From Gold to Red: The History of Hong Kong Cinema
Lydia explores the long and vibrant history of cinema in Hong Kong. She uncovers how truly representative this medium can be regarding the city’s identity and unique cultural blend.
Within the first few days of arriving in Hong Kong, I went to the cinema. It was the first time I had been in the two years since the start of the pandemic. We saw Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel’s newest blockbuster about a Chinese-American superhero with a majority Asian cast. This was advertised as a major step, a breakthrough in the superhero genre, as cinema begins to emphasise diversity and inclusivity. At the time I knew little about Hong Kong and even less about Hong Kong cinema. Therefore, finding out that one of the characters in Shang-Chi was played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai, a Hong Kong icon and member of the Five Tigers (a group of five of the most successful and popular actors from Hong Kong), got me thinking more about Hong Kong cinema and its history.
The East and West fusion of Hong Kong can be seen in the food, the architecture, the language, but also in cinema
Hong Kong as a city already has a unique character – something I’ve discovered in the seven months I’ve been living here. It is at the crossroads between the East and the West, bringing together influences from the British colonial days and its geographical location in Asia. The East and West fusion of Hong Kong can be seen in the food, the architecture, the language, but also in cinema.
Hong Kong has a long history of film dating back to the 19th century but it grew significantly in popularity from the 1940s after the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949. Filmmakers across China fled to British Hong Kong and the city became a haven. Here they had access to technology that could be easily imported as well as Western films as the golden age of Hollywood cinema was taking over. Thus, the rise of their own industry began and quickly spread across Asia.
The films made in the earliest phase were aimed at Chinese audiences, reflecting the economic and political situations both in the city as well as the mainland. It wasn’t until the 1960s when the British demanded that all films be subtitled in English that the industry really took off internationally.
I think I can safely say that we are all familiar with action films starring actors like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. These are famous names internationally and especially in Hollywood. They popularised Kung Fu and the genre of martial arts films. The nature of Hong Kong allowed for actors like American-born Bruce Lee to break away from the stereotypical roles offered to him in Hollywood at the time and create a new genre to show what Asian actors were truly capable of. This in turn gave rise to what is considered the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema that lasted until the 1990s.
This only scratches the surface of Hong Kong’s cinema. The range of genres and themes stretches far beyond Kung Fu – from gangster films like Infernal Affairs (2002), that inspired directors like Quentin Tarantino and American remakes, to more atmospheric stories typical of Wong kar-wai’s style, such as In the Mood for Love (2000) and Chungking Express (1994).
Although Hong Kong cultivated its own place within the world of cinema, the return to Chinese rule in 1997 posed questions of concern about the future of Hong Kong cinema’s identity. While the opening of borders between Hong Kong and the mainland created a far wider audience (for reference there are 1.3 billion people in mainland China while there are only 7 million people living in Hong Kong), the issues of censorship and political differences arguably changed the industry completely. The agreement of “one country, two systems” meant that early filmmakers could make use of the new connection with the mainland, with many willing to compromise certain parts of their films in favour of better commercialization and profit. In fact, the early years of the handover still allowed for filmmakers to keep Hong Kong values weaved throughout their films and even brought inspiration for plotlines surrounding culture, hope and questions about the future.
Many are hoping for a revival, one that is lower-budget and made up of young directors who are willing to risk losing audience numbers and money to stay true to Hong Kong’s identity
However, as the situation has deteriorated with more intense pro-democracy movements and the implementation of China’s National Security Law, many have felt that this is the beginning of the end for Hong Kong’s freedom on all fronts, including its creative freedom. Media outlets across the city have been faced with a devastating crisis of whether imprisonment is worth maintaining their integrity. This position has forced them to choose between survival and betraying their values. The cinema industry is no different. Although some have been able to continue working within the confines of the mainland’s rules, others have found the choice to be uncompromisable and decided to leave the city.
The future may look bleak for Hong Kong cinema but recent years have also seen the rise of a new generation of filmmakers. Many are hoping for a revival, one that is lower-budget and made up of young directors who are willing to risk losing audience numbers and money to stay true to Hong Kong’s identity. Until then, there is hope in seeing Hong Kong film icons like Tony Leung Chiu-wai continue to be influential and use their presence in the mainstream to keep Hong Kong alive for as long as the world is willing to watch.
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Parkes, D., 2020. How Hong Kong’s film industry got so big – and why it fell into decline. [online] South China Morning Post. Available at: <https://www.scmp.com/magazines/style/celebrity/article/3081457/how-did-hong-kong-film-industry-get-so-big-and-why-did-it> [Accessed 14 March 2022].