"The study of Hong Kong Cinema is one of the richest and most fascinating in film industry."
– David Cook in the 1999 Emory Report
It may come as a surprise, but for a quarter of the last century, the harbour province of Hong Kong had, after Hollywood and Bollywood, the third largest film industry in the world. Today its film industry still releases hundreds of films a year, ranging from socially aware dramas to the internationally recognised martial arts, ‘gunplay’ and ‘heroic bloodshed’ films of Jackie Chan, Ringo Lam, John Woo and the likes. For many, the appeal of Hong Kong Cinema lies in its successful synthesis of East and West, which simultaneously gives its films an exotic Oriental edge and a safe familiarity that resonates with audiences worldwide.
As a former British colony, Hong Kong has, throughout its history, been in a unique position to take advantage of a range of identities, absorbing many elements of Western culture, art, fashion, entertainment, food and socio-economic behaviour, while still remaining loyal to its roots on the Chinese mainland. The end result is a hybrid culture of almost unparalleled complexity that is both reflected in, and exploited by, its films – what David Desser refers to as "a transnational cinema, a cinema of pastiche, a commercial cinema, a genre cinema, a self-conscious, self-reflexive cinema, ungrounded in a nation, multiple in its identities" (Poshek & Desser 1999, p5).
Finding serious literature on the Hong Kong Film Industry is almost impossible and most of the few reliable articles, books and internet sites that do exist focus mainly on its history since the 1970s. However, if you were to take up the arduous task of researching the topic, you might be surprised to discover that its film industry emerges not as a relatively recent phenomenon, but as an industry with a rich and mature heritage that stretches back to the birth of cinema itself.
The magic of film was first introduced to Hong Kong in 1896 by Western merchants who saw the busy Asian province as an untapped marketplace upon which to build their fortunes. But it was not until 1906 that local Chinese merchants were able to start their own exhibition chains in which they showed imported films in their hundreds. It took yet another 3 years for them to make their first film, entitled To Steal a Roasted Duck (Liang Shaobo, HK, 1909), but even then it had to be financed by rich American theatre owner Benjamin Polaski (Hu 1995). This meant that the development of Hong Kong’s film industry differed substantially from that of America and Europe, as it was not so much built on trial and error, but arrived fully developed from abroad. This had huge repercussions for the future of their film industry as it set a precedent for the foreign injection of finance and entrepreneurship that is still in place today. It also meant that the early years of the industry consisted of little more than the screening of hundreds of imported shorts from the West, and numerous Westernised interpretations of the Chinese culture and tradition.
During the 1920s the Hong Kong Film Industry produced about 15 films, but it was not until the mid 1930s that it began to witness a boom in filmmaking and acquire its own characteristics. Unsurprisingly, the outbreak of World War 2 had a devastating impact on the burgeoning film industry, at one stage forcing it into such dire straits that its entire future seemed in doubt. But when it finally began to re-stabilise in the early 1960s the Hong Kong film industry was heavily influenced by a post-war generation that romanticised notions of subverting the established order and fighting for the rights of the weak.
This generation, who had grown up amidst intense economic growth, sought to overthrow the system and establish a ‘brave new world’ of filmmakers. The generational rift that occurred between this idealistic post-war generation and their parents who had lived through a society riven by conflict came to characterise many of the films of the 1960s. As in the west, issues of rebellion, conflict and the challenging of social norms soon became the defining aspects of 1960s and 1970s Hong Kong cinema. This ‘New Cinema’ was spearheaded by young filmmakers such as Ann Hui, Allen Fung and Alex Chong Wo, who redefined their cinema as an expression of personal and social experience rather than just escapist entertainment.
This gave rise to a golden era during which many critically acclaimed films were produced, including Butterfly Murders (Tsui Hark, 1979) and Boat People (Ann Hui On-Wah, 1983). The work of this new movement came to be characterised by technological competence, a return to Hong Kong Cantonese culture and recognition of a new social age of urbanised Hong Kong. Commercial considerations, however, eventually destroyed the New Cinema movement as the power of the major studios meant that even the most talented directors had to work with studios such as Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest – and that inevitably meant compromise, and an end to freedom of expression.
By the end of the 1960s Hong Kong Cinema found itself producing art films that were critical hits around the globe, but it was not until the early 1970s that America really started to take note. It wasn’t Hong Kong’s skilfully constructed art films which interested American audiences, however – what the States wanted was kung-fu. On the small screens their eyes were glued to the weekly exploits of David Carradine in the hit TV series Kung Fu, and on the big screen they flocked to see Bruce Lee kick the living daylights out of anyone who got in his way.
Large American studios such as Warner Brothers not only began to distribute Hong Kong produced martial arts films, but they also started to make their own, exposing millions of Americans to a ‘new’ genre of foreign film that seemed to echo the altruistic and heroic themes of their own great Westerns. Hundreds of films were imported into the US between 1972 and 1975, pumping millions of dollars into a thriving Hong Kong film industry. By 1990, Hong Kong was one of the world’s greatest exporters and producers of film. Their films found audiences all over Southeast Asia, America, Europe and Australia. By the late 1980s the industry held a solid 84% share of its local market and Hong Kong’s filmmakers even extended their influence across the region and into Communist China itself.
However, since 1997 the bottom has started to drop out of the Hong Kong film industry. It has suffered severely at the hands of an Asian-wide recession that came as a direct result of the financial boom of the late 1980s and 1990s. What’s more, having experienced life in Hollywood, Hong Kong’s greatest and most successful actors and directors such as Jackie Chan, Chow Yung Fat and John Woo have begun demanding huge sums for their services and subsequently driven up expenses. In the late 1990s, the average budget of a Hong Kong star-vehicle film shot up from US$1 million to US$4million in just 3 years, whilst the budget of a non-star film was slashed from nearly US$600,000 to US$250,000. Worse still, the vast majority of films that were being produced were of poor quality, characterised by thin plots, underdeveloped scripts and uninspired direction. According to Keith Richburg: "When a director wasn’t sure how a certain scene should go, he would just have the actors stand in front of the camera and count to 20; they’d simply dub in the dialogue later" (Richburg 1995, p2).
Unsurprisingly, the late 1990s also witnessed a massive decline in domestic cinema attendance. Resenting having to part with their hard-earned cash for badly made eye candy, the Hong Kong public chose to stay at home, preferring instead to watch satellite TV, rent videos or buy cheap VCD pirated copies of the latest films. Competition from the West has also increased. The number of American films coming into the Hong Kong market between 1996 and 2001 doubled, cutting the Hong Kong Industry’s local share of the market from a high of 80% to just 54%. It’s a telling fact that in 1992 Hong Kong films earned US$160 million at the local box office (from 44 million cinema tickets sold), but by 1997, that figure had nearly halved, falling to US$85 million (with less than 23 million tickets sold). And what of the Taiwanese businessmen who had so successfully invested heavily in the Hong Kong Film Industry of the late 80s and early 90s? Well, they have long since pulled out, realising that Hong Kong’s film industry may not be the money making machine it once was, and now investing in Taiwan’s own filmmakers, producing successful films such as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).
However, much more recently the Hong Kong Industry has shown signs that it is undergoing something of a revival. It now seems to be on an upward spiral that looks set to continue, hopefully allowing it to follow in the foot steps of its close neighbours who have managed to buy their way out of recession. Successes such as the Pang Brother’s 2002 Thailand/Hong Kong co-production The Eye have perhaps shown the way forward, repositioning Hong Kong as the middleman for triumphant co-production ventures within Asia. But the most important thing is that Hong Kong continues to follow up on whatever success it has with at least one or two great films a year – and whether or not it can do that, only time will tell.
Cook, David. Action-filled Hong Kong cinema has long history. Emory Report, Feb 8 1999, Volume 51, No. 19.
Fu, Poshek & Desser, David. The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Hu, Jason C. An Overview of the Chinese Film Industry. Taiwan: Government Information Office, 1995.
June-Wei, Sum. Revival of Hong Kong Film Industry. http://cna.mediacorpnews.com/articles/2001/03/22/eastasia54829.htm, 2001.
Kei, Sek. Hong Kong Achievement. http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/31/hk_achievement1.html, 2001.
Logan, Bey. Hong Kong Action Cinema. London: Titan Books, 1995.
Richburg, Keith. ‘How Hong Kong’s Film Industry Got Shanghaied’. Washington Post, Sunday, July 9 1995. Style Section, p G5.