The Hollywood honeymoon is over. In 1997, it appeared Hong Kong's best talents had eloped to Tinseltown. Now they are back - and bursting with big ideas for big movies. But the future didn't always look bright. Back in the 1990s Hong Kong's film industry was on a shaky ledge, compounded by the problem of video piracy. The money dried up, the exodus began.
Even now, some Hollywood-bound talents, such as John Woo, Ronny Yu Yan-tai and Jet Li Lianjie, have decided to stay and develop their careers in the United States. But others have chosen to return to Asia to help lift the industry out of the doldrums.
Stanley Tong Kwai-lai, director of Jackie Chan hits such as Supercop and Rumble In The Bronx, is one who still has great hope in the future of the Chinese film industry. After four years in the US - directing Mr Magoo and producing the CBS hit TV series Martial Law - Tong has been spending the past few months in Hong Kong preparing for his new action movie, China Strike Force.
"My intention had always been to go over to Hollywood, learn from them and come back to Asia to make Chinese films," he says.
"Over the past few years, it has been very sad that many people have been so biased against Hong Kong films. But the truth is there are also bad Hollywood films, bad Korean or Japanese films. Some are good and some fail, I don't understand why people only say that Hong Kong films are bad. "Rumble In The Bronx was very successful in the US and Southeast Asia and yet it was a Hong Kong production. I still have confidence in Chinese films. I think there are still good prospects. Once China gets into the World Trade Organisation, market demand will rise."
Tong's Rumble and Supercop star, Jackie Chan, whose latest film Shanghai Noon is now showing in Hong Kong, has been the SAR's most successful export to Hollywood when it comes to salaries. Although he will earn $20 million plus, a percentage of the profits for his next Hollywood movie, Rush Hour 2, Chan is currently busy shooting his latest Hong Kong film, The Accidental Spy.
One of Chan's strongest grouses about working in Hollywood is that it usually takes a long time to get a project off the ground. The highly energetic Chan has used these lulls to make the last Lunar New Year's Gorgeous and The Accidental Spy. For him, there is still no place like home, he says.
"At this time I think we should all be united in giving the audience some good shows to watch," he says. "Whether or not we can save the industry, we should do what we can. I would rather make less money and stay here.
"Every day I am here, I am happy. Whenever I see Hong Kong people, I am happy. Whenever I am away, I am always in a hurry to get back because this is home."
Directors Ringo Lam Ling-tung (The Final Victim, City On Fire) and Tsui Hark (Once Upon A Time In China, Peking Opera Blues) were some of the first to leave Hollywood. Lam finished the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle, Maximum Risk, in 1997 and has since directed three Hong Kong movies, the most recent being The Final Victim (1999).
Tsui, on the other hand, has been back in Hong Kong since he finished Knock-Off. In the interim he has produced his first animated feature, A Chinese Ghost Story, and is now working on his new Chinese-language movie, Sword Of Zu.
Both have not ruled out going back to Hollywood to work but for the moment seem happy enough to be in Hong Kong.
"It takes so long to get something started; I have a family to take care of. I have looked at a lot of scripts but nothing has really appealed to me. In Hong Kong, I can still develop my own things," Lam says.
Peter Chan Ho-sun (The Love Letter) and Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng (Tomorrow Never Dies) have returned to explore new boundaries in their careers.
Yeoh has started a new production company, Mythical Films, and has a five-picture deal with Media Asia Group. On the slate is the US$10-million The Touch, a caper film set against the backdrop of a travelling circus.
"I love this business," says Yeoh, who is still looking at Hollywood scripts. "I want to do more than just act and Hong Kong is still very much my priority. It has given me everything I have now. Hollywood is still there but things take a long time."
Chan, on the other hand, has always had big ideas for the Asian film industry. He thought it would take years, but it's just round the corner. Unlike some of his colleagues who are set on Hong Kong, Chan has cast his net wider by collaborating with director Teddy Chan Tak-sum and former film exhibitor Allan Fung to start a "virtual studio" - Applause Pictures - that will concentrate on making "Asian" films.
On a visit to the region last year, Chan had the opportunity to meet young Thai and Korean film-makers whose enthusiasm rubbed off on him.
"I thought, 'God, I wish I could be one of them'. I had just done The Love Letter then and had no intention of doing anything yet but I felt like I wanted to be here doing something. I wouldn't be able to spend a lot of time here, doing something like this could make that happen," says Chan, who also plans to direct one film for Applause in the next two years.
Directors and producers-to-be aren't the only ones who have been lured back to the region, however. Director Ang Lee's Mandarin-language Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for example, managed to attract Chow Yun-fat back even though the latter had once said he would probably not be doing any more Hong Kong films.
With investment from US studios such as Columbia Tristar - which co-financed Crouching Tiger and Sword Of Zu - and local expansion plans attracting top talents back, there promises to be better days ahead for audiences.