Martial arts master vs. the mob

SUN JOURNAL

Pirates: Video bootleggers are putting a hit on Hong Kong's movie industry, prompting filmmakers to take their fight to the streets.

May 20, 1999|By Karen Mazurkewich | Karen Mazurkewich,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HONG KONG -- Jackie Chan rules -- except in his hometown.

The martial-arts master, who defeats the mob in all his movies, is being trounced by the Hong Kong criminal gangs known as "triads." Here in the heart of unregulated capitalism, as video piracy reaches epidemic proportions, everyone in the local film industry -- even power players such as Chan -- is losing money.

Chan recently announced that his film "Rush Hour" lost at least $1.25 million last year because of declining attendance at cinemas and reduced home-video sales.

Determined to fight back, Chan took to the streets of Hong Kong with more than 1,000 other actors, actresses and directors to protest the rise of bootleg video compact disks. Clad in black leather and sporting dark shades, Chan signed autographs for fans who came to gawk at their favorite action star.

His loyal fans, however, have increasingly become disloyal buyers.

In the crowded streets of Kowloon, Hong Kong's commercial center, stalls and tiny shops are filled with pirated laserdiscs. The grainy cover sleeves and amateur artwork are dead giveaways of pirated material.

Most films -- like "Shakespeare in Love" and Chan's recent film, "Gorgeous" -- are on the streets even before they debut at the movie theaters.

"Why pay HK$65 [U.S.$8.30] to line up and see a new movie when you can pay HK$20 [U.S.$2.56] and watch it at home," says a teen-age shopper browsing along the crowded stands of Tung Choi Street.

Why indeed? Especially since the quality of counterfeit laserdiscs continues to improve. Pirated VCDs have been affectionately dubbed "people's heads pictures" -- a reference to the heads of members of the audience that clutter pirated videos shot directly off cinema screens.

The bobbing heads appear less and less frequently on new bootleg copies. Industry insiders say organized crime syndicates are now getting prints directly from labs and are striking cleaner copies.

Although this spells good news for nondiscriminating consumers, pirate operations are changing the face of the Hong Kong film industry. With profits falling, producers are hedging their bets.

Exhibitors are the major investors in Hong Kong cinema, and when their pocketbooks are squeezed, productions shrink and budgets drop. Local production dropped from 300 movies in 1993 to fewer than 90 in 1998. For actors and technicians this translates to less money and fewer jobs -- at least 20,000 fewer, according to Woody Tsung, chief executive of the Motion Pictures Industries Association in Hong Kong.

Everyone is taking a pay cut, including Ringo Lam, a well-known action director who shot such films as Jean-Claude Van Damme's "Maximum Risk." Lam is preparing to shoot a new movie financed by the theater chain Mei Ah. Its budget is half of what he normally receives.

But Lam loves making movies in Hong Kong, and like many other players, he is adjusting his budgets to meet the new economic reality. The strategy for his next picture is to play up the suspense angle, and cut back on expensive stunts such as car crashes.

Lam joined Chan in the protest march. He says piracy is killing the industry and forcing talent to look for work abroad: "It's important to keep good people in the business. If you don't have the money they will go West or they will quit. If you don't have the right talent, how can you sustain the industry?"

Movie mogul Thomas Chung, of Media Asia, has devised his own formula for dealing with the film crisis caused by video piracy: Add more computerized special effects and hire unknown faces who will work for less money.

"I'm not paying more than $20,000 to any actor now," says Chung. He tells actors bluntly: "The price must come down or I won't use you." That's one-quarter of the normal salary of a star.

In his spacious boardroom, Chung throws on a video trailer of his latest movie, "Gen-X Cops." A rapid succession of images shows a group of young rogue cops fighting it out with fists and guns against thugs from the Japanese mafia. It's an ensemble piece Chung describes as an "Asian St. Elmo's Fire."

But the fresh faces do not display the kung-fu prowess international audiences have come to expect in Hong Kong films.

Lam believes the lack of new action stars is directly related to the dramatic drop in movie production. As fewer movies are made, young artists have fewer opportunities to develop, says Lam. "They need time to make themselves known in Hong Kong and get cast in a lead role."

Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh put Hong Kong on the map in the '70s and '80s with their death-defying stunts and nasty fight scenes. Audiences around the world flocked to see their latest acrobatic routines -- kick, punch, somersault, back flip, kick, punch -- and dangerous jumps off buildings, piers and moving vehicles.

Many Hong Kong films even show gruesome bloopers as the end credits roll. The clips feature stunts gone wrong, and sometimes end with the star being carried off on a stretcher.

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