Searching for Hong Kong cinema in Macau

Actress-turned-first-time director Charlie Young’s debut “Christmas Rose,” starring Aaron Kwok (郭富城), Gwei Lun-Mei (桂綸鎂) and Chang Chen (張震), opened last week in Hong Kong.  But by the time I found out, I was already on my way to Macau.  No matter.  What is a mere 40 miles between two administrative regions in China?

Plenty, as it turns out from a cinematic standpoint.  With the output from a still-film-crazed Hong Kong slowing to an average of one release a week, local cinema in the former British colony may have given way to Hollywood, but at least it can be easily found.  Macau, on the other hand, is equivalent to traveling five decades back in a time machine surrounded by glitzy hotel casinos.  The city has one multiplex cinema in the glittering Galaxy Macau on the Cotai Strip, but it is located several miles from the epicenter of its Portuguese colonial past.  To find a complex closer to the famed Ruins of St. Paul’s was more similar to, believe it or not, hunting down the theater landscape of Phnom Penh.

For example, the Centro Comercial Teatro Capitol structure looms large not far from Senado Square, but the 1931 theater now contains a dingy ground floor of dai pai dong, a basement video game arcade and upper floors of unknown activity because the escalators are not operating.

The Teatro Dom Pedro V, which dates back to 1860, is in much a better place as far as preservation is concerned, but it stopped its role as a screening venue a long time ago, going back to its roots as live performance venue in the 1930’s.

With other theaters demolished or in ruins, that left just four screening venues in town, including the UA Galaxy.  The Macau Tower, which resembles the Seattle Space Needle’s cousin, has two screens that show Hollywood movies.  Closer to the heart of town, the Cineteatro Macau (1982) has one additional screen, which means one additional Hollywood movie (for the record, during the weekend of May 24: “Fast and Furious 6,” “The Great Gatsby” and “Star Trek Into Darkness”).

And then there was one.  The two-screen Cinema Alegria, chugging along since 1952, happened to be showing “Christmas Rose” and a Thai horror movie starring Mai Davika Hoorne and Mario Maurer, with the promise of a Thomas the Tank Engine film to replace one of them in a couple of weeks.  Built in an Art Deco style and located off the beaten path in the Three Lamps District, the Alegria – known as Wing Lok in Cantonese – is a throwback to when screens sat onstage elevated behind curtains, movie theaters truly were theaters, and perforated, pre-printed tickets were marked off by hand.  Those tickets are an indication of the tough economic times that the theater has endured, as the price has risen, over time, by two-thirds to HK$50 (US$6.41).

As one of about a dozen spectators during opening weekend of “Christmas Rose,” despite the size of the theater, it felt like an oddly intimate screening of an admirable attempt by Young (楊采妮) to tackle a controversial topic by Hong Kong film standards: a legal case involving sexual assault.  Surrounded by empty seats and, therefore, zero distractions, I was able to find myself riveted without interruption by powerful acting that more than made up for an average screenplay.

In the end credits, Young thoughtfully thanked her mentors and friends, including Kwok and producer Tsui Hark (徐克).  But receiving equal thanks should be the Cinema Alegria for standing defiant and resisting change, and for screening Hong Kong films on Macau’s main island without letting stadium seating triumph over nostalgia.

“Christmas Rose” is currently screening in theaters across Hong Kong and Macau.  For screening times in Macau, go to the city’s government website.