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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of Hong Kong cinema through the ages

By Catharina Cheung 1 March 2020

For such a small city, Hong Kong has a prolific film history, many internationally acclaimed works, some truly outstanding actors, and films that have achieved cult status over the years. We have been the third-largest motion picture industry in the world, behind only Indian cinema and Hollywood. As a former British colony, Hong Kong enjoyed a greater degree of political and economical freedom compared to mainland China and Taiwan, which contributed much to the standards of local productions and propelled us to become a filmmaking hub for the Chinese-speaking world.

Hong Kong films have a distinctive identity that has captured hearts and imaginations worldwide and resonates even now after our return to Chinese sovereignty, continuing to occupy a prominent part of the global cinema stage. For the film buffs out there, here is a look at Hong Kong cinema through the ages.

The birth of Hong Kong films

Most historians concur that the first motion pictures that could be considered films began emerging in the late 1800s, and Hong Kong did not fall behind in the trend. Hong Kong’s cinematic history began in 1896 when a French film crew from the Lumière Studio visited the city.

13 years later in 1909, Shanghai’s Asia Film Studio came to shoot Stealing the Roast Duck, which became our first locally-produced dramatic film. Short films were the norm in world cinema back then, and Stealing the Roast Duck was one of four Asia productions for the year. However, historians have remarked that there was a conspicuous lack of print material about the other three films and no eye witness accounts. According to one of Hong Kong’s best-known film historians Paul Fonoroff, “If this is indeed the case, then Hong Kong can claim to be the birthplace of Chinese dramatic movies.”

Benjamin Brosky, the founder of Asia Film Studio, then went on to co-found our first film studio, Huamei, with Lai Man-wai (romanised as Li Minwei in Mandarin Chinese)—the “father of Hong Kong cinema”—in 1913. Their first film, Zhuangzi Tests His Wife, was scripted by Lai and directed by his brother (who incidentally played the policeman who caught the poultry thief in Stealing the Roast Duck). Following with casting traditions in Cantonese opera, it wasn’t until the 1920s that female lead roles in Chinese films were played by women, so it was the father of Hong Kong cinema himself who took on the role of Zhuangzi’s wife.

Huamei’s cinematic history didn’t last long: this first film ended up also being their last. Brosky returned to America, taking the completed production with him, so the first movie produced by a local film company was screened in America, but never in Hong Kong itself.

The First World War then broke out, and it was eight years later in 1922 when Li finally founded Hong Kong’s first motion picture studio—fully Chinese-owned this time—called China Sun Company. The studio was based in Tin Hau on Ngan Mok Street, but due to production complications, they actually shot their first feature-length production, Rouge, in Guangzhou instead. It did well in the box office, but the Great Strike of 1925 then broke out, causing most local cinemas to close, and China Sun moved to Shanghai. The single hint that points to Hong Kong’s first movie company ever being around is now hidden in plain sight: ngan mok is Cantonese for “silver screen.”

Talking pictures and the war

Starting from 1930, Hong Kong’s film industry made its revival. With the popularity of sound motion picture on the rise, the eldest of the Shaw Brothers was the first to hop onto the bandwagon. His film company Tianyi Studio produced the first Cantonese talkie: Platinum Dragon, starring Sit Gok-sin, one of the greatest Cantonese opera stars of the 20th century. Its resounding success throughout most of Southeast Asia was enough to convince Shaw to move the base of his studio’s operations from Shanghai to Hong Kong instead.

Run Run Shaw outside Shaw House. Photo credit: Paul Lakatos

In those days, Shanghai was known as the Chinese Hollywood, and before 1934, the local film industry couldn’t hold a candle to its mainland counterpart. But with the popularisation of talkies, the tables were turned. The Nationalist Party in the mainland, or Kuomintang, disapproved of Cantonese filmmaking in China and wanted to enforce a “Mandarin-only” policy. They also tried to stamp out superstition and anarchic ideas by banning martial arts films and ghost stories—the very genres which made the Shanghai film industry successful. Hong Kong, of course, had no such concerns, and was quickly favoured by many film companies as the place to serve the up-and-coming trends of both Cantonese and martial arts films.

The Sino-Japanese War of 1937 sent even more of the Shanghai film industry into the British-controlled safety of Hong Kong. For the first time, Mandarin Chinese films were produced here, though many at the time were patriotic propaganda pieces with the clear message to resist the Japanese. Of course, this all came to an end when Hong Kong also fell to the Japanese in late 1941.

Unfortunately, we have nothing to show for the results of the first four decades or so of Hong Kong’s film industry. Nothing physical remains of the films we have mentioned so far. When the Japanese took over the city during WWII, they reportedly melted down all film stock to extract silver nitrate. Proper documentation and storage wasn’t the norm back then either, so what wasn’t destroyed by the Japanese army has since been lost to heat, humidity, and neglect. We have no film archive to speak of. As a result, there isn’t a single pre-war Hong Kong film left to us. What we do know about Hong Kong’s initiation into movies has been gleaned from print, memories, and interviews.

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By Catharina Cheung 24 December 2019

Post-war era

Because of the war, there were no cinematic productions for a good four years. It wasn’t until early 1946, about a year after Hong Kong’s liberation, that our first post-war film was released. The late 1940s marked a period of population influx from the mainland, whether due to the resuming of the Chinese Civil War in 1946, evasion from the Kuomintang’s “white terror,” or the eventual Communist victory in 1949. With this brain drain also came cinematic talents, and Hong Kong’s Mandarin film industry flourished, peaking in the early 1970s.

Flames of Passion, Hong Kong’s first post-war feature film. Photo credit: HKMDB

Cantonese cinema also grew exponentially from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, though Mandarin and Cantonese film circles rarely mixed as the latter was seen as subpar. During this period, it was generally conceded that the former category had films of a higher quality, because Mandarin film studios were larger and had more budget for productions.

However, these Mandarin companies—in particular Shaw Brothers and Motion Picture & General Investments Limited (MP&GI, later renamed Cathay)—fell into the trap of competitively trying to one-up each other’s productions and “giving the public what they want” by making movies dictated by popular trends. Because of the Cultural Revolution happening across the border, some studios were also afraid to even hint at communism in their work. As a result, no one was willing to experiment with new ideas, and shallow films lacking in quality were produced en masse until trends were abandoned.

Still from Our Sister Hedy (1957). Photo credit: info.gov.hk

Something did happen in 1963 that would turn out to be a blessing. The British authorities enforced the English subtitling of all films, supposedly so they could look out for politically sensitive content. Already used to doing this since the age of silent films, studios also included Chinese subtitles. This meant that the Chinese could understand any film, regardless of whether they were in Cantonese or Mandarin; the languages differ in sound but not writing. The English subtitles also had the unintended effect of facilitating the popularity of Hong Kong’s movies in the Western world.

The Cantonese bounce back

Faced with a virtual monopoly by Mandarin studio Shaw Brothers and hit from the other side by the rise of Cantonese television, Cantonese movies virtually vanished in the early 1970s. Luckily, earlier during the latter half of the 1960s, the Shaws started showing a new generation of martial arts films, with more intense acrobatics, more violence, and better production values. This, along with the making of more films about the modern reality of ordinary Hongkongers, would kick start the immense popularity of the kung fu genre.

But it was really the famous comedies from the Hui Brothers—Sam and Michael Hui—during this time that played a critical role in reviving Cantonese film. They wrote with the locals in mind, their clever use of witticisms and Cantonese dialogue appealed to a wide audience, and it paid off. Their films were among the highest-earning of the decade. Games Gamblers Play (1974), The Last Message (1975), The Private Eyes (1976), and The Contract (1978) all topped the box office in their respective years of release.

In 1970, two executives from Shaw Brothers peeled off to form their own studio, Golden Harvest. They signed young up-and-coming performers who could breathe fresh appeal into the industry. Among these talents were the Hui Brothers, and Bruce Lee. California-born Lee wanted the Western film industry, which did not accept him in any other capacity than as an exotic Oriental stereotype, to see what Asian actors were capable of. The Big Boss (also known as Fists of Fury) did that and more when it burst on screen in 1971, propelling Lee into stardom and making martial arts a global trend.

Photo credit: CityBeat

By the end of that decade, Golden Harvest was the top studio in Hong Kong, signing Jackie Chan as well, who would go on to become Asia’s biggest box office draw in the next couple of decades. The Chinese Connection (1972), The Way of the Dragon (1972), and Enter the Dragon (1973) are all films which broke Hong Kong box office records and are classics to be seen at least once. Lee achieved cult hero status—especially with his mysterious death at the height of his career in 1973—and was essential in introducing Hong Kong films to foreign markets.

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The golden years

The period starting from 1980 saw the triumphant birth of a new Cantonese cinema, which achieved undisputed top status in the East Asian market and drew the attention of the West. Hollywood was increasing in global dominance, but Hong Kong was one of the film industries that thrived.

There are a few trail-blazers particularly worth mentioning. Comedians Karl Maka, Raymond Wong, and Dean Shek specialised in contemporary comedy with effects-laden action. The Aces Go Places series of spy film spoofs (marketed in the US as Mad Mission) epitomises this trend.

Wong Jing is another prominent director and producer, famous for aggressively churning out pulp crowd-pleasers. With a mass production method that allowed him to work on several movies at once, he dipped into a broad range of genres, whether they be martial arts (Holy Weapon, 1993), comedy (Boys Are Easy, 1993), or erotic thriller (Naked Killer, 1992).

His movies about gambling, such as God of Gamblers (1989) starring Chow Yun-fat and Andy Lau, started a fad for the genre. Wong has also famously directed or produced several films for comic actor megastar Stephen Chow: Tricky Brains (1991), the Royal Tramp films (1992), and Hail the Judge (1994) are fantastic examples of both Wong and Chow’s talents. The critics may call his work crass and low-brow, but there’s no denying that he was very commercially successful and has a prolific filmography to leave behind in the history books.

Expansion of subject matter saw the rise of yet another iconic genre that would prove to be synonymous with Hong Kong: gangster films. A Better Tomorrow (1986) by John Woo, starring Chow Yun-fat and Leslie Cheung, achieved massive box office success and gave rise to a slew of films which glorified the triad lifestyle, called the heroic bloodshed genre. A term invented by Rick Baker in the magazine Eastern Heroes, it refers especially to Hong Kong action cinema with dramatic themes such as brotherhood, duty, honour, redemption, and plenty of violence. The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992)—both starring Chow Yun-fat, who clearly dominated this cinematic trend—are also superb examples of the heroic bloodshed genre. This would go on to define much of Hong Kong cinema from the late 1980s through to the 1990s.

The genre also had a considerable impact on world cinema; 1980s Hong Kong heroic bloodshed films had tropes and styles that were widely adopted by Hollywood in the 1990s. Quentin Tarantino took many elements from Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987) for his own Reservoir Dogs (1992). The Killer heavily influenced Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional (1994). Martin Scorsese remade Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs (2002) as The Departed (2006). All of these Hollywood films garnered worldwide critical acclaim, but they are first and foremost all rooted in Hong Kong’s heroic bloodshed cinema.

Hong Kong New Wave

Also referred to as the Second Wave, the second half of the 1980s saw younger directors being interested in going beyond tried-and-tested commercial styles and themes. These included names such as Ann Hui, Stanley Kwan, Clara Law, Lawrence Ah Mon, and of course, Wong Kar-wai.

Wong broke away from crime and action films to make Days of Being Wild (1990). Though blessed with a star-studded cast that included Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Andy Lay, Carina Lau, Jacky Cheung, and Tony Leung Chiu-wai, it wasn’t well-received commercially and was disappointing in the box office. It did, however, receive critical acclaim, and ended up winning Best Film and Best Director at the 1991 Hong Kong Film Awards. Chungking Express (1994) was where Wong established his signature lush style and theme of lost love and longing.

Wong was also known for frequently working with Tony Leung Chiu-wai as his leading man, which also propelled the actor to superstardom. Happy Together (1997), starring Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung, and the iconic In the Mood for Love (2000), with the perfect pairing of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, are both must-see films from this director.

These forward-thinking artists earned Hong Kong unprecedented respect in international critical circles and the global film festival circuit. In the Mood for Love was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2001 BAFTAs and César Awards, and won Best Non-European Film in the 2000 European Film Awards, as well as Best Film at the 2000 Festival du nouveau cinéma; Happy Together was nominated for the Palme D’Or and won Best Director at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.

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By Catharina Cheung 10 February 2020

Post-boom era

The Hong Kong film industry started sliding into a drastic decline in the 1990s. There was a slight boom early in the decade, sparked by apprehension regarding the city’s return to Chinese rule; 178 local productions were made in 1992 alone. Very soon thereafter, revenues were halved, and it was American blockbusters which topped the box office. Ironically, this was also when Hong Kong cinema gained mainstream visibility in the US and began exporting popular figures to Hollywood, such as Jackie Chan starring in the Rush Hour films opposite Chris Tucker.

The Asian financial crisis dried up film budgets and public expenditure capacities, video piracy was rampant throughout East Asia, the handover to China presented censorship issues. 2003 was a particularly dark year; in addition to the continuing industry slump, the SARS virus broke out and severely impacted most sectors and the way the public spent their time. Additionally, two of Hong Kong’s most beloved actors, Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui, died that year—effectively rounding out the barrage of bad news for the film industry.

Modern trends

Something that our film circles have consistently done is to market their works by promoting singers and celebrities as actors. All of the Four Heavenly Kings of Cantopop—Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau, Aaron Kwok, and Leon Lai—have starred in multiple movies. This trend continued through to the 1990s and 2000s, and the reliance on Cantopop stars to drum up interest in films saw members of teen-friendly pop bands such as Twins and Boyz on the silver screen.

Things picked up in the noughties, with character-driven crime movies earning considerable critical and commercial success. Examples of this include The Mission (1999), Running on Karma (2003), and of course the Infernal Affairs trilogy of cult fame. Johnnie To’s Election (2005) and its sequel Election 2 (2006) also did very well; the latter was even renamed Triad Election and was released in the US theatres to largely positive reviews. Comedian Stephen Chow both directed and starred in Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004), which became the SAR’s two highest-grossing films with numerous local and international awards to their names.

Subject matters have also expanded in the 2000s to be inclusive of LGBTQI+ representation. Following the successes of Happy Together (1997), Bugis Street (1995), and Hold You Tight (1998), new queer films such as City Without Baseball (2008), Permanent Residence (2009), and Amphetamine (2009) were released to some critical acclaim, though also to troubles with rating controversies.

Future potential

Given the rapidly strengthening political ties between Hong Kong and mainland China, and the fact that the mainland are now producing scores of popular films with mass appeal, some critics believe that the lines between the industries in these two locations may become blurred, as was the case between 1947 and 1952 when lots of Shanghai producers and mainland film companies produced their work out of Hong Kong. Over half of the local movies in 2016 were already co-produced with the mainland.

It may be more commercially viable to go towards a more pan-Chinese route, but it would be an irrevocable shame to lose Hong Kong’s distinctive cinematic characteristics that have bloomed and grown so organically to become a global film phenomenon.

In order to sustain and encourage creative film production, there are several platforms in Hong Kong that serve new filmmakers and talent in Asia. Organised by the Hong Kong Arts Centre, ifva hosts awards and festivals and aims to connect the global creative community. Founded by Johnnie To and organised by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, the Fresh Wave Short Film Festival provides a screening platform for local film talents. There is also CreateHK, a governmental body which provides funding for applicants who are initiating projects within the creative industry.

Only time can tell if Hong Kong’s postmodern independent film scene is fertile enough to nurture a fresh crop of creative artists to propel our cinematic visions to further heights.

Catharina Cheung

Senior editor

Raised in Singapore and the UK, Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong. She is enjoying scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke or in bookstores searching for new tomes to add to her ever-growing collection.

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