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November 2022   |   Volume 24 No. 1

Hong Kong Directors Shaping Mainland Movies

A new book looks at the role of Hong Kong filmmakers in directing Chinese ‘main melody’ films – commonly viewed as propaganda vehicles – in their cross-border ventures, and the implications of this for both Chinese and Hong Kong cinema.

Professor Stephen Yiu-Wai Chu’s book Main Melody Films: Hong Kong Directors in Mainland China, was partly prompted by the words of President Xi Jinping at the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2017 when he said: “Our compatriots in Hong Kong and Macao will share both the historic responsibility of national rejuvenation and the pride of a strong and prosperous China.”

According to Professor Chu, those words have had a strong impact across China, including in the entertainment industry whose Zhang Hongsen, Former Deputy Director General of the Film Bureau of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, stated: “The film industry will follow the guiding principles of the 19th CCP National Congress.”

“I am interested in the changing situation Hong Kong culture has to face in this context,” said Professor Chu, who is Director of HKU’s Hong Kong Studies programme. “It’s pertinent to explore the relationship between Hong Kong’s cultural industries and their Mainland equivalents, thereby disclosing the ways their political economies interact. Hong Kong filmmakers’ increasing participation in main melody films provides a good case study for this purpose, because it involves intricate cross-border dynamics that connect cultures to politics.”

Main melody films were originally derived from the musical term leitmotif, referring to state-sponsored, keynote films with central themes. “Best known as ‘propaganda films’ in the West, they had their roots in propaganda works that promoted certain ideas for and/or paid tribute to the nation,” said Professor Chu. “During the early Mao years, the Fourth Generation of Chinese filmmakers focussed on Soviet-inspired propagandist films, given the government’s stranglehold on mass media. From 1949 to 1976, films were used to serve politics. Owing to the open-door policy engineered by the then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, the cultural industries in Mainland China underwent significant changes in a decade of reforms when the capitalist energy of China was gradually released in the 1980s.”

The term ‘main melody films’ entered the official lexicon in March 1987 when Teng Jinxian, then Head of the National Film Bureau, called on studio managers to “foreground main melody while encouraging diversity”. “By ‘main melody’ he meant ‘embodying patriotism, socialism, and collectivism; resolutely resisting money worship, hedonism, and excessive individualism; and unshakably opposing capitalism, and all corrupt, exploitative trends’,” said Professor Chu.

‘Quasi-main melody blockbuster’

At the start of the millennium, the movies got bigger. The book discusses Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) which was described by Professor Darrell Davis of Lingnan University as “no less main melody than any main melody picture”. “The film was viewed as a ‘quasi-main melody martial arts blockbuster’ and ‘China’s first local blockbuster fully modelled on the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster’,” said Professor Chu, “and while Hero stirred up controversies about its pro-establishment ideology, it also successfully set an example for the blockbusterisation of the Chinese film industry.”

After 2009, Chinese cinema entered a new stage of development, and The Founding of a Republic is seen to have set the stage for main melody blockbusters, although its commercialisation was still lacking. Against this background, said Professor Chu, Hong Kong directors had the chance to helm main melody blockbusters with an eye to enhancing their commercial competitiveness.

“At its peak, Hong Kong cinema was first in the world in terms of per capita production, as well as the second largest exporter of films after the United States,” he said. “More importantly, Hong Kong filmmakers from this small city once dubbed ‘Hollywood of the East’ developed their careers with the Hollywood operation logic. They took active parts at every important juncture of the commercialisation of main melody films.

“For example, Teddy Chan’s privately-run Bodyguards and Assassins (2009) as a paradigm shift of main melody blockbuster; the successful blockbusterisation of typical main melody by Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain 3D (2014); the diversification of main melody film genres by, among others, The Captain (Andrew Lau’s disaster film, 2019) and Leap (Peter Chan’s sports film, 2020). In short, Hong Kong directors’ experience in making commercial films brought various genres such as police and gangster, action, wuxia and disaster films, revitalising the otherwise stereotypic, clichéd main melody genre.”

Professor Chu also cites Miao Xiaotian, General Manager of the China Film Co-Production Corp, for recognising the significant role Hong Kong film talents have played in boosting the industry in Mainland China when he said: “In the past we focussed mainly on art films. Through our collaboration with Hong Kong we understood the concept of commercial films, beginning to know how to attract the audience to our films.”

Professor Chu describes his book as “a distinctive attempt to turn away from the Mainland-Hong Kong dichotomy, shifting the emphasis to cultural translations across the border. Focussing on Hong Kong filmmakers’ contributions to main melody blockbusters that affected both regions, it will generate a renewed interest in the entanglements Hong Kong pop cultural genres face when they respond to the changes caused by the integration of Hong Kong culture into Mainland China.”

Book cover

Main Melody Films: Hong Kong Directors in Mainland China
Author: Yiu-Wai Chu
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Year of Publication: 2022

I am interested in the changing situation Hong Kong culture has to face… It’s pertinent to explore the relationship between Hong Kong’s cultural industries and their Mainland equivalents, thereby disclosing the ways their political economies interact.