A short history of Hong Kong Cinema
Table of Contents
In the first episode, we retraced the history of Chinese cinema through the productions and directors who have characterized this cinema the most. Here instead you may find the history of Taiwanese cinema.
In this article, however, we will deal with the history of Hong Kong cinema, one of the most original, creative, and complete film schools.
Note: following the links you can find more information about the films (images, cards, filmographies, trailers, etc.)
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The origins of Hong Kong cinema (1909 – 1960)
The early history of Hong Kong cinema is paradoxically absolutely negligible, overshadowed by Shanghai which was the capital of Chinese cinema at the time.
The main source of inspiration for early Hong Kong cinema was Chinese opera.
The first Hong Kong film is, in fact, Lai Man-wai‘s Zhuangzi Tests His Wife (1913), which was not shown in Hong Kong.
Lai Man-wai was a theatrical colleague of Liang Shaobo, who was later nicknamed the father of Hong Kong cinema.
Zhuangzi Tests His Wife had been preceded by two shorts derived from the Chinese opera, Stealing a Roasted Duck and Right a Wrong with Earthenware Dish both by Liang Shao-Bo and produced by the American Benjamin Brodsky.
During the years of the First World War, the local film industry entered a dormant phase, since the raw material, the precious films, were manufactured in Germany.
Only in 1923 Lai, his brother and their cousin joined Liang Shaobo to create the first entirely Chinese-controlled film studio, namely China Sun Motion Picture Company. They moved to mainland China because the local government had hindered the formation of the studio.
In 1932 the Shaw brothers (the legendary Shaw brothers formed Tianyi Film Company which later after some transformations became Shaw Brothers Studio, a production company that had seminal importance within the Hong Kong cinema), together with the opera singer Sit Gok-Sin made the first talkie, Tang Xiao-Dan‘s White Gold Dragon in Shanghai.
The film was a great success, and in 1934 they established a new studio location in Kowloon to make films in Cantonese.
The nationalist government, which then controlled Shanghai, opposed the making of non-Mandarin films, and also banned wuxia and martial arts genres, accusing them of promoting superstition and violence (a combination whose power and dangerousness the Chinese dynasties are all too familiar with).
Therefore Hong Kong, under the control of the British, became a free port for this type of production banned in mainland China.
In the 1930s, the films that were most popular were still films derived from the Cantonese opera.
Even for Hong Kong cinema at this stage, the Second Sino-Japanese War became an important source of inspiration for making films that exalted Chinese resistance against the Japanese occupying forces.
Important films from this era were Kwan Man Ching‘s Lifeline (1935), Chiu Shu Sun‘s Hand to Hand Combat (1937) and Situ Huimin‘s March of the Partisans (1938).
Hong Kong, however, fell under Japanese control in December 1941.
With the end of the World War, fueled by the continuous flow of talent from mainland China, Hong Kong had the opportunity to create a thriving film industry.
In particular, in 1946 with the resurgence of the Chinese civil war and in 1949 with the consequent communist victory, the population of Hong Kong grew considerably thanks to Chinese refugees.
The rivalry between Mandarin films and Cantonese films
With the advent of sound cinema and with the arrival of a large mass of Chinese migrants, Hong Kong cinema had to face the problem of bilingualism, a problem that naturally could not exist in the days of silent cinema.
The main productions of Cantonese films, as we have already mentioned, were mostly cinematographic transpositions of Cantonese opera and kung fu films.
More than 100 films with Kwan Tak Hing that told the story of the popular hero Wong Fei Hung were made between the 1940s and 1995.
Countless fantasy cape and sword films also date from this period, in particular, those with Connie Chan Po-chu, a young star of the time (The Six-Fingered Lord of the Lute, 1965) and family melodramas such as Our Sister Hedy (1957) by Doe Ching with Julie Yeh Feng.
Mandarin cinema of the 1960s was dominated by the rivalry between Shaw Brothers and Motion Picture and General Investments Limited (MP&GI, later renamed Cathay).
With the death of MP&GI founder Loke Wan Tho in 1964, the Shaw took over.
In this phase, the most important successes are those of the films derived from Chiung Yao‘s books, the melodramatic comedies (Red Bloom in the Snow, 1956; Love Without End, 1961; The Blue and the Black, 1964), the films derived from Chinese opera (The Love Eterne, 1963) and Hollywood-style musicals (Mambo Girl, 1957; The Wild, Wild Rose, 1960), almost all directed by Li Han-Hsiang and Doe Ching.
In the second half of the sixties, also inspired by Japanese samurai films, the Shaw inaugurated a new genre of wuxia, less based on fantastic, more choreographic and violent elements.
At that moment, it was probably the genre that most defined Hong Kong cinema at the time.
Classics like Xu Zenghong‘s Temple of the Red Lotus (1965), King Hu‘s Come Drink with Me (1966) and Dragon Inn (filmed in Taiwan, 1967), Tiger Boy (1966), The One-Armed Swordsman (1967) and Golden Swallow (1968) by Chang Cheh date back to this period.
Thanks to the spread of television, there was an unexpected revival of cinema in Cantonese, until then relegated only to minor productions.
The House of 72 Tenants (1973, not to be confused with the version of 10 years earlier) is a milestone in the history of local cinema, as from this moment most of the films began to be shot in Cantonese, instead of in Chinese tangerine.
The Hui Brothers (Michael Hui, Sam Hui, and Ricky Hui) were among the main performers of the new Cantonese cinema, with films such as Games Gamblers Play (1974).
In 1970 the former executives of Shaw Brothers, Raymond Chow, and Leonard Ho left the studio to found their own, Golden Harvest.
Golden Harvest contracted some emerging stars like Bruce Lee and the Hui Brothers.
Bruce Lee, a Californian actor of Chinese origin, until then had found only parts from a supporting role in the United States, where the roles of the actors perceived as foreigners at the time were still few and marginal.
With The Fists of Fury (aka The Big Boss, 1971) Bruce Lee’s career received an impetus that propelled him into the stardom and made kung fu films an international phenomenon.
By the end of the 70s, Golden Harvest had become the most important studio in Hong Kong, with the arrival of Jackie Chan.
With the change of Hong Kong society, films and genres also changed.
These years saw the arrival of a new erotic genre, a type of film that grew and gained popularity thanks to the content of directors such as Chor Yuen and Li Han Hsiang, and which often bordered on the fantastic, past eras and martial arts.
In recent years, a cinema with more tones aimed at social issues began to form with works such as The Arch (1968) and China Behind (1974) both directed by Tang Shu Shuen, considered one of the forerunners of the New Wave in Hong Kong.
The boom years: the 80s and early 90s
The themes and models created in previous years finally matured in the 80s.
The Hong Kong cinema at this point was able to produce dozens if not hundreds of films every year of various cinematographic genres: comedies, action films, detective films, period films, fantasy films, horror films, etc, often skilfully mixing these same elements in a single production.
The 1980s in Hong Kong were characterized by the production of countless detective films and on the Chinese triads, martial arts films, television films, which inexorably influenced all the nearby regional cinemas, and allowed the growth of some directors, with strong technical qualities that have pigeonholed a considerable series of successes, above all John Woo and Tsui Hark, who with their fetish actors Alan Tang, Chow Yun-fat, Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung, Stephen Chow, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan. etc have enhanced the action scenes of their films with increasingly complicated choreography.
Among the greatest successes of this phase we cannot fail to mention A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), Hard Boiled (1992) by John Woo, Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), the Once Upon a Time in China series (1991–1997) and Tsui Hark‘s The Blade (1995), A Chinese Ghost Story (1987, produced by Tsui Hark) by Ching Siu-tung.
The intelligence of these authors was that of making films capable of mixing action, dramatic, and sometimes even erotic scenes.
The fluidity of the Hong Kong cinema action scenes could not fail to be noticed by American cinema, which later carefully studied the innovations introduced by local filmmakers.
This influence on Asian and Western cinema is evident in some film genres, such as action films, where techniques for making the complicated choreographies of Hong Kong martial arts films were later successfully imported into Western cinema, especially in the late 90s in films like Matrix and obviously Kill Bill. Moreover, neither Tarantino nor the Wachowski sisters have ever made a secret of the influence of Tsui Hark and John Woo on their cinema.
Even the erotic genre (genre that had been included in the Category III, which according to the rating system of the time identified films with sexual or violent content), often based on the reproduction of the classics of Chinese eroticism such as the The Carnal Prayer Mat, achieved considerable success with the production of films such as Sex and Zen (1991) and Naked Killer (1992), which became cult on an international level.
Hong Kong also contributed substantially to the success of oriental horror films, with countless productions such as Men Behind the Sun (1988), Dr. Lamb (1992), The Untold Story (1993), Ebola Syndrome (1996), etc.
During this period, director Johnny To also produced some category III films due to the violent content (Election, Election 2 and Mad Detective), but which despite the rating, managed to achieve good success.
The New Wave of Hong Kong Cinema
In addition to the more purely action productions, in the nineties, Hong Kong was the protagonist of another authorial revolution with a core of young alternative directors who perhaps constitute the heart and essence of the New Wave of Hong Kong.
Directors such as Wong Kar-Wai, Ann Hui, Yim Ho, Stanley Kwan, Lawrence Ah Mon, Fruit Chan with their stories managed to quickly establish themselves in the most important international film festivals.
The Hong Kong New Wave dismissed the spectacular choreography and shootings of Woo and Hark’s films, and preferred to focus on introspective stories, the turmoil and anguish of a generation, and on the social and psychological distress.
Films such as Fruit Chan‘s Made in Hong Kong (1997) and Hollywood Hong Kong (2001), Ann Hui‘s Summer Snow, Red Rose White Rose (1994), Hold you tight (1998) and Stanley Kwan‘s Lan Yu (2001) have helped make this generation of artists famous on festival circuits.
Wong Kar-Wai‘s films, characterized by an almost obsessive use of colors through photography by Christopher Doyle, with Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Maggie Cheung allowed this author to become one of the masters of cinema worldwide..
Among the main films of Wong Kar-wai we can not forget As Tears Go by (1988), Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), Happy Together (1997, Best director at Cannes Film Festival), In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004), films that have consecrated him in the Olympus of international cinema.
Decline of Hong Kong cinema
Since the second half of the 90s, however, Hong Kong cinema has entered a phase of decline from which it has never recovered.
Film production has plummeted from more than 200 films per year to around 100, becoming from a leading production centre to a consumer of Hollywood cinema.
Various factors contributed to this decline: the Asian financial crisis, the overproduction of repetitive films, the increase in the cost of tickets, rampant piracy and marginally the passage of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China.
The final blow was given by the SARS epidemic of 2003 which literally prevented viewers from going to the cinema, further sinking the already languid studio earnings.
Milkyway Image, founded by Johnny To and Wai Ka-Fai in some ways represents an exception in this panorama of general crisis, producing numerous successful films such as The Mission (1999), the Infernal Affairs trilogy (2002-03), Shaolin Soccer (2001), Kung Fu Hustle (2004) and other hits.