Why Hong Kong Has Only One Art House Cinema, And Why That's OK
The art house situation in Hong Kong is not as dire at it seems.
Hong Kong is a city of 7 million people, yet it supports only one theater that specializes in European and independent films, the Broadway Cinematheque. The BC is next to a sizeable bookstore and café named Kubrick (pictured), which focuses on film, visual arts and literary texts and is a destination in its own right. The pair are located in the unglamorous neighborhood of Yau Ma Tei on the Kowloon Peninsula, and the patronage skews toward twentysomething locals.
The multiplexes in Hong Kong are like the multiplexes everywhere else. The promise of ten screens offering an abundance of choice was not fulfilled; instead, four screens feature the latest big-budget action release, four screens feature the new star-driven comedy, and the remaining rooms project two second-tier studio products. Time Out Hong Kong is hosting an undated article by Edmund Lee which attempts to explain why the city’s movie theaters are dominated by mainstream fare. No surprise, it boils down to money.
But Hong Kong is not the cinematic wasteland these facts would imply.
One difference is that, in the Cantonese context, “mainstream,” “big-budget” and “studio” are defined to include films which Americans would consider niche or cult. Asian genre films are the obvious example. In the last half of 2009, for example, the top spot at the weekend box office was held, at various times, by the Pang Brothers’ The Storm Warriors, Thai thriller Phobia 2 and cop picture Turning Point.
The studios include not only Universal and Sony but production companies and distributors like Milkyway Image, Changchun Film Group and Golden Harvest Entertainment. Big-budget includes the $80 million that the Chinese government and its partners spent on John Woo’s Red Cliff and the $45 million invested in capturing Gong Li’s heaving bosoms in Curse of the Golden Flower. While these are considered offbeat films in the United States, they're standard fare in Hong Kong.
Commercially-oriented Hong Kong theaters also play European films, some of which are not released theatrically in the United States. For example, I recently watched the French film Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky at the IFC Palace, and it was available on several other screens. (Admittedly, H.K. can also be a dumping ground for films that didn’t make the U.S. cut, like the Richard Gere loyal pet movie Hachiko: A Dog’s Story.)
And then there are the non-profits. The Hong Kong Film Archive is operated by the city government, with regular programming. The Goethe Institute collaborates with both BC and the Archive to screen German-language movies. The local universities and film schools have screenings.
It’s all there. You just have to look a little harder than in Los Angeles or London.