The Evolution of Hong Kong Cinema, From Legacy to New Indie

Hong Kong as we know it is slipping into memory. It will live on in its catalogue of films.

25 May 2022, 6:32am

When navigating Hong Kong’s ‘70s cinema boom to today, what emerges as a constant is an apparent need to document the city’s changing landscape. Shots of its tall skyscrapers, mountainous backdrops, rural pockets, and urban sprawl turn Hong Kong into a character in itself. 

But Hong Kong cinema has also changed a lot through the years. Police gangster flicks and kung fu classics were the most popular genres in the past, but today’s independent filmmakers are turning to more diverse topics that touch on minority cultures, the political climate, and local attitudes. 

The Hong Kong film industry is much leaner today, with big studios like Golden Harvest, Shaw Brothers, and Celestial Pictures declining in popularity as more filmmakers prefer grant-funded projects that allow for more artistic freedom.

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“There are limited resources for emerging filmmakers in Hong Kong,” said director Kristie Ko, but “a hunger to reflect [our] identities and [our] realities, in a way that mainstream cinema has neglected to” is what makes a true independent scene.

The renewal of Hong Kong’s film scene can also be attributed to directors’ desires to capture a realistic version of Hong Kong before it disappears.

“Many stories are born out of a unique setting,” indie filmmaker Yan Yan Mak told VICE. “It is a pity that many amazing things in Hong Kong have disappeared in recent years, [so] many of us are eager to write them down before everything vanishes.” 

There’s the urban decay in Sham Shui Po and Prince Edward, hillside cemeteries in Yuen Long, chaotic wet markets, and overgrown jungles separating mountain and building.

Similar sentiments come through in emerging director Stefanos Tai’s work. He describes Hong Kong as “super shootable,” where images and scenes can be sourced “in such a colorful, vibrant, and dense place, so long as you’re using the landscape to its advantage.”

What filmmakers today are taking note of in iconic films from the past, despite their small budgets, is a need to document the locations, culture, and stories within the island city. In scenes you may find familiar, a catalogue of fast-paced blocking, noir shots, and sepia filters—rather than martial arts—unfolds. Read on to witness a 1-v-1 (or 2) between the films from past and present.

“Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind” vs “Drifting” vs “Mad World”

Under Hong Kong’s urban decay, Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind (1980) by Tsui Hark is a coming-of-age film with the genre’s cornerstones of teenage angst and societal rebellion. The same nihilistic overtones that Tsui portrays come through in the heroin-stricken and homeless street sleepers of Jun Li’s Drifting (2021).  A political critique of the disenfranchised, it’s a tale of the city’s underbelly told through dialogue like: “All so fucking tall, so packed. How does this tiny island hold all these? It’s overflowing… What shit can you do here?”

In Mad World (2016) by Wong Chun, a showcase of scenes from tiny caged apartments expose how the powerless suffer in the rapid modernization of society. These days, it comes through in the gentrified neighborhoods of Sham Shui Po (and previously Kennedy Town and Sai Ying Pun), where generations-old residents have been pushed out by rising rent. 

“Mad World.” Photo: Max Chan Wang and Timliuliu

Tsui’s depiction of a dark, grim, and sadistic Hong Kong ring truer to the stories of citizens in Mad World and Drifting. In his film, the harmonious image of a pristine global city is destroyed via the final sequence of black-and-white stills of the 1967 Hong Kong riots that run onto the credits.

“Chungking Express” vs “Fire Room”

In Wong Kar Wai’s surrealist world, Hong Kong becomes an abstraction of time and place in fast-paced blurs, slow motion imagery, and hyper-saturated filters, as seen in Chungking Express (1994). Neon-lit Hong Kong glows just as brightly in the feature film under development titled Fire Room (2022) by Wong Ka Ki, a story of a burning building, a firefighter, and an arsonist. Chungking Express and many other films by Wong Kar Wai use saturated film techniques to create a stylized atmosphere that has inspired not only Hong Kong locals, but the likes of Hollywood directors like Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson.

“Fists of Fury” vs “Wheels on Meals” vs “we don’t dance for nothing”

we don’t dance for nothing (2022) by Stefanos Tai uses Wong Kar Wai’s similar step-printing methods to create smeary beauty in dance scenes of domestic workers on the streets of Sham Shui Po and Central Pier. Meanwhile, the performative methods taken from fight scenes in Fists of Fury (1972) and Wheels on Meals (1984) translate to powerful motion in Tai’s dance sequences.

“Comrades: Almost a Love Story” vs “Butterfly vs August Story”

Hong Kongers watching Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996) get a sip of nostalgia, as the film spans a 10-year storyline following two 20-something Chinese immigrants discovering Hong Kong for the first time—it is about the places in the city that build the character's personality.

To indie filmmaker Mak, the colors, textures, sounds, tastes, and temperatures of the ‘70s and ‘80s are timeless. 

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“These places are all part of my growing [up]… places [that] are my Hong Kong; they are part of me… If these places disappear, only movies can remember them.”

Mak’s films Butterfly (2004) and August Story (2006) of the early noughties play to the iconic: Blue House in Wan Chai, Mirador Mansion in Tsim Sha Tsui, the old partitioned flats and textile shops of Sham Shui Po. These locations are attached to stories of the citizens, and as Comrades: Almost a Love Story ends with the death of pop-phenomenon Teresa Tang, like John Lennon in the West, it lets the audience look back on their own experiences of the day she died, asking, “Where was I?” or “Who was I with?”

“Comrades: Almost a Love Story” vs “Ateh” vs “The Stars The Sun The Moon”

Striking a balance between reality and nostalgia is Ateh (2021) by Kristie Ko. Set in the ‘90s, it tracks the relationship between a domestic worker and a child under her care. Cut with scenes of the two walking up and down U Lam Terrace, the vintage lens matches Chan’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story’s soft looks of the ‘90s at a seemingly never-changing location. 

The Stars The Sun The Moon (2022) by Colleen Kwok, set in the same era, looks back at the ‘90s with fondness as characters time-travel 20 years into the future to experience a changed city, from corner stores, shophouses, and neon pawn signs to skyscrapers and urban sprawl.

“The Stars The Sun The Moon.” Photo: Courtesy of Colleen Kwok

“Boat People” vs “Song of Exile” vs “GUGU”

To emerging female directors Ko, Wong Ka Ki, and Rae Hu, Ann Hui is an inspiration, largely owing to her focus on social issues and female identity. Besides the documentary-style of Hui’s feature films Boat People (1982) and Song of Exile (1990), GUGU (2021) by Hu captures similar nuances of womanhood and societal pressures via dialogue between a girl’s curious questions to a female figure, like “What is lipstick?” answered with “It is something ladies wear to look pretty.” For many, Hui is essential viewing for heartfelt memories of the ‘80s.

Follow Sarah Wei on Instagram.

Tagged:

Culture, Film, Asia, Hong Kong

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