Courtroom drama “A Guilty Conscience” is currently the highest-grossing Hong Kong and Asia-produced film in history, crossing the nine million box office mark as of February 13. Produced by first-time director William Ng Wai-lun, the story follows Adrian Lam (played by Dayo Wong Tsz-wah), a once snobbish barrister who accidentally made the innocent Jolene Tsang (played by Louise Wong Tan-ni) sit in prison because of his carelessness, fight for justice with all costs against the powerful Chung’s family.
The film was initially scheduled to screen in 2020 as a Chinese New Year release. Due to pandemic restrictions and seemingly endless lockdowns in previous years, many Hong Kong movies were forced to push back their release dates repeatedly and halted movie productions in light of disease prevention protocols. Therefore, the triumph of “A Guilty Conscience” has served as an encouragement to local film production by proving Hong Kong audience still has great confidence and interest in Hong Kong-produced films.
Why “A Guilty Conscience” was able to blow up the box office?
Launched as a Chinese New Year release in the post-pandemic era, “A Guilty Conscience” managed to out-compete the other three local films, namely “Everything Under Control”, “Sakra” and “Say I Do To Me”. All three featured Hong Kong movie stars and singers with strong local fan bases across different age groups, such as Hins Cheung King-hin, Ivana Wong Yuen-chi, and Donnie Yen Ji-dan, etc., the victory of “A Guilty Conscience” appeared even more miraculous.
“At many times, a film may not be able to achieve high box office even if it has a good script and strong cast.’ said Lim Wai-bun, the distributing consultant of “Warriors of Future” produced by One Cool Film Production Limited. ‘It required the right time, the right place, and with the right people (天時地利人和).'”
Edko owns the whole production line
Being the oldest film production company in Hong Kong, Edko Films Limited is also the producer and distributor of “Table for Six” (2022), “Anita” (2021), and the all-time classic “Cold War” (2012). It is also the mother company of Broadway Circuit which has 14 cinemas across Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories.
“Edko owns an extensive cinema circuit and has great connections with other local circuits as well, and that gives “A Guilty Conscience” an enormous advantage in getting higher revenue from ticketing because their films are much more likely to be scheduled in the “golden time slots”, squeezing other films into slots that are less favorable by consumers. It’s almost like shopping in the supermarket, consumers are more likely to buy what is placed right in front of them instead of products stuffed behind the shelves.” said Lim.
In addition, Edko film also owns Kingmart Advertising, which is responsible for all the digital marketing and promotional activities for “A Guilty Conscience”. “Owning the whole production with everything under their control helps Edko maximize the profits of everything film they make,” said Lim.
The “Wong Tze-wah effect”
The record-breaking movie is starred and led by Dayo Wong Tze-wah, nicknamed “Tze-wah God”, a local actor and singer who also introduced stand-up comedy to Hong Kong in the 1990s. Coincidentally, he was also the lead actor in “Table for Six”, which was last year’s CNY release and the second highest-grossing Chinese film in Hong Kong. His popularity admittedly spreads across different demographics in Hong Kong with people spending thousands of dollars just to purchase a ticket for his stand-up comedy shows.
Geoffrey Chung Tsz-kin, a 19-year-old student at the Heng Seng University of Hong Kong, said Wong Tze-wah is the main reason he is interested in watching the film at first. “It cannot be bad with Wong Tze-wah in it,” said Chung.
Savio Lau Ka-chun, a 33-year-old investment banker also shares a similar point of view with Chung. “It is fascinating to see Wong Tze-wah playing a barrister, he knows how to incorporate his comedy style with the role.”
Apart from the fact that Wong Tze-wah is adored by the public, Lim has another point of view as to why Wong captivates consumers.
“Wong Tze-wah has a unique comedy style that no one in the market can replicate. It is hard to categorize him into a particular genre, but looking back on his previous stand-up comedies, he is well-suited in a dark humor piece like “A Guilty Conscience”.”
A gratifying storyline that serves a glorious ending
The legal comedy ends with a foreseeable fist-clenching victory by Adrian Lam successfully releasing Jolene Tsang from jail with the help of his colleagues, while the evil tycoons are punished by the justice of the law. In light of the extradition bill movement in 2019 and the launch of the National Security Law, it is safe to say that Hongkongers are losing confidence in the local judicial system. Besides, the film also explores sensitive themes such as access to legal aid for the less fortunate, the purpose of the jury in court, and media censorship.
“It is very intrepid for the director to deliver his criticism to the rich and powerful in obstructing justice by legislation loopholes,” said Louisa Kan Hang-lam, an 18-year-old journalism student. “It gives you hope because justice was served in the film.”
Catchy lines and transliteration that vividly captured the essence of Cantonese
With Adrian Lam created to be sharp-tongued and quick-witted, many netizens are mesmerized by the catchy, rhymed Cantonese quotes in the movie. “I like the one saying poor people are screwed in front of the law, it is funny because of the foul language Adrian Lam used but sad because it is true,” said Chung who mentioned himself as a big fan of Wong Tze-wah earlier.
More importantly, foreign audiences can also easily understand the meaning behind local slang because of the crew’s attention to subtitle transliteration. In the excerpt of “A Guilty Conscience” script, the translator used western characters such as Captain America and Batman to compare with Bao Gong, a Chinese politician famous for upholding justice, and Guan Gong, a Chinese military general famous for his loyalty so that foreigners can also understand the lines without the need to be familiar with the Chinese culture at first.
‘You like Captain America, I am a fan of Batman. Both are famous for their loyalty. Batman is all about the loyalty. Why else would he take care of Robin? Obviously not lust buy loyalty, right?’ (你拜關公，我拜包公，大家都講義氣嘛。包公都講義氣的，要不為什麼那麼看重展昭？他又不喜歡男的)
Motivation for local film production
The success of “A Guilty Conscience” has proved that Hong Kong’s audience still has confidence in local production, and is willing to support these productions in a way that makes history. Lim mentioned that while Hongkongers are supporting local films, local films are also a sort of spiritual sustenance for them on the other way round.
‘Not just the local movie industry, the atmosphere of the society is bleak in these years. People need to see miracles to have hope, and good films give hope to people.’
Featured Image: Official Facebook account of “A Guilty Conscience”