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Hong Kong Distributors Flourish While Mainland Moviemakers Struggle

Despite disappointment at the lack of Chinese films making the cut at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Hong Kong moviemakers were doing brisk business in terms of global sales, while Netflix was proving to be the event's bête noire.

Photo: Monster Hunt: A monster hit for Hong Kong’s Edko Films.
Monster Hunt: A monster hit for Hong Kong's Edko Films.
Photo: Monster Hunt: A monster hit for Hong Kong’s Edko Films.
Monster Hunt: A monster hit for Hong Kong's Edko Films.

One of the biggest stories heading into this year's Cannes Film Festival was the singular lack of feature films selected from Chinese-speaking countries. Indeed, when the festival line-up was first announced in mid-April, there were no feature-length films included from mainland China, Hong Kong or Taiwan.

This, however, was later rectified when Walking Past the Future, written/directed by Gansu-born Li Ruijun, was added to the Un Certain Regard (UCR) section. Over in the short film category, meanwhile, A Gentle Night, a 15-minute study of a mother searching for her missing daughter, directed by Jiangsu-based Qiu Yang's, took the Palme d'Or. Despite this, overall, it was still a weak showing for one of the world's most prolific film-producing nations.

Outlining the possible reasons behind this disappointing showing, Thierry Fremaux, the Cannes Festival Director, said: "Chinese cinema is stretched out between auteur cinema – the classical way we understand it here in Europe and in Cannes – and a more commercial cinema, one more aimed at the country's multiplexes." Translating this from festival-speak and, basically, Chinese filmmakers are way too market-oriented and not producing enough of the kind of arthouse cinema that is recognised and awarded at Cannes.

As China didn't field any entries for Cannes' 2016 edition either, there was much discussion in the Chinese press – as well as among local filmmakers – as to what this apparent snub means and whether there really is a problem. India, another prolific Asian film-producing nation, also failed to make the cut, prompting an even greater outpouring of chest-beating and introspection. It was left to Chen Kaige, the Beijing-born director seen as a leading figure in the 'Fifth Generation' of Chinese filmmakers, to hit the nail on the head when he said: "Cannes cares about who the director is – they don't care which country a movie is from."

Indeed, the Cannes official selection tends to gravitate towards a select group of elite filmmakers, individuals who make consistently good films but also possess a cachet in the global market that attracts press coverage, festival audiences and international sales. In the form of Jia Zhangke, China can comfortably lay claim to ownership one of these "brand" directors, but his new film, Money & Love, will not hit cinemas until the end of the year.

Meanwhile, many of China's previous Cannes regulars, including Chen, Zhang Yimou, Lou Ye and Jiang Wen, are currently preoccupied with far more mainstream projects. Jiang, for instance, who won the Cannes Grand Prix in 2000 for Devils On The Doorstep, was most recently to be seen starring in Rogue One, a spin-off from the Star Wars franchise.

By contrast, over at Cannes' Marche du Film, where hundreds of companies were involved in buying and selling movie distribution rights, Hong Kong companies were doing brisk business. Indeed, most of the participants seemed to be not the least bit concerned over the lack of Chinese titles in the Cannes selection.

Overall, Edko Films was among the busiest Hong Kong production, distribution and international sales companies. In addition to selling Walking Past the Future, which it had co-produced, to France's MK2 Films, the company also sold North American and UK theatrical rights to Monster Hunt 2 to Lionsgate, the California-based entertainment group.

In the case of the former, Li Ruijun's tale of a woman who places herself in danger in order to earn money for her migrant worker parents will probably only receive a limited theatrical release in China. By contrast, the first Monster Hunt grossed nearly US$400 million when it was released in 2015, with the sequel expected to do even bigger business when it hits cinemas in time for Chinese New Year 2018.

With such gargantuan revenues in the offing, it's no surprise that Chinese studios are not overly concerned when it comes to making the kind of smaller films that win acclaim at festivals. In fact, Edko, Golden Scene, Media Asia and Emperor Motion Pictures (EMP) are among the few Hong Kong companies that actually make the effort to produce and market festival-friendly films. In the case of Monster Hunt, even international sales at a film market like Cannes may seem almost like frivolous icing on the cake. In the case of some bigger-budget projects, though, they are admittedly still necessary if a film is to have any real hope of recouping its production outlay.

Among the other Hong Kong companies active in the Cannes Marche was Raymond Wong's Pegasus Motion Pictures, which clinched North American and UK pre-sales for Yuen Woo-ping's Ip Man: Cheung Tin Chi and Fruit Chan's Invincible Dragon. Not to be outdone, Jackie Chan's Sparkle Roll Media sold Ding Sheng's A Better Tomorrow 4, a reboot of the iconic 1980s' action franchise, to South Korea and Singapore.

Photo: Blade of the Immortal: Global success for Japan.
Blade of the Immortal: Global success for Japan.
Photo: Blade of the Immortal: Global success for Japan.
Blade of the Immortal: Global success for Japan.
Photo: Walking Past the Future: Solo Chinese award-winner.
Walking Past the Future: Solo Chinese award-winner.
Photo: Walking Past the Future: Solo Chinese award-winner.
Walking Past the Future: Solo Chinese award-winner.

Also making a splash at Le Marche was EMP, with the Wan Chai-based film producer/distributor announcing the acquisition of Chinese remake rights to Penny Pincher! (Radin!), a 2016 box-office hit for TF1, the Paris-based media group. Announcing the project as a vehicle for Ge You, one of China's most well-known actors, Albert Lee, EMP's Chief Executive, said: "There are some elements we need to change because they're very French in nature. Otherwise we felt the film wouldn't be too difficult to adapt."

Another clear trend to emerge during this year's market was the growing appetite of mainland China distribution companies for European products. While at previous events Chinese buyers had tended to focus on mainstream US movies, this year French and other European comedies, family films and animated features were notably on their shopping lists.

Explaining why a number of mainlander distributors, including Hishow Entertainment, Weying Technology and Lemon Tree, as well as his own business, were quite so keen to secure the rights to such Euro-fare, Rick Zhang, Chief Executive of Los Angeles-based Red Apollo, said: "French comedies have a lot of potential in China. They have broad appeal and are usually not too challenging from a censorship point of view."

While it's difficult to judge how many of these films will actually be released in Chinese cinemas on account of the country's notorious import restrictions, the fact that they're produced in non-English may actually be to their advantage. The Chinese authorities, after all, have repeatedly claimed they want to bring greater diversity to a market where foreign films have mostly been Hollywood blockbusters.

So while Chinese cinema may not have lit up the Cannes' red carpet – with the exception of Fan Bingbing, a Chinese actress elevated to the competition jury – Hong Kong and mainland Chinese companies were still among the most active at an international level throughout the event. Perhaps less predictably, the rest of the world's fascination with China continued, despite the flood of Chinese cash into Hollywood having been reduced to a trickle following an official clampdown on overseas investment.

Indeed, the only other Asian territory that has had this level of international impact is South Korea. This year, the country had five films in the Cannes official selection, along with a coterie of sales agents who were busily closing a raft of deals.

In the run-up to this year's Cannes, Seoul-based CJ Entertainment sold Cannes Midnight title The Merciless – directed by Byun Sung-hyun and starring Seol Gyeong-gu – to an impressive 85 international territories. Over the same period, Contents Panda, a fellow Seoul-based distributor, sold Jung Byung-gil's Midnight title The Villainess to North America and the UK.

Japanese filmmakers have also regularly appeared at Cannes, with such stalwarts as Naomi Kawase, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takashi Miike all having films in this year's official selection. Despite Miike's Blade of the Immortal having been sold to New York's Magnet Releasing during the festival, Japanese films don't otherwise tend to sell well overseas. Within Asia, South Korea appears to have pretty much cornered the market with regard to commercially successful films that also get programmed in major festivals.

South Korea was also involved in what was undoubtedly the biggest story of this year's Festival – the stand-off between the French film industry and Netflix, the California-based streaming giant. When Cannes selected two Netflix-funded titles for competition – Korean director Bong Joon-ho's Okja and US indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories – the French industry was immediately up in arms over the fact that the two films were destined for Netflix's streaming service and not for French cinemas.

The French industry is also alarmed by the threat Netflix poses to the country's strict media chronology laws, which dictate that films can only be streamed on video-on-demand platforms 36 months after their theatrical release. Before the festival even started, Cannes organisers backtracked by saying that from 2018, all films selected for competition must commit to a French theatrical release.

'L'Affaire De Netflix', as Ted Sarandos, the company's Chief Content Officer, cheekily dubbed it, dominated chatter throughout the festival. For his part, Pedro Almodovar, the noted Spanish filmmaker who headed the competition jury, said: "I couldn't conceive that a film could win the Palme d'Or – or any other prize – if we couldn't see it in the cinema."

Sure enough, the directors of both Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories walked away from the festival empty-handed. Meanwhile, fellow juror Will Smith, the US actor whose next film, Bright, is also backed by Netflix, said the streaming giant had broadened his children's global cinematic comprehension. Bong Joon-ho, for his part, praised Netflix for the artistic freedom the company had given him.

To be fair, Netflix had, in fact, promised to give Okja – the story of a young girl trying to save her giant pet pig from corporate exploitation – a theatrical release in the US, UK and South Korea. This, however, clearly wasn't enough for French cinephiles, many of whom booed the Netflix logo whenever the film was screened.

The question as to whether digital distribution is the saviour of free-spirited independent filmmakers or the fin de siècle of arthouse cinema, though, is clearly a debate that is going to rage at film festivals, big and small, for many years to come.

Photo: A Better Tomorrow 4: Rebooted 1980’s iconic action franchise.
A Better Tomorrow 4: Rebooted 1980's iconic action franchise.
Photo: A Better Tomorrow 4: Rebooted 1980’s iconic action franchise.
A Better Tomorrow 4: Rebooted 1980's iconic action franchise.

The Cannes Film Festival 2017 took place from 17-28 May at the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès in Cannes.

Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Cannes

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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