harvest. Hong Kong released just 40 films last year compared to 234 in 1993. Rather than play Russian roulette with big-ticket movies, financial backers have begun to place smaller bets, putting their money in more modest projects. As a result, investors are more experimental with their film choices, says Jimmy Choi, who heads the film department of the Hong Kong Arts Center. "Given a few million dollars [budget] instead of ten, filmmakers have more freedom to be daring," he adds.

Government grants helped too. Since 1996, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council released just over $4 million to fund individual projects. "That made it a lot easier for young directors," says Wong. At least, they aren't dependent on shooting info-tainment programs or TV soaps to pay the rent.

Indie movies are still "a hard sell," concedes Wong, "but people are starting to appreciate the distinctive style of smaller films." Indeed, Fruit Chan's debut film, Made in Hong Kong, was a sleeper hit. Made for just $77,000, it not only brought in $200,000 and multiple awards at home but was also shortlisted for an Oscar nomination in 1997. Building on the success of directors like Chan and Yu Lik-Wai, whose Love Will Tear Us Apart was invited to Cannes last year, energetic young directors are showing that cinema-goers can demand more from a film than mindless formula. Lai's Blue August, for instance, was among the first films to be sold out at the current festival.

Not that indies are likely to be rolling in cash. Even an established filmmaker like Ann Hui has difficulties financing her character-driven movies. "These days, a lot of directors say they're 'working on the script,' which means they're unemployed," she laughs. "It's hard to get the money, but investors will leave you alone if the movie is good."

Getting the film made is only half the battle, of course. Marketing carries a hefty price tag too. Those aspects are being tackled by Ying-E-Chi, a directors' collective that finances publicity and distribution using funds garnered from film sales, official grants and private contributions. Started in 1995 by director Vincent Chui and friends, the group has since helped some 20 Hong Kong filmmakers.

The burgeoning indie scene is gaining attention abroad. Most play only the art-house circuit. "It's a specialized market that our films are produced for," says Chui. Still, there is hope for this fledgling movement. "Not everyone wants to make a movie to compete with studio productions," Chui adds. "Popularity isn't everything. All we want is to make a good film." For Hong Kong's ailing cinema, that may be just the ticket.

Talking Pictures
While the West raves about how cool Being John Malkovich is, a few Asia-related selections have SAR festival stalwarts in a tizz .

The Cup (director: Khyentse Norbu) This quaint comedy is notable not just because it is about a young Tibetan monk trying to juggle his monasterial duties with his soccer obsession as the World Cup final is being screened on TV. The director is a living breathing lama. Holy Buddha!

Augustin, King of Kung-Fu (Anne Fontaine) The title suggests chop-socky schlock, but it's actually a French/Spanish production featuring Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung. And speaking French. C'est vrai!

Eating Air (directed by Kelvin Tong and Jasmin Ng) Just when you thought the terms Singaporean and hip were incompatible (Glen Goei's Forever Fever being a rare exception) comes this rock-the-block movie. And in Singlish no less, lah.

Bueno Aires Zero Degree: the Making Of Happy Together (by Kwan Pun-leung and Amos Lee) and Dead Knot (Wong Chi-keung) A combination designed for Hong Kong cultists. Zero Degree didn't just borrow the title from tango master Astor Piazolla's album but also drew footage from director Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together to make this behing-the-scenes documentary, while Dead Knot is a homoerotic short a young John Woo wrote, acted and showed his butt in.

Catnapped (by Takashi Nakamura) The 1995 debut work from the director of cyber-anime classic Akira. And shockingly, it's not violent, or that nihilistic at all. In fact, it's cute.

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