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As we explore  Asian cinema this month at Toronto Film Scene, I was given the chance to take a glimpse into the Hong Kong film industry, particularly the growing trend of co-productions between Hong Kong-based companies and those from around the world.

So what are these “co-pros” all about, and why are they becoming more and more common? Oh, and what does this even mean to us as Canadian movie-goers?

It might be worth mentioning first that Hong Kong is home to one of the largest film industries in the world, (up there with Hollywood and Bollywood), and one of the world’s largest exporters of film and TV. According to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, it ranks first in Asia in per capita production, and has taken a sizable share of the film markets in South Korea, Taiwan, and other parts of Southeast Asia. Commercially speaking, it’s kind of a big deal.

A co-production is an artistic collaboration between a Hong Kong-based production company and one from mainland China or from abroad, like Taiwan, Australia, or even Canada. In this collaboration, the Hong Kong company must own over 50% of the copyright of the film; it must be a leading producer and contribute at least half of the total invested budget. Also, if it is a Hong Kong-mainland co-production, then at least one third of the lead actors must be from the mainland.

The reason mainland Chinese filmmakers would seek this kind of arrangement is clear, from a commercial standpoint. The mainland film industry is essentially a separate entity from Hong Kong’s, and isn’t nearly as commercially successful on the international level as Hong Kong-produced films are. This may be in part because mainland filmmakers might simply lack the skills, resources and experience their Hong Kong counterparts have at their disposal to make higher quality and more marketable movies.

Another reason might be due to the heavy censorship imposed on mainland Chinese cinema. A script undergoes review, and isn’t given the green light until it meets certain criteria, and is free of any “subversive” material (for example: excess nudity or drug use is a no-no, but it is also forbidden to depict police officers or government officials as corrupt. Even stranger: the PRC authorities aren’t big fans of the supernatural or paranormal. If something like a ghost comes up in the script, it must be merely a figment of a character’s imagination, or a hallucination. Otherwise, it’s cut.) This kind of stifling atmosphere results in fewer movies that actually resonate with audiences in other parts of the world. But because Hong Kong has a unique status in China and is more economically and politically open than the rest of the People’s Republic, those kinds of regulations don’t occur there. All in all the best way for a mainland Chinese movie to be a success abroad is through collaboration with Hong Kong.

But this trend is moving in the opposite direction too, and once again Hong Kong is the key. Consider that China has more than one seventh of the world’s population, making it an awfully big market. It’s with good reason that foreign companies would want to have their films distributed in China. The biggest obstacle is that the PRC has a fixed quota on foreign films imported annually (this year it was increased by more than 50%: from 20 per year to a whopping 34). So how to make the cut?

Answer: find a way around the whole quota thing altogether.

Enter the Closer Economic Trade Partnership Agreement, or (the cuter sounding) CEPA. This is a bilateral free trade agreement signed by mainland China and Hong Kong in 2003 that lets Hong Kong residents, companies and products enjoy preferential access to the Mainland market. It is a sign of the economic ties between both regions that have become stronger over the past decade. CEPA also lets imported Chinese-language films bypass the quota. The catch is that the film must be a co-production, with the Hong Kong company being one half of the equation. As long as it is, there is no limit to the number of films imported from other parts of the world to the mainland.

That being said, there are some tropes to be observed and taboos to be avoided if a film is to be a box office hit on the mainland (for one, it’s generally a good idea to make the story somehow related to the mainland). But broadly speaking this is, unfortunately, true for any bid for mainstream commercial success, whether it’s in China or Tinseltown, USA. Not ideal for the more innovative types, but not entirely the PRC government’s fault either.

But beyond the commercial benefits to be reaped from the upsurge in co-productions, they’re also a means to bridge cultural divides. Co-pros provide an opportunity for Chinese-speaking artists from, say, Canada, to work with and learn from Hong Kong’s filmmakers, and vice versa.

Even the language barrier isn’t necessarily a barrier. In an industry panel discussion hosted by Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, David Wu (director, Cold Steel ) discussed his experiences in co-pros where half the team couldn’t understand the other half. In these cases, he explained, it means a really, really good translator is vital to the production. It doesn’t mean the collaboration can’t happen, full stop.

He also promoted the rise of co-productions between Hong Kong and North American companies as a way of marrying two radically different styles. Wu compared the North American model–characterized by very slow and painstaking pre-production, bogged down in seemingly endless meetings between every department, but resulting in better communication and ultimately a more organized system–to the Hong Kong model–less meetings, rehearsals, and preparation, resulting in less communication, but allowing for more “guerrilla-style” filmmaking. He envisions co-pros as a chance to take the best of both models and combine them.

If nothing else, the rise in Hong Kong co-productions is helping to create a stronger link between movie-goers in China and movie-goers around the world (like ones here in Toronto), for example. It also shows a willingness to overcome those barriers and better understand different cultures, perhaps even resulting in better cinema, which is after all a visual, and at its very best, a universal medium.

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