Moviemaker Magazine
Autumn 2005

Hong Kong
It's still eastern Hollywood





Hong Kong glitters like a circuit board. Mirrored glass – not just blue, but pink and gold and green – reflects the sultry light of the South China Sea. Big thunderclouds boil across this neon-swathed cityscape. Brooding, bright and quicksilver, the landscape perfectly personifies the Fragrant City's cinema.

Like many things Chinese, films are enjoying international acclaim. Actress Ziyi Zhang grinned from the cover of Newsweek in May 2005. The headline “China's Century” shielded her dancer's midriff, honed from martial arts films like Zhang Yimou's Hero and House of Flying Daggers, and Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

At 26, she's poster child for a nation's ascendance – and the vitality of Chinese cinema. In addition to Yimou and Lee, she's worked under Kar Wai Wong on the cult film 2046, which netted her the best actress trophy at the Hong Kong Film Awards in March. Next up: Memoirs of a Geisha with Steven Spielberg.

She's not the only talent burning bright in the West. Lee's Crouching Tiger won four Oscars and became the highest-grossing foreign-language film in history at $128 million. This year, the Cannes jury prize went to a mainland film, Xiaoshuai Wang's Shanghai Dreams. John Woo made the Hollywood A-list with Paycheck, Face/Off and Mission: Impossible II. Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow are now household names. Yun-Fat Chow may soon join them. Fruit Chan certainly should.

Even Snow White is due for a martial arts makeover. Where dwarves cavorted in the 1937 animated classic, Shaolin monks will chop and kick in 2006. Disney tapped Woo-ping Yuen – the famed fight choreographer – to direct Snow and the Seven, set in British colonial China.

The commercial outpost of Hong Kong – a special administrative region – still sets the pace for China's film industry. Its irreverent, high-rev style is infectious. Without Hong Kong's choreographed violence, there would be no flowing Matrix fight scenes from Andy and Larry Wachowski, for example. Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill drew heavily on Asian action techniques, as has Oliver Stone. Now entire scripts are soaring across the Pacific. Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak's underworld thriller Infernal Affairs should resurface as The Departed, a 2006 Martin Scorsese project starring Leonardo di Caprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson.

Despite all the fanfare, the movie industry is flagging back home. Hollywood blockbusters and piracy undermined the local market. “Hong Kong used to make hundreds of movies a year, then it declined to 60-something and only 30 this year,” Jackie Chan told Where Hong Kong in May. “To save Hong Kong film, everyone should help by going back to the cinema for just one year. I can guarantee the market will be revived.”

Multiplexes hope to lure customers back to the big screen: no easy feat in a pricey city where a ticket averages US$6.50 to $10 and the median income is about $1,285 per month. The island now has 56 cinemas with 199 screens total.

The government established a US$13-million development fund and FILMART, a film and TV trade fair. Slowly, it's addressing video rental rights. Illegal DVD copies and online theft are vaguely on the radar. Dire predictions still abound, but the economy is on the upswing. And face facts: Hong Kong's cinema scene has survived far worst fluctuations.

Once upon a time in China (1905, to be precise), ambitious photographer Ren Qingtai turned a spare room into a makeshift opera hall. The Fengtai Photography Shop showed “electric shadow plays” when the Cantonese singing stars were otherwise engaged. When the imported reels were exhausted, Ren borrowed a camera and churned out celluloid until 1909, when a mysterious shop fire suggested retirement was a wise idea.

American Benjamin Brodsky – founder of China's first studio in Shanghai – funded the colony's first production company. He met brothers Li Beihai and Li Minwei on the set of Hong Kong's first proper film, Liang Shaopo's 1909 short comedy Stealing the Roast Duck. Together they broke gender barriers in China America Films' inaugural effort, Zhuangzi Tests His Wife. Until this 1913 project, men always played female roles.

The First World War halted the supply of German film stock – and thus the city's cinematic industry – until the early 20s. Ironically, the Hong Kong scene languished until another war. The Japanese invaded Shanghai in 1937, driving filmmakers south to the British colony. The first golden age of Hong Kong cinema shone.

The magic was not to last. As Pearl Harbour burned in December 1941, Japanese planes also bombed the Kai Tak airport and troops stormed the border into the New Territories. After 18 days of intense fighting on the island, Hong Kong surrendered on Christmas afternoon. The Chinese film industry became a propaganda vehicle, first for the Japanese, later for the Nationalists.

As Shanghai shriveled behind the Communist “Bamboo Curtain”, Hong Kong flowered. Artists and moguls sought refuge in the colony, soon known as “Eastern Hollywood.” Rival companies Cathay and Shaw each produced over 100 films a year. The latter unveiled China's largest studio in 1957 and finally emerged triumphant. Movie Town boasted 49 acres of permanent sets and sound stages, dubbing facilities, printing labs, dormitories and even an in-house film school.

Often compared to a “two-thousand-pound gorilla,” the Shaw Brothers played rough. Actors and crews turned to the Triads for help, forever linking show business and organized crime. By the end of the 60s, talent was trickling away, most notably Raymond Chow. The production executive formed Golden Harvest films in 1970.

Enter the dragon: American-born Bruce Lee was briefly a child star in Hong Kong (most notably in Feng Feng's The Kid, 1950). Banished back to the States for misbehavior, Lee learned discipline to match his charisma and “bare-handed boxing” skills. When Hollywood passed him over for the television series Kung Fu, he returned to the colony and discovered superstardom with the upstart studio Golden Harvest.

Martial arts madness hit hard and fast. International distributors clamored for Hong Kong films. Lee's untimely death at 32 rattled Golden Harvest, but it stole and schooled up new talent like comedian Michael Hui Koon-Man and director Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, who recruited an old opera academy classmate: Jackie Chan.

Chan's full name – Chan Kong Sang – appropriately translates as “Born in Hong Kong”. Smiling where Lee scowled, the kung-fu funny man took the genre widescreen across the world. Grit was glorious and producer Hark Tsui was its leading exporter. His breakaway Film Workshop launched the likes of Woo and Yun-Fat Chow.

Profit, production and popularity ran high into the 1990s. “It seemed as if Hong Kong filmmakers had somehow chanced upon some kind of magic recipe for commodity in motion pictures – one that blended Eastern verve and ingenuity with Western presentation,” Jeff Yang commented in Once Upon A Time in China, his essential film guide (named after Tsui's masterpiece: the six-part blockbuster also launched Jet Li's career).

Sharks gathered around the soft, sweet success of Hong Kong films. Smut increased, as did gory violence, on camera and off. As Yang remarked: “it's likely that organized crime and Chinese cinema grew up together as siblings, with Triads turning into gangsters just as opera players were turning into screen stars.” Assassinations, armed negative heists, bombs and beatings preceded the 1997 handover, when the British returned the colony to China.

The media and entertainment industries feared censorship. Many stars fled, others spun dread into gold, like indie director Fruit Chan's trilogy: Made in Hong Kong, The Longest Summer and Little Cheung. But overall, production tanked and Hollywood gloss dominated the box office, as home viewers snapped up illegal VCDs (worse yet, 90 percent of pirated titles were local). The stock slump, avian flu and the severe acute respiratory syndrome sparked crisis after crisis (plus the PR debacle of the disease and the special administrative region sharing the better part of an acronym: SARS vs. SAR).

The lowest point, seemingly, has passed, however. Mainstream studios are even welcoming HK's indie directors: Miu-suet Lai's Floating Landscape, Chun-Chun Wong's Truth Or Dare: 6th Floor Rear Flat, Yan Yan Mak's Butterfly and more recently, Andrew Loo and Maurice Li's It Had To Be You.

And now the Fragrant City has a bit more razzle-dazzle. Hollywood-style stars stud the pavement at Tsim Sha Tsui, a $5-million tribute to the silver screen. Michelle Yeoh – the first Asian Bond girl and stuntwoman extraordinaire – is honored alongside Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Stephen Chow, Jet Li, John Woo and the debonair Yun-Fat Chow.

An Avenue of the Stars alone doesn't herald a bright future for Hong Kong cinema. Yet given its history, the industry snaps back faster than a Bruce Lee jab. Expect to see more glittering triumphs made, born and bred in Hong Kong.

See sidebars. Please note, this is the original, unedited text.




"Even Snow White is
due for a martial arts
makeover. Where dwarves
cavorted in the 1937
animated classic, Shaolin
monks will chop
and kick in 2006."

"Often compared to a
“two-thousand-pound gorilla,
the Shaw Brothers played
rough. Actors and crews
turned to the Triads for
help, forever linking show
business and organized crime.
"Enter the dragon:
American-born Bruce
Lee was briefly a child
star in Hong Kong. Banished
back to the States for
misbehavior, Lee learned
discipline to match his
charisma and “bare-
handed boxing” skills."

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