Hong Kong Cinema: An Introduction

This year, we pay tribute to Hong Kong. Our guest curator guides us through its film history.

There is no city more identified with its cinema than Hong Kong. In this liminal, in-between space, which has gone from a British colony on the edge of China to “Special Administrative Region” under the People’s Republic of China’s control, Hong Kongers have constantly been fashioning and re-fashioning their identities. And it is within the realm of cinema that we can see this process happening in amazingly creative, ever-renewing, and internationally influential ways.

Hong Kong cinema began to flourish as an industry with the influx of refugees from China’s Shanghainese film industry after 1949, when the Communist Party under Mao Zedong established their rule over the mainland. From these rich industrial beginnings, the 1950s saw the establishment of several streams of film production, directed towards different audiences. Elite, well-educated Hong Kongers tended towards “prestige” Mandarin-language productions from companies that tended to align with either left-wing or right-wing political positions (when they weren’t watching English language imports). MP&GI’s (Cathay) series of female-star-dominated romances, comedies, and musicals were the jewels of this period (Our Sister Hedy (1957), Mambo Girl (1957)), and their movies could be exported to Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia. Alongside these were socially engaged Cantonese-language melodramas, appealing to a more local middle- and working-class audience, whose combination of popular appeal and social (and implicitly political) engagement set the groundwork for a potent stream of Cantonese films to follow (Li Tit’s In the Face of Demolition 1953, Chun Kim’s Parents' Hearts, 1955).

Dragon Inn omtalebilde

Dragon Inn (1967)

During the late 1960s, Hong Kong led a vigorous revival of martial arts and wuxia (chivalrous swordplay) films, which were in some ways a reaction to the female-dominated pictures of Cathay. While the Shaw Brothers studio added action films to their stable of Chinese opera films and lush melodramas, Tang Shuxian experimented with an “arthouse” wuxia in her masterpiece The Arch (1968). Most influential was perhaps the director King Hu, who forged a synthesis of classical Chinese painting, calligraphy, and traditional opera with wuxia masterpieces like Come Drink With Me (1966) and Dragon Inn (1967).

By the 1970s, the martial arts films of Shaw Brothers and rival studio Golden Harvest exulted in images of powerful, masculine, fighting Chinese men (and women), and these action films were quickly adopted by audiences around the world. Bruce Lee’s hyper-kinetic masculine image dazzled local and international audiences (The Big Boss, 1971, The Way of the Dragon, 1972) with a viscerally physical redefinition of Hong Kong masculine vitality that owed its power to both anti-colonial fervour, and to the energy unleashed by the radical Cultural Revolution underway across the border in mainland China.

An influx of overseas educated young directors like Tsui Hark, Allen Fong, Ann Hui emerged in the late 1970s as the Hong Kong New Wave. Their cosmopolitanism and experimentalism meshed well with the industry’s drive to renew and invigorate its commercial product, and a series of critically acclaimed films resulted, including Tsui Hark’s The Butterfly Murders (1979) and Dangerous Encounters: First Kind (1980) Allen Fong’s Father and Son (1981), and Ann Hui’s The Secret (1979), The Story of Woo Viet (1981), and Boat People (1982).

By the mid-1980s, Hong Kong cinema entered a “golden age”: both in the territory and overseas, commercial comedies and action films with box office stars like Andy Lau, Cherie Chung, Chow Yun-fat (John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986), and global action star Jackie Chan (Project A 1983, Police Story 1985).

By the 1990s, the shock of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and the impending reversion to Chinese rule in 1997 produced a climate in which audiences sought different kinds of films, to explore, avoid, prepare for, or disengage from the new world they felt was looming in Hong Kong’s immediate future. These included Stephen Chow’s massively popular moleitau (nonsense-language) comedies like Justice, My Foot! (1992) and The God of Cookery (1996); the post-modern colour-drenched romances of Wong Kar-wai, who iconized stars Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Leslie Cheung, and Tony Leung Chiu-wai in films like Days of Being Wild (1990) and Chungking Express, (1994). There was as well significant support for socially committed independent productions like Fruit Chan’s Made In Hong Kong (1997) and Little Cheung (1999).


Drifting (2021)

The 2000s continued to reflect tensions in Hong Kong’s new status as a Special Administrative Region under Chinese sovereignty. Cinematically, this era is epitomized by Johnnie To’s tense police and crime action pictures (PTU, 2003, Election, 2005) and hit modern rom-coms (Needing You, 2000). Though there was still a young local audience for critical new independent voices like Heiward Mak (High Noon, 2008), local box office declined as much of the investment (and local filmmaking talent) was drawn to the developing massive market in mainland China, and HK/China co-productions began to dominate.

Although the HKSAR, and Hong Kong filmmaking, has been facing unprecedented crisis with the democracy movements of 2014 (the Umbrella Movement) and again in 2019, when millions of HKers took to the streets to demand the basic political rights they believed they were guaranteed, local filmmakers continue to make superbly diverting or deeply engaged dramas, comedies, musicals, action films, and co-productions, including Better Days (2019), The Way We Keep Dancing (2020), and Drifting (2021), which respectively revitalize in the present the youth pictures, song and dance entertainments, and socially engaged dramas of Hong Kong’s proud and continuing cinematic legacy.

Shelly Kraicer

Homage to Hong Kong