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Why China’s rise means Hong Kong stars like Jackie Chan will be the last of their kind

At a ceremony in Los Angeles on Saturday, Jackie Chan will receive a lifetime achievement Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Chan, 62, is the most famous living Hong Kong movie star – and easily tops the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) star meter rankings for Hong Kong actors. Thanks to Chan’s early kung fu films and the hugely successful “Rush Hour” franchise, he could walk down the main street of Anytown, USA and turn heads.

Jet Li and Donnie Yen are No 2 and 3 respectively on the IMDB list. Li broke into Hollywood via the Lethal Weapon franchise and has stayed in the limelight with roles in all three Expendables movies, while Yen has risen to global fame thanks in part to the Ip Man movies.

Michele Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat (in that order) round out the Hong Kong Top 5 on the IMDB star meter list, which ranks actors based on the interest shown in them. And despite their fine performances, the Hong Kong A-listers Tony Leung, Andy Lau, Louis Koo, Aaron Kwok and Sean Lau are hardly known outside Asia.

One thing the Top 5 actors have in common: they are all over 50. Which begs the question, what about the next generation of Hong Kong A-list stars with global recognition? Will any of the younger actors appearing in Hong Kong cinema today break out beyond Asia in future?

Not likely, and here’s why. Mainland China, now the No 2 box office worldwide, has sucked most of the talent (and money) away from Hong Kong. The big Hong Kong film production companies are using their advantaged access to the Chinese film market to make formulaic comedies and dramas specifically aimed at mainland tastes. Who can blame them? The financial rewards are huge.

Many Hong Kong actors find regular work in these types of mainland films – and will continue to do so, provided they remain “patriotic” in the eyes of Beijing by not voicing support for Hong Kong democracy. But the problem is that mainland films don’t travel outside China. Name a Chinese movie that has had critical and commercial success in the West in the past decade? You have to go as far back as Zhang Yimou’s Hero in 2002 (which starred Jet Li). Prior to that was the global hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which propelled Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh to global fame.

So, any opportunity for Hong Kong actors to break into Hollywood – or at least appear in films aimed at non-Asian audiences – may have passed due to the “mainlandisation” of the Hong Kong film industry. A further risk for our local actors is if, over time, mainland Chinese audiences grow to prefer their own A-list and B-list actors, which would mean Hong Kong talent is relegated to minor supporting roles.

When Jackie Chan and Jet Li first landed their overseas roles, Hong Kong cinema was still strong. Hollywood producers effectively made them global A-list stars by casting them in major films. Now, with Hollywood’s love affair with mainland China, it is more likely these producers would choose mainland actors for these potentially breakout roles. The fact is, Hong Kong is not even on Hollywood’s radar anymore.

To be sure, local Hong Kong actors are still the staple of the “local” Hong Kong films – those not made as co-productions with the mainland. Alas, these are even less likely to travel abroad. Ten Years achieved global publicity far beyond its micro-budget due to its contentious political content, but the actors in that film are unlikely to be offered roles in bigger movies as a result.

Many of these local films are funded or supported by Hong Kong government programmes aimed at keeping alive the indigenous film industry. In this respect, Hong Kong is similar to Austria, Belgium and Canada, which each share a border with a larger country that speaks the same language. Germany, France and the US produce enough screen content to meet the needs of these neighbouring countries without them needing to make any of their own. So, why do Austria, Belgium and Canada invest heavily in their own film industries? Because each rightly believes that they have distinct cultures that should be shared with their own people and internationally as well.

Only the government and NGOs can provide the support via development capital, subsidies and access to cinemas which will ensure that Cantonese language and culture can survive mainland attempts to absorb and homogenise it. So the future of Hong Kong cinema may increasingly depend on handout and charity. No wonder the road ahead looks so narrow for the new crop of Hong Kong actors.

Michael T. George is general manager of Hong Kong-based MTG Asia, a film distribution consultancy