Rewind and fast-forward

Updated: 2011-01-05 09:13

By Liu Wei (China Daily)

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Sil-Metropole has a long history in the Chinese film business and is now trying to re-invent itself for the 21st century. Liu Wei reports.

Hong Kong film mogul Ng See-yuen had been feeling guilty for years. In 1992 he produced Dragon Inn, a smash kungfu film directed by Tsui Hark. But he removed the name of scriptwriter He Jiping from the closing credits because He was one of the so-called left-wing or pro-Chinese government filmmakers, whose name would prevent the film entering Taiwan, then the most important market for Hong Kong cinema.

Nineteen years later, Ng says he promises that he will add He's name to a new version of the film, which will be released soon.

The anecdote is a metaphor for the fate of the Sil-Metropole Organization, a company He worked for. It is a Hong Kong-registered company but is backed by the mainland government and a group of patriotic filmmakers.

Turning 61 in 2011, the company experienced difficulties at a time when politics imposed a profound influence on cinema. But today it is part of a new era of the Chinese film industry.

After World War II, some renowned filmmakers in Shanghai moved to Hong Kong, then a British colony. They established three production companies - Great Wall Movie Enterprises Ltd, the Feng Huang Motion Pictures Co, and the Sun Luen Film Co (which merged into today's Sil-Metropole, in 1982.)

The patriotic filmmakers determined their movies would be of a high moral value, comment on social reality and have no violence or pornography.

The studios had their heyday in the early 1950s, boasting the most famous stars, the most talented filmmakers and the most popular movies.

Song Dai, now chairman of Sil-Metropole, told China Daily that at a film premiere in the 1950s at Hong Kong's Po Hing Theater, the stage was too small for the stars of the three companies. Among them was Xia Meng, "star of the stars" and an icon for a generation.

Directors and writers such as Zhu Shiling and Li Pingqian were admired artists. The wildly popular kungfu novelist Louis Cha also worked for the three companies as a writer and director.

In 1964, Feng Huang made The Golden Eagle, which was the first Hong Kong film to gross HK$1 million.

The Chinese government supported the companies by buying their flicks for release on the mainland and allowed them to shoot films here.

It wasn't long before the three companies and their filmmakers were labeled as "left-wing". In a British colony where Taiwan had political influence, the companies were handicapped.

Censorship came first. All films featuring the national flag of the People's Republic of China, or its leaders, were to be cut. In 1952, the British rulers of Hong Kong deported 10 left-wing filmmakers, mostly staff of the three companies, back to the mainland.

At the same time, Taiwan used its influence as a big Asian film market to put pressure on left-wing filmmakers.

According to Chang Hsin-yen, director of Jet Li's big screen debut The Shaolin Temple, which was produced by Sil-Metropole, Taiwan controlled the Hong Kong film scene in the late 1950s, because one third of Hong Kong films' gross take came from the Taiwan market.

"All those who had worked for the three companies were blacklisted. If you had made a 'left-wing film', you had to write a confession letter to enter the Taiwan market," Chang told in a recent interview. "No Sil-Metropole film was screened in Taiwan."

As a result, in 1966, when Chang made The Jade Bow, and the wire was used for the first time in a kungfu film, no choreographer was available. Two of Chang's friends helped out, but the first thing they did after arriving on the set was to squat, and they dared not stand up until they were sure no suspicious people were on the set.

Filmmakers of the three companies, although admired as accomplished artists, were also known as idealistic proletarians.

Pao Hee-ching, daughter of actor and director Bao Fong, recalls that in her childhood her father, although a superstar then, had only one suit. He often went to the pawnshop to pawn it, and then redeem it when he had some money.

The "cultural revolution" (1966-76) almost destroyed the companies. In the mid-1960s, the Chinese government required the studios to focus on topics about workers, farmers and soldiers. Filmmakers had to "experience lives" in factories and rural areas.

"There were few farmers in Hong Kong, so we had to 'change our views on the world'. To tell the truth, I was kind of miserable," Chang says.

Chang and some of his colleagues went to Guangzhou to learn from yangbanxi, or revolution-themed Peking Opera. He was told to use the exact styling of yangbanxi for his films. "Many people were scared by the atmosphere," Chang says.

This was true of the star Xia Meng. After a trip to the mainland in 1967 with some fellow actresses, she resigned from the studio and left for Canada.

Bao Fong, who directed a biopic of Qu Yuan, an ancient poet said to be framed by an imperial concubine, had to withdraw the film from theaters in a hurry because some critic claimed the film was satirizing Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong's wife.

"Sil-Metropole lost its talents, market and the audience during the 'cultural revolution'," Song says. "That was the bitter price of the filmmakers' faith."

After the "cultural revolution", the three studios did, however, get the chance to reprise their old glory. In 1982, they merged into today's Sil-Metropole and made The Shaolin Temple, which starred Jet Li, then a 19-year martial arts champion.

The kungfu flick was the most watched and loved film of the time, as 500 million went to watch it. Some watched it five or more times. Thousands of young men went to the temple in central China, dreaming of becoming the next Li.

In the following decade, when the Hong Kong film industry experienced a decline, Sil-Metropole often became a partner of Hong Kong film companies that wanted a mainland release.

But after Hong Kong's return to China in 1997, this advantage disappeared. Now almost every Hong Kong film company can set up its own office in Beijing.

"The urgent mission for Sil-Metropole now, is how to compete in the market as a Hong Kong film company," film expert Zhao Weifang says.

The most important project of the company in 2011 is The Grand Masters, a biopic on kungfu master Ip Man, starring Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi.

A-listers and the kungfu genre, the standard elements of Chinese blockbusters, shows the old company's new ambition.

"Sil-Metropole was never a propaganda machine and it will not be in the future," Sil-Metropole's Song says. "Neither will it become a company focusing only on commercial interests. The legacy of promoting high moral values and making good films with sincerity still works today."

(China Daily 01/05/2011 page18)


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