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China emerging as new movie powerhouse

The Berlin International Film Festival is providing a snapshot of the changes in Asian cinema, as China seeks to emerge as a strong voice.

india Updated: Feb 18, 2006 16:27 IST

The Berlin International Film Festival is providing a snapshot of the changes in Asian cinema, as China seeks to emerge as a new movie powerhouse while Hong Kong struggles to keep up with its reputation.

Once known as the Hollywood of the East, Hong Kong's previously prolific film industry has watched its market in Southeast Asia shrink following a run of badly received films and due to competition notably from the real Hollywood but also other parts of Asia such as South Korea.

"The role of Hong Kong cinema is entering a new phase," said Hong Kong director Pang Ho-Cheung.

"We now have to work out how Hong Kong films maintain their position in the market without losing their character."

But he confessed: "I don't have a solution to that problem. It is up to every director to do his best so that he or she can help the industry survive."

In addition, more than eight years after Hong Kong was handed over to Beijing, hopes have also been fading that China might help to underpin movie making in the former British colony with filmmakers also having to confront new problems such as censorship.

This was the case with the critically acclaimed Hong Kong gangster movie Internal Affairs, which was released four years ago.

For filmmakers like Ho-Cheung, dealing with the censors was a matter for the producers. His job was just to tell a story on film.

However, John Chong, the producer for Internal Affairs, and Isabella, said the industry was becoming used to censorship.

"We see it as a marketing issue," he said. "When we think we want to enter a market we have to co-operate with the censorship officials."

Nevertheless, censorship is clearly an issue for some Chinese moviemakers. "Although I try to be a pure artist, I am not," said Chen Kaige, the director of the film "The Promise".

"The truth is I have to listen to so many people about how to cut the film," he said.

In a sense The Promise, which cost $30 million to make and is billed as China's most expensive film ever, also underscores the two sides of Chinese filmmaking as Beijing attempts to build up a new formidable reputation in move making.

China itself might produce 200 movies a year but most of them have very local storylines and never make it past the country's borders. On the other side are the big blockbusters such as The Promise, which are financed by sources from around the world.

Meanwhile, film industry observers say that China will have to revolutionise its studio system so as to help bring forward the new generation of filmmakers currently emerging in the country.

Moreover, despite China's fast-paced economic change, there is still an enormous gulf in the business culture between mainland China and Hong Kong with members of the Hong Kong film industry saying they find it hard to understand what the Chinese taste in movies is.

"When filmmaking is so costly, a film industry cannot service a city of seven million people even if everyone of those seven million people go and see it," said Jacob Wong, curator for the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society.

Just over a decade ago, Hong Kong was pumping out about 200 films a year with action dramas shaping the former British colony's film genre. Now the number is down to about 40 with many filmmakers apparently hoping to find their salvation in romantic comedies.

The latest hope for the struggling Hong Kong film industry is Ho-Cheung's Isabella, a drama about a police officer who is suspended for corruption and is confronted by a girl claiming to be his daughter.

Set in the mean streets of the former Portuguese colony of Macao during in the build-up to the handover to mainland Chinese rule, "Isabella" by director Ho-Cheung had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival Thursday.

Set against the backdrop of the tensions unleashed by the attempts to clean up the colony's corruption and violence ahead of the handover and Macao's inherent identity problems, Isabella does offer a measure of optimism.

First Published: Feb 18, 2006 16:27 IST