Like Bollywood, Hong Kong’s film industry seems to be outdistancing Hollywood with opportunities for women directors and producers. With reference to the upcoming Hong Kong Film Awards, Katey Rich looks at Hong Kong’s ‘fempower.’
This year’s Academy Awards ceremony was mostly business as usual– a stream of tuxedoes stepping up to the stage to breathlessly accept their awards, with some evening gowns sprinkled in for the acting categories and starlet presenters. Like most years in the Academy’s long history, women made up just a fraction of the nominees, and practically none in the major categories. With the exception of Courtney Hunt, standing alone in the Best Original Screenplay category, female writers and directors were, as usual, excluded from the ceremony.
At Hong Kong’s equivalent ceremony this April 19, though, it will be a different story. Ann Hui will be looking for her third career Best Director win, nominated among internationally known male talent like John Woo and Johnnie To. And Sylvia Chang, Susan Chan Suk Yin and Ivy Ho all make up a huge chunk of the Best Screenplay category; Chang, who has also won two Hong Kong Film Awards as Best Actress, is nominated here for the third time.
in Hong Kong, this lineup isn’t really so unusual– Hui and Chang both are regularly nominated. But from an the perspective of a Hollywood watcher, the number of women represented in the Hong Kong Film Awards seems revolutionary, particularly since Hong Kong’s film industry has been represented to the outside world as dominated by martial arts and action films.
“To me this list of nominees looks pretty normal,” said Grady Hendrix, founder of the New York Asian Film Festival and Subway Cinema. Hendrix notes that, just as Hollywood had Mary Pickford, Hong Kong has had influential women as part of the industry from the very beginning. “Women have always been a big part of the industry, same as they’ve been in every film industry. This isn’t too different from a lot of places. In Korea, many of the major producers are women, too.”
But if you ask Peter Nellhaus, a New York-based film writer and Asian cinema buff, the number of women represented in these awards is no coincidence. “I think Hong Kong has a better track record in terms of proportion of women that are active as writers and directors, as well as in recognizing their work with awards.”
Hui, for example, has been nominated for nearly every film she has made for the last 20 years, starting when she kicked off Chow Yun-Fat’s career with the immigration drama The Story of Woo Viet.
“Hui gets a nomination if she’s got a film because she’s much loved, well liked and very active in the industry,” Hendrix explains. “Plus, she’s a good director to boot – very local and audiences here are rightly proud of her.”
Hui may be a singular phenomenon in Hong Kong, as few other female directors have achieved her level of fame, but from the start of Hong Kong’s film industry, some of the most influential producers were women.
“Mona Fong pretty much had complete say over Shaw Brothers while it was active as a film studio,” says Hendrix about the woman who produced dozens of classic martial arts films for the influential studio.
And Selina Chow, who now heads Hong Kong’s tourism board, launched countless careers as a TV and film producer. “Selina Chow invented the New Wave in the 80’s discovering and giving jobs to folks like Ringo Lam, John Woo, Tsui Hark, Patrick Tam, Ann Hui and pretty much everyone you can name,” says Hendrix. “Most of the people you can associate with Hong Kong cinema are her discoveries. She is literally responsible for the careers of thousands of people who are still working today.”
But it may be Hong Kong’s female action stars, however, that truly set it apart historically from other film industries. Nellhaus points to Maggie Q, known for small roles in American films like Mission: Impossible II and Live Free or Die Hard but also a frequent major player in Hong Kong films. “That Maggie Q, born in Hawaii, is shown to better advantage in Chinese language films speaks for itself.”
Hendrix puts it in historical perspective. “In the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s the biggest stars were women.”
Even when male-driven martial arts films became the dominant genre in the 70s, King Hu’s Come Drink With Me featured Cheng Pei-Pei as a fighter sent to rescue her brother from a band of thugs. 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a murderer’s row of some of Hong Kong’s best female action talent, including Chang Pei-Pei, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi.
But Hendrix doesn’t believe that the opportunities for women in Hong Kong as necessarily better than anywhere else, and notes that roles for actresses aren’t what they used to be. “While there are plenty of female martial arts actors, most of them are inactive these days,” he explains. Yeoh, whom Hendrix describes as a “grand dame of Hong Kong cinema,” has moved into production, and many of the biggest new stars are coming out of China. “Chinese actresses are better known across Asia and, to be honest, often better actresses with better training than Hong Kong which is stuffed with pop idols and teen faves who are often actresses second and pop stars first.”
It’s in television, Hendrix says, that actresses find better opportunity. much like Hollywood stars who move to the small screen to find well-developed female roles. “Where the real money is is in TV dramas which are often more reliant on drama, romance and comedy rather than action simply because of their budgets. A lot of actresses make their marks there and are huge celebs in Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan based on their television work.”
But regardless of market forces, legends like Ann Hui, Sylvia Chang and Ivy Ho have kept working for decades, with an industry influence and fanbase unmatched by any American women. Less well-known but as highly regarded are other female directors, many unafraid to court controversy in their films.
Nellhaus points to a favorite film by Mabel Cheung called The Soong Sisters, which he claims “may have cost her her career” since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1998. He explains, “The film is about three sisters, one who married Chiang Kai-Shek, and one who married Sun Yat-Sen. As I understand it, Beijing is less than happy with Cheung’s version of Chinese history.”
Nellhaus says purchasing a DVD player changed everything for him, as he was able to track down Hong Kong films from many decades. And Yeoh, well-known in the States because of her American film roles, went tub-thumping in the Wall Street Journal recently, drawing attention to the recent Asian Film Awards and giving special mention to Hong Kong, where her career began.
Thanks to festivals like Hendrix’s New York Asian Film Festival, and the international fame of stars like Yeoh and Zhang, Hong Kong films featuring women and made by them are available to any stateside moviegoers tired of the male-driven status quo.