Bringing Hong Kong Film to the Tiny Mobile Screen

One-Armed Swordsman and other martial arts delights are coming to a phone near you, thanks to Celestial Pictures

Ever since mainstream Western - audiences discovered Hong Kong film a decade ago, the power of Chinese storytelling has snowballed. But mobile telephony remains unleveraged by Hong Kong filmmakers, which opt instead for product placement - actors brandish the latest handset, then the manufacturer's logo appears in the film's credits.

But Celestial Pictures - guardian of the Shaw Brothers library of classic Hong Kong films - is porting HK's martial arts fantasies from the silver screen to the mobile phone screen. Many Shaws films - from "King Boxer" (aka "Five Fingers of Death") to "One-Armed Swordsman," "Come Drink With Me" and "Five Deadly Venoms" - are well known among Western action-film fans. The massive Celestial library comprises 760 films produced from the 1950s to the 1990s and including drama, musicals, even horror and science-fiction genres. But their kung fu films made Shaws worldfamous, and as they re-engineer their content for mobile entertainment, Celestial plunges in with flying fists, clanging swords and flowing robes.

"We're exploring different content options, and getting feedback from the telcos," said CEO William Pfeiffer at ITU TELECOM WORLD 2006, where Celestial's booth screened "mobisodes": 2-3 minute chunks of martial arts films with inserted animation sequences helping propel the action. So far "King Boxer" and "Twelve Gold Medallions” have gotten the mobisode treatment, with more to come.

Also on offer are videoclip messages for mobile devices. "If you're running late, you can send a clip from a [Shaw Brothers] movie of a kung fu hero getting attacked and tied up with the message 'I'm all tied up'," said Pfeiffer. "It's clever tonguein-cheek fun."

Ringtones based on theme music are spearheaded by the Shaw Brothers theme - you heard it in Quentin Tarentino's "Kill Bill Vol. One." The strident opening theme is a natural - "Hard to ignore that one!," noted Pfeiffer, adding that there are 3,000 other pieces of music in the Shaws' library.

The mobile strategy includes multiple products for different regions. In China, a mobile game - based on the 1969 film "The Wandering Swordsman" - is now available on China Mobile.

But even with its vast library, Celestial is active in production: their recent efforts include the feature film "Perhaps Love" - a musical from award-winning director Peter Chan. "We're also shooting high-budget TV productions on the mainland, with themes inspired by Shaw Brothers films," said Pfeiffer, adding that Celestial's new material would migrate to mobile as well.

The Hong Kong film industry has fallen from an annual peak of over 200 films in the early 90s to less than 50 now. Ironically, these films from Hong Kong's rich past are first to somersault onto the mobile platform.