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Money shots: A look at the Hong Kong Porn Industry

Until the damned internet came along, Hong Kong was a hotbed for retro skin flicks. WIll plans for a big-budget 3D porn blockbuster revive the glory days? By Bourree Lam.

It’s 10pm on a rainy night in Jordan, and behind black curtains a Japanese playboy with retro black-rimmed glasses is fucking a long-haired woman on tatami mats. Between pants and moans she tells her suitor she’s very excited. “Baby,” he replies in Cantonese, “I’m not even at full horsepower yet.”

During the heated session, about 20 middle-aged men have been shuffling in and out of the little theatre just off Bowring Street, enjoying the voice-dubbed Japanese skin flick in short bursts. It’s a sparse crowd, but at least the Kwun Chung cinema is still in business. Nestled beneath innocuous neon signage, with two worn-looking women manning the door, it’s one of the last vestiges of a once-golden age of Hong Kong’s pornographic film industry, now wheezing and gasping its way to death in the face of a free-streaming onslaught from the internet.

Earlier this year, however, there was a glint of revitalising promise in the local industry’s eye. With much fanfare in January, Wan Chai-based One Dollar Production announced plans to shoot a big-budget 3D porn flick, to be worked on by the same company that did the 3D effects for Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. The planned HK$3 million project enjoyed international media attention, with One Dollar chairman Stephen Shiu Jr telling the Sunday Morning Post that the viewing experience would be like “watching it as if you were sitting beside the bed... It will look as if the actresses are only a few centimetres from the audience.”

That’s enough to excite anyone, and it called to mind Hong Kong porn’s glory days, when skin flicks were almost mainstream, earned a lot of coin, and boasted some marquee names. 

Hong Kong porn cinema had dirty beginnings. Before the softcore stuff had even touched the silver screen, sex was already in the theatres. Literally. According to Sam Ho, film scholar and programmer at the Hong Kong Film Archive, the 1950s saw savvy prostitutes roam the aisles of cheap cinemas offering their services before porn films were shown. There were also live sex shows in the vice-filled streets of Kowloon City, which were supposedly filmed and then projected onto a big screen.

But it was an unlikely source that first brought scandalous skin to the mainstream film-going public’s attention. Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 art film Blowup, which hit our screens in 1967 and featured a glimpse of female pubic hair, caused a scandal in the press and a rush to theatres.

“It was a big deal,” recalls the Film Archive’s Ho. “It was a few seconds... I figure either the censor fell briefly asleep, or he or she felt that it was time that we could allow this to happen.”

The fuss over the Blowup incident was a prelude to local forays into the risqué, when conservative Hong Kong started to show some signs of the sexual revolution that was raging in the West. In the same year, legendary martial arts director Chang Cheh’s The Assassin served up a nude scene that became indicative of a genre now referred to as ‘the Fist and the Pillow’. Basic concept: throw a naked girl into a kung fu film.

This came at a time when Cantonese cinema in general was facing its share of challenges, mainly due to the influx of movies from the Mainland that were stealing market share. In light of changing attitudes towards sex in contrast to Mainland China’s sexual prudery, Hong Kong cinema began to embrace naked girls on film. Filmmakers turned to nude scenes to bolster the popularity of both themselves and their productions.

By the 1970s, on-screen nudes were no big deal. Even Run Run Shaw was into it. “Run Run Shaw was famously known in the 70s to order his directors to put nude scenes in Shaw Brothers films, [because] they sell,” says Ho. Ten years after Blowup, Shaw Brothers movie Starlets for Sale was the first Hong Kong film to show pubic hair on screen.

The Shaw Brothers were one of the main purveyors of erotic films that could now be considered forgotten gems. Filmed in Technicolor, the movies featured retro-curvy babes having softcore sex to swinging soundtracks – and they had amazingly absurd plotlines to boot. Not only did these films embody a lot of themes of female sexual liberation in Hong Kong, but they were also light-hearted and fun.

To some, the directors of these films – Ho Fan, Lu Chi, and Li Han-hsiang among them – are stars of a golden era. They brought us delightfully named classics such as Body for Sale, The Mini-Skirt Gang, and 1976’s Crazy Sex, which starred sexpot Shirley Yu, who was topless for nearly the entire movie. Tina Ti, meanwhile, gained notoriety and sex symbol status for being ballsy enough to shed all her clothes for 1972’s The Warlord. Filmmakers kept pushing the moral envelope, and by 1980 audiences were witnessing sado-masochistic action in Lu Chi’s The Stud and the Nympho, a neat entrée to the naughty 80s. It was around this time that pornography became a fully fledged industry in its own right.

And then, in 1988, came Category III. Intended as a brake on the rampant skin flicks, the government-instituted rating instead acted as an umbrella under which the newly classified adults-only films thrived – although the content of these films was decidedly more softcore than their American counterparts. For the record, it has always been illegal to produce or distribute hardcore porn in Hong Kong. 

These days, it’s hard to find someone from Hong Kong’s porn movie industry who’s willing to speak on the record. Porn in Hong Kong is still seen as somewhat taboo, a sense heightened by the emergence of a legally shady underground porn scene, comprising films with low-production values often distributed as freebie VCDs that come wrapped with the newsstand porn mags. Their arrival is one reason the ‘mainstream’ porn film industry has suffered, as well as an overwhelming shift in taste towards Japanese adult video.

William Lau, however, is one man who was willing to give us an interview. He’s the senior manager of Joy Sales Film & Video Distributors, distributor of one of the most prominent Hong Kong porn hits in recent memory, last year’s The Forbidden Legend: Sex & Chopsticks.

“In the past, people rushed to see those erotic films – now, not really,” says Lau, explaining the decline of Hong Kong’s porn cinema. “There really aren’t too many motivations to go to a theatre and see an erotic film. There’s rarely a celebrity we really want to see, and most celebrities already bare a lot of skin anyway. With movies like Sex & Chopsticks, it’s not that revolutionary [these days]. In the 1980s people were still quite conservative, so it was unique and shocking. It was provocative.”

According to Lau, Sex & Chopsticks grossed about HK$3 million – substantial, but small fry compared to Michael Mak’s 1991 success Sex and Zen, which reportedly earned more than HK$18 million and sparked two sequels.

“The classic Category III [films] are still selling, but [since 2000] there are really no hits that I can think of,” says Lau, who adds that Joy Sales will continue to distribute erotic films anyway because the profits are “alright”.

Of course, the killer blow to Hong Kong’s porn film industry was the arrival of the internet, and, more recently, the ready availability of fast-streaming, free internet porn. When you can get a wider variety of porn faster, harder, and free, why bother to fork out cash for that mildly arousing soft-focus flick with the hokey plot line? A recent study counted 4.2 million pornographic websites – that’s a hell of a selection.

On the upside, the internet has encouraged Hong Kong’s DIY porn filmmakers to come out of the woodwork. According to sex researcher Katrien Jacobs, one homemade film, an X-Men parody dubbed Super Sperm Task Force, has attracted a cult following online.

But that’s a far cry from the days when people would rush to the cinema to catch a glimpse of pubic hair, or when a topless starlet in Technicolor was enough to guarantee a full house. And it’s unlikely such films will be grossing millions of dollars any time soon.

So what of that great promise for the 3D porn blockbuster from One Dollar Production? Well, since the initial hype died down, the world hasn’t heard so much as a whisper from the company. It seems they’re no longer so keen on talking up their big movie. When we got in touch with the company, they declined our interview request and said the film was “on hold for the time being.” And along with it, so are our hopes of a replay for Hong Kong porn’s big-screen glory.
 

 

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