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The cinema of Hong Kong 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) and for East Asia in general. For decades, Hong Kong was the third largest motion picture industry in the world (after Indian Cinema and Hollywood) and the second largest exporter. Despite an industry crisis starting in the mid-’90s and Hong Kong’s return 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 has become large enough that it is now arguably a part of the cultural mainstream, widely available and imitated. This influence has been particularly heavy on recent Hollywood trends in the action genre.
Unlike many film industries, Hong Kong has enjoyed little to 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 editing. But the borrowings are filtered through elements from traditional Chinese drama and art, particularly a penchant for stylization 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.
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, 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 digit.