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Tales of an Island

Photo by Bérénice ReynaudHONG KONG -- IN THE FORMER COLONY'S GLITTERING urban jungle, one sometimes forgets that Hong Kong is an island, surrounded by 234 outlying islands. The biggest is Lantau, which boasts an ultramodern airport, is about twice the size of Hong Kong and connects to the city by a spectacular suspended bridge. Much smaller, but third in overall size, Lamma still retains most of its charm, in spite of the power plant and the cement factory that deface parts of its shore. The home of fishermen and Western expatriates (and the birthplace of mega-star Chow Yun-fat), its peace is protected by the near-total absence of motorized vehicles. In the last few months, though, the agitated noises of a film crew at work could be heard mixing with the roar of the waves. On the beach, Stanley Kwan was directing his latest movie, Tale of an Island (working title), 24 hours in the life of seven people trapped by government quarantine.

Huge towers have been built to flood night scenes with light. A young Taiwanese woman (played by Shu Qi, a former soft-porn actress who is the newest face in town) has landed on the island after a one-night stand and has struck up a momentary friendship with the owner of a wine bar (Elaine Jin). The two women try to go to the local inn for beer, but instead end up on the beach with a young male movie star (Julian Cheung), and together the trio has a "moment." As the young woman tells the star he reminds her of her dead brother, the young man, upset by the surveillance of helicopters, starts "shooting" at them with his outstretched fingers, like a kid playing cops and robbers. Because of government regulations, the helicopters will have to be digitally added, so Cheung is gesticulating and shouting at the empty sky, which gives the scene a surreal beauty.

Chain-smoking behind a video monitor, Kwan is a warm, generous presence, one who first became known to international cinephiles after his 1992 Centre Stage won a Silver Bear in Berlin for its main actress, Maggie Cheung. "He likes to cast special, even unusual, people," says Jin, who was given her first major break by Kwan in 1986. "He's a great communicator and explains the character from the inside." A slim, witty, dapper man reads lines with Qi, working with her to get a particularly emotional moment across without tears. It's Jimmy Ngai, Kwan's screenwriter since his previous movie, Hold You Tight (1997), who here has also assumed the uncredited role of language coach and dramaturge. "The film involves four languages," says Ngai, "Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and English, and Stanley's not used to this. I'm just here to help."

As the Hong Kong film industry becomes more and more affected by the Asian economic crisis -- 1998 box-office receipts were at their lowest point in 30 years -- commercial cinema is suffering, paradoxically, the biggest blow. The level of production has dramatically shrunk; the legendary studio Golden Harvest completed only two films last year, then lost its production facilities. Unable to fill theaters, the studios have taken to releasing previously shelved (i.e., bad) movies, which further deepens audience dissatisfaction. However you put it, people just don't have money. "Last year they preferred Hollywood movies to local products," says studio executive Roger Lee. "This year, they simply don't go."

Less dependent on local and regional markets, but increasingly supported by foreign investors, a handful of auteurs, however, have been able to keep working, including Kwan and Wong Kar-wai (who, to everyone's chagrin, kept delaying the shooting of his new movie, provisionally titled Story of Food). One such foreign investor is the Japanese company Pony Canyon, which in 1997 decided to produce a trilogy of films by three of Asia's most daring directors: Japan's Shunji Iwai, Taiwanese new-wave luminary Edward Yang and Kwan. "The common point of the trilogy," says Kwan of Tale of an Island, "is our reaction, as Asians, to the domination of American culture."

SOME EMERGING HONG KONG FILMMAKERS, TOO young and as of yet unable to attract international investors, are pursuing their own production ventures, a new development in the cinematic landscape that was acknowledged by the 23rd Hong Kong International Film Festival with a special section called "The Age of Independents." One of its most noted section entries was Love Will Tear Us Apart by Yu Lik-wai, who, after studying filmmaking in Brussels, won several prizes for his documentary Neon Goddesses; went on to shoot and produce one of the most exciting movies of the new generation of Chinese filmmakers, Jia Zhangke's Xiao Wu; then persuaded the actor Tony Leung Kar-fai to invest and star in his first feature film. A love triangle between displaced mainland Chinese in Hong Kong (a porn salesman, an elevator operator, a feisty young whore), the film will be in competition next month at Cannes. Yet another enterprising young filmmaker, Lawrence Wong, shot his Cross Harbour Tunnel in Super-16 in a few days with some friends, then, lacking the money to blow it up, screened it on video at the festival; even in a bad transfer, the originality of its witty, freewheeling, screwball narration shines through.

Meanwhile, crisis or no crisis, the industry keeps churning out a few big-budget productions, and the "Panorama" section of the Hong Kong festival included last year's biggest commercial hits: Andrew Lau's The Stormriders (an adaptation of a popular comic) and one of Jackie Chan's latest extravaganzas, Who Am I?, co-directed by the star and a talented young filmmaker, Benny Chan. "Little Dragon" remains one of the territory's best exports, and, nationalist to the core, Jackie Chan uses every opportunity to help his hometown, appearing at least once a year in a promotional movie sponsored by the Hong Kong Tourist Association. This year, he enlisted the help of two filmmakers, Mabel Cheung and Alex Law, known for their collaboration on romantic dramas, including Painted Faces, a re-creation of Chan's childhood years in a Peking Opera school.

Invited by Cheung and Law, I arrive on "The Peak," Hong Kong's major tourist attraction, and there watch Chan, clad in a white sports suit, jog, smile, wave and play with toddlers -- one Anglo, one Japanese, one Korean, a little boy for each target market. Onlookers are benevolently kept at bay ("We're shooting! No flash!"), and, after being gently scolded on the mobile phone by Chan's agent for "not informing him sooner" of my visit, I have no problem getting my 15 minutes.

At a turning point in his career, Chan now commutes between two continents on a regular basis so that he can make "two films in America for one film in Hong Kong. The two cultures are totally different," he says. "Rush Hour was successful around the world, except in Asia." For his next U.S. project (a historical action drama set during the Qing dynasty), Chan has insisted on being co-producer in order to "have the power to change the script." While his involvement in Hollywood protects him from the crisis, Chan has nonetheless become an active advocate of the local film industry. Last month, Chan led a demonstration against piracy, helped organize a "day without movies" (all the Hong Kong theaters closed), and recently met with Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to ask for his help.

It is also apparently a time for some self-reflection. Chan has hired Cheung and Law to direct a documentary about the history of his parents, who, after fleeing the civil war and the Japanese invasion by coming to Hong Kong, eventually immigrated to Australia more than 30 years ago. Aware that he is "no longer 25" (he's 45), Chan plans to "continue making action movies without special effects until I cannot do it. Since I always choreograph my own action scenes, I know how far I can jump, how far I can go," says Chan with a smile. "For the next few years in Hong Kong, I would like to convince Golden Harvest, Media Asia and Empire Entertainment [the three remaining major studios] to collaborate. Only by joining forces will they survive."

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