Kaiju Shakedown: The Revolution Gets Televised
C.Y. Leung, Hong Kong's new Chief Executive, has turned out to be the most unifying politician in Hong Kong history, inspiring massive waves of hatred across the population. From a political point of view, it sucks to be in Hong Kong right now, as the local offices of Chinese companies force their employees to fill out fake opinion forms, and newspaper editors are attacked in the street. But from a cultural point of view, this is the most exciting thing to happen to Hong Kong art since Wong Jing convinced Simon Yam to eat a wiener.
The first sustained signs of financial stability for the Hong Kong film industry after its crash in the mid-Nineties was its sudden access to the Mainland Chinese market. Under the CEPA (Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement) in 2003, Hong Kong movies were no longer classified as foreign films as long as they passed censorship requirements, and a massive new market was born. Suddenly, every Hong Kong distributor was shooting a period martial-arts movie with major stars on the Mainland. But as this market got glutted, some directors began to turn local, making movies rooted in Hong Kong culture for the tiny, Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong audience. Once, this audience determined tastes for the entire Asia Pacific region. Today it's a minority group.
Movies like Pang Ho-cheung's Vulgaria (2012), about the Hong Kong porn industry, and horror movie Tales from the Dark (2013) could never be released in China due to their content, but they heralded a return to a defiantly local filmmaking style: Hong Kong movies for Hong Kong people. Vulgaria won tons of local awards and dominated the box office, while Tales was the first film from veteran producer Bill Kong's new Hong Kong-centric production company. These movies signaled a bigger sea change, however, as Hong Kongers—sick of rising real estate prices (driven by Mainlanders buying property in Hong Kong), wary of interference from Beijing, and angry about new laws—began to take to the streets to defend the Hong Kong way of life. Now, a full-on culture war has broken out.
The most obvious battle has been the government's war on Hong Kong TV, probably the world's best television station that doesn't exist. For decades, Hong Kong has been served by two free TV channels (TVB and ATV), and two pay channels (PCCW and i-Cable). ATV has a viewership of approximately zero. TVB, an offshoot of Shaw Brothers, owns the marketplace, broadcasting an increasingly musty collection of creaky dramas which are the closest thing to a wax museum currently on television.
But back in 2009… disruption in the halls of power! Enter Ricky Wong, the self-made billionaire behind City Telecom who broke the monopoly on Hong Kong IDD phone service and pioneered residential broadband. Unlike the long-lived family business dynasties behind TVB, PCCW, and i-Cable, Wong is a self-made man who started out as an electrical engineer and, unlike TVB, he dreamed of making good television. In 2009, he put in an application for a free-to-air television license, followed shortly by copycat applications from PCCW and i-Cable. In 2011, the Broadcasting Authority recommended that all three licenses be issued by the government, and Wong went big, dropping HK$900 million into building a production facility in Tseung Kwan O, hiring 500 employees, and signing about 250 contract artists.
Wong wanted to beat the competition on quality. He made his writers attend “television boot camp” watching American shows like Spartacus: Blood & Sand, House of Cards, and Glee, and they responded with enthusiasm. Teams of technicians analyzed Korean, Japanese, and American programming for everything from plot construction to lighting and began to produce hundreds of hours of content. HKTV’s shows weren’t broadcast, but they were presented to buyers and investors who apparently loved them. A full episode of its cop drama, Borderline, was put up on YouTube and almost immediately attracted over 1 million views as well as comparisons to Johnnie To. Although it looks crude to American eyes, trust me, Borderline is a quantum leap for Hong Kong television.
Then, in October 2013, the Executive Council surprised everyone by issuing licenses to PCCW and i-Cable and rejecting HKTV’s application. The decision was made by the Chief Executive in a closed session and no explanation was given. “The news is a shock to us,” Wong said. With no TV license, he was forced to fire 320 people from HKTV. Almost immediately, thousands (the number depends on who you ask: 36,000 say officials, 120,000 say organizers) took to the streets to protest the decision including Andy Lau (who was greeted by cheers of “The Chief Executive speaks!” when he appeared), Anita Yuen, and Ekin Cheng.
In December, Wong announced that he would launch five free internet television channels, doing an end run around the HK government. He planned to start rehiring his fired workers, and was shooting for a July 2014 launch. But three days ago, he was informed that because his internet channels would reach more than 5,000 households, he required a free-to-air license… exactly like the one he’d just been denied. “We’ve reached a dead end,” Wong said. At this point, HKTV is over.
Wong should count himself lucky, because at least he’s not being stabbed or beaten in the streets. (That’s the standard Hong Kong journalists have these days, “At least I’m not being stabbed or beaten in the streets. Hooray!”) Last summer, three masked attackers broke into the offices of Apple Daily, one of Hong Kong’s most irrepresible scandal rags, and burned 26,000 copies of the paper. In June, Chen Ping, publisher of i-Sun which had recently gone online-only, was attacked and beaten by unknown assailants in the streets. And this January, Kevin Lau, the outspoken editor of Ming Pao Daily, was forced to step down. Lau recently announced that he was going to start his own online news service, but on February 26, he was walking to his car when he was attacked and critically wounded by men armed with choppers.
Thousands of journalists (either 8,600 or 13,000 depending on your source) took to the streets on March 1 to protest these events, carrying a huge banner that read, “They can’t kill us all.” It won’t be for lack of trying.
Protests are exactly what Beijing doesn’t want, and they’re exactly what they’re getting. But while most of their attention is taken up by the constipated Occupy Central movement, which has not actually staged a protest but simply threatened to stage one, young kids are actually injecting a fresh burst of cultural energy with a series of theatrical street actions. One of the first waves came during last summer’s graduation ceremony for students at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts (alma mater of actors like Athena Chu and Anthony Wong). C.Y. Leung presided over the ceremony, and students were supposed to pass by him on stage, giving a slight respectful bow before they received their diplomas. Instead, students flipped him the bird as they went by, mooned him, turned their backs on him, shouted for universal sufferage, and bowed to him three times (a funeral tradition). Instead of being shouted down, the students were greeted with cheers and applause as the humiliated Chief Executive was trapped onstage with nothing to do but smile blandly while his security team stood by helplessly.
Kids who were barely alive when Hong Kong was a colony recently marched into the PLA garrison in Hong Kong waving a colonial Hong Kong flag but their juiciest efforts have come in their re-design of Hong Kong’s anti-locust protests. For years, Hong Kongers have been complaining about the influx of Mainland tourists who come to shop and buy property, calling them locusts and occasionally organizing xenophobic protests (in Beijing, an official at the National People’s Congress ominously noted that the issue has “been taken note of”).
But this week, the kids hit Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui dressed as Maoist Red Guards, waving Chinese flags and Little Red Books, singing the Chinese national anthem and chanting, “We love China!” and “If you love China, buy Chinese milk!” in a reference to Mainlanders who come to Hong Kong to buy powdered formula after tainted Mainland formula killed 6 children. It's a refreshing burst of humor and tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, although China Daily, the Mainland news source, was not amused.
But the protests keep getting more theatrical, as protesters clog the streets with fake shopping carts and turn demonstrations into street theater complete with giant puppets, papier-mâché battleships, and costumes.
This is the kind of flamboyant display of political protest that was common in the United States in the Sixties, and it’s something Hong Kong hasn’t seen in, well, maybe ever. It’s especially heartening because it’s this brand of politically charged performance that eventually left the streets and infiltrated America’s cultural institutions, giving birth to influential theater companies like the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Bread and Puppet Theater.
Even filmmaking is starting to show signs of fresh air. It’s not much, but the seven-minute YouTube film “Hong Kong Will Be Destroyed in 33 Years” (the title a reference to the fact that in 50 years Hong Kong will no longer be allowed autonomous rule) says pretty much everything that can be said about this nostalgia for the past and how it might change the future. In the film (which has English subtitles), scientists predict that in 33 years an asteroid will hit Hong Kong and destroy it. All the rich people leave, the stock market closes, and everyone with any sense moves to Mainland China. But instead of becoming a ghost town, Hong Kong thrives. Kai Tak Airport, a potent symbol of the old city, re-opens, small businesses fire up again, and Hong Kongers even come up with a way to destroy the approaching meteor. Crude, politically naive, poorly shot, and about as obvious as a blow to the head, it’s still worth watching because it’s got something in it that I haven’t seen in a long time in a film from Hong Kong: hope.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
… Korea’s SBS has taken its popular reality show, Jjak, off the air after one of the contestants hanged herself on the set, allegedly over pressure she felt from the way her appearance was being edited.
… Bong Joon-ho is producing Sea Fog, the directorial debut of his co-writer from Memories of Murder, Shim Sung-bo. Based on a play, it’s about the Taechangho incident in which a Korean fishing vessel forced 60 illegal Chinese immigrants into its net storage locker where 25 of them suffocated, and were dumped overboard. Slated for a late summer release, Bong describes the movie as “more of a romance.“
… Kino Lorber has picked up the catalog formerly belonging to Tartan Asia Extreme's DVD label, and plans to begin releasing the films themselves. Titles include Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy and a ton of horror movies.
… It’s not just Hayao Miyazaki who’s retired—his longtime producer and former president of Studio Ghibli, Toshio Suzuki, has announced he’s stepping down this year, too.
… Takashi Shimizu talks about his live-action adaptation of Hayao Miyazaki’s famous 1989 film, Kiki’s Delivery Service.
… You may have felt the earth stop spinning recently as Wong Kar Wai and Wong Jing, representing polar opposites of the Hong Kong film industry, appeared in a photo together at the Hong Kong Film Directors’ Guild dinner. Both Wongs reportedly emerged unscathed from the encounter.
… Hong Kong mega-star Jackie Chan has emerged from the lab having grown a K-pop band of his very own in a nutrient tank. Called JJCC (pronounced “Double JC”) they plan to distinguish themselves from the rest of the field by featuring handsome young men with ripped abs singing power ballads and catchy dance numbers written by sophisticated songwriting software while dancing in unison like robots.