A young actress drags a suitcase despondently up a tree-shaded street, as a crew shoots a scene in a film about director Norris Wong's unachieved dream of becoming a Cantopop lyricist.
The movie "The Lyricist Wannabe" is the latest from Wong and part of an unprecedented trend in Hong Kong's moviemaking history — the growth of its indie films.
Hong Kong films used to be made by big production companies. They were exported around the world in the industry's heyday from the 1970s to early '90s when Hong Kong was considered the Hollywood of Asia, turning out stars such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat and recent Oscar Best Actress winner Michelle Yeoh.
But the industry has declined in recent decades. Hollywood blockbusters flooded in and companies switched to making movies that appealed to China's bigger and more lucrative market, according to industry players.
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"The Hong Kong market had totally collapsed. Very experienced directors all went to the mainland. They make $10 million films there, so they won't make $1 million films here," said Mani Man, vice president of mm2, a company that supports indie films. "It's like the parents have all left, we're like orphans creating a new world."
Now, Hong Kong may be starting to see a revival in its film industry. In the five years before COVID-19 hit, 275 locally produced movies were made, more than the 256 in the previous five years, including independent films by new directors, according to the Hong Kong Motion Picture Industry Association.
Fewer films were made during the pandemic, but several enjoyed great success, breaking box office records.
What has helped drive this trend are Hong Kong's tough COVID-19 travel restrictions, which kept directors and audiences at home, giving the former a chance to make local films and the latter the time to watch them.
The government has also provided $50 million in funding to revive the industry in the past 15 years, including $30 million in just the past six years, enabling many small- and medium-budget films and new directors' first feature to be made, according to statistics from the Film Development Council.
Also, the 2019 social and political unrest in Hong Kong and Beijing's passage of a national security law in response to it have made some worry about changes to their way of life. Industry experts say there is a yearning among audiences in the city for films that reflect their lives.
"Because of all these uncertainties in Hong Kong society, it inspired some local movies which try to tell the stories about Hong Kong people," said Dorothy Lau, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University's Academy of Film. "People are trying to pursue their own identity, stories that belong to themselves."
For example, the highest recent local earner, "A Guilty Conscience," a film about a lawyer trying to find evidence to get his innocent client acquitted, dealt with the issue of justice — a theme that resonated with moviegoers as they see pro-democracy activists, a newspaper publisher and protesters tried under the new law.
"In the mind of many local residents, they look for justice but feel disappointed when they see reality. When they watch 'A Guilty Conscience,' they feel somebody is speaking their mind to inspire them to stay hopeful in what they see as the bleak reality," Lau said.
The government has said the law has restored peace after disruptive and sometimes violent anti-government protests in 2019.
The film, which raked in $15 million, setting a record for a Hong Kong film, is among three that made it onto the list of Hong Kong box office hits over the past year, a list previously dominated by Hollywood blockbusters.
Low-budget movies also made profits or broke even, while winning local and regional awards as they took on subjects that big studios neglected. Some of those include the struggles of blue-collar workers ("The Narrow Road"), the repressed love of closeted elderly gay men ("Twilight's Kiss"), and homelessness ("Drifting").
"It's important for Hong Kong to have its own movies and stories to be told on the big screens because cinema has always been a very good medium that preserves local culture," said the 36-year-old Wong, who cobbled together $294,000 for her latest movie, with a loan from a director friend and earnings from her debut film "My Prince Edward," which is about a woman who learns to assert herself.
Still, there are limits to the kinds of topics that can be featured. The national security law and subsequent amendments to film censorship guidelines make subjects with political content untouchable.
Several documentaries about the 2019 pro-democracy protests have been banned, according to media reports. Some content deemed sensitive has been deleted from films, including three being screened at a local film festival this month.
In response to questions from VOA, the Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration issued a statement saying the amendments "did not change the fact that the public and the film industry continue to enjoy freedom of creation and freedom of speech under the premise of abiding by the law and protecting national security."
It said that since the amended guidelines took effect in 2021, it has approved all but six of the more than 4,100 applications for film classification and public screening.
Directors meanwhile continue to make films about Hong Kong, with some showing them overseas or switching to less sensitive topics. At the Fresh Wave International Short Film Festival, which runs from June to July, filmmakers highlighted censorship by replacing deleted scenes with black images and muted sound.
Independent film and documentary maker Lam Sum's 2021 film "May You Stay Forever Young" — about the 2019 protests — was not approved. But he went on to be nominated for Best Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards this year for "The Narrow Road."
"I didn't think about giving up because I really like to make films. To me, this is a challenge for creators — how to tell stories in this space," said Lam, 37.
Despite the concerns about censorship, funding, and fewer audiences with the lifting of travel restrictions, directors believe now is as good a time as any to make films.
"I'm quite optimistic. … We no longer need to have big production companies' support to make a film," Wong said. "It will bring about more Hong Kong homegrown films."