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PostPosted: Wed Mar 03, 2004 4:28 pm    Post subject: Infernal threat to HK movies

Infernal threat to HK movies
Paris Lord
4 March 2004 / 03:05 AM

Keep buying those insanely cheap pirate VCDs and DVDs and you can kiss local box-office hits like the Infernal Affairs movies goodbye, the film's directors have warned in an interview with MetroNews.

``I've said so many times, `don't buy them, don't buy them,'' director Alan Mak said. ``Please go to the cinemas. Or it will be no more directors, no more films.''

The success of the Infernal Affairs franchise is credited with helping spark a revival in Hong Kong's film industry, but Mak and his co-director, Andrew Lau, say the parasitic influence of VCD and DVD piracy is always there.

Once known as the Hollywood of Asia during its heyday in the 1960s-1980s, the combination of bootleg VCDs, competition from foreign films and economic crisis dealt the industry a triple whammy that saw as many as 7,000 workers lose their jobs by the turn of the century, while foreign films outperformed the local product at the box office.

At its nadir, in the late 1990s, the industry was producing fewer than 100 films a year, half the output of a decade earlier. Even with a slight rebound beginning in 2001, many of the films shot were very low budget direct-to-video comedies for the mainland market - hardly award winners. In addition, top stars like Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat departed for Hollywood, bringing new international lustre to the idea of Hong Kong cinema while the reality remained in the doldrums. The tough time Mak and Lau had finding investors for the first Infernal Affairs film was indicative of the industry's troubles.

``At that time, it was quite dangerous'' for investors to fund the movie, Mak recalled, saying investors wanted to control the number of action sequences and impose other demands on the finished product. But Mak and Lau stuck to their guns. The resulting tale of triad intrigues inside the Hong Kong police department became the top grossing film of 2002 and went on to win seven Hong Kong Film Awards, including best picture, director and screen play.

The films spawned two sequels, Infernal Affairs II and III, the latter premiering in Beijing in December. The tale of Tony Leung's doomed undercover cop Yan and Andy Lau's triad mole-turned-good cop wannabe Ming also made investors smile, earning HK$57 million at the box office on a HK$35 million investment. Last week Mak, Lau and screenwriter Felix Chong won the Sing Tao Daily/The Standard Leader of the Year award in the sports/culture/entertainment category.

Next, American directing legend Martin Scorsese will shoot a Hollywood remake of the original, after Warner Bros ponied up US$1.75 million (HK$13.65 million) for the rights. Brad Pitt will both produce and star in the film. Lau and Mak say they have no idea how Scorsese will translate the Hong Kong setting to the US, but are deeply grateful an American of his stature has decided to shoot their film.

Such success is a far cry from just a few years ago when the filmmakers could not find any backers willing to touch it. ``Most of the movies then were low-budget or love stories, but for a movie like [ours] it was not the trend at the time,'' Mak said. ``People thought that maybe this kind of story is old-fashioned, but to be honest, they hadn't seen the script yet, they only saw the story line.''

The story itself was tossing about in screenwriter Chong's head for four years before he trapped it in a script, Lau said. He urged Chong to expand on the few sentences he had written and Mak joined in, sharing screenwriting honours with Chong. Mak said when pitching the film, investors wanted to know the number of action scenes and its running time, then demanded that they insert more action scenes. ``We told the investors, `this is our script, if you don't like it, sorry,''' Mak said, adding that they shopped the film around to find backing. If the movie had failed, he said with a laugh, he and Lau would have been ``finished''.

The industry is fortunate investors took the gamble on a film that has won international acclaim and changed the image of Hong Kong cinema. However, both directors say that piracy and other threats remain - and audiences will have only themselves to blame if the local movie industry dies. ``We've told audiences again and again if they [keep] buying [pirate movies] you'll kill us,'' Mak said.

It is impossible to know how much money Infernal Affairs has lost through piracy but the Motion Picture Association of America says Asia accounts for 97 per cent of worldwide VCD piracy and 77 per cent of DVD piracy. Most estimates say the mainland - a future prime market for Hong Kong movies - is by far the worst offender. ``Increasingly, pirate syndicates are well-organised, opportunistic, risk-friendly, financially astute and frequently violent,'' Mike Ellis, head of the Hong Kong office of the association, has said.

For Mak and Lau, the good news is that despite piracy, talent can still triumph. The Infernal Affairs pictures became a huge success because they were unique, pointing Hong Kong cinema in new directions. Thanks to this, the directors find themselves with plenty of work, and no problems attracting backers.

This month Mak and Lau begin work on a film to be shot in Japan called Initial D, based on a famous animation series about illegal road racing. Investors are no longer jittery about backing them. ``They know our style,'' Mak said. ``It's [good] that the times are changing.''
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