100 years of Hong Kong cinema

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Timeline: Hong Kong cinema
THR's Hong Kong Filmart coverage

Is it, or isn't it?

The question being -- is 2009 the 100th year of Hong Kong cinema?

As the story goes, it all started with a Cantonese-style roast duck. "Not just any ordinary roast, but the roast duck -- a genuine Hong Kong local delicacy," as film historian and Hong Kong Film Archive research officer Wong Ain-ling describes it, which suggested cultural specificity.

According to some, the birth of Hong Kong cinema was supposed to have started with an almost-never-seen silent comedic short titled "Stealing a Roast Duck." "The problem is, there's no primary source for the film; we've only had one early source mentioning its existence, when director Moon Kwan Man-ching wrote in the 1920s that he saw it in the U.S.," Wong says.

Whether the film was made in 1909 or 1912 also has been a subject of dispute, not to mention whether it was ever made at all.

1975's "Flying Guillotine"
Indeed, film historians had been debating the date of birth of Hong Kong cinema for years. According to early documentation, "Stealing a Roast Duck" was produced by Benjamin Brodsky, a Jewish-American producer who emigrated from Russia, established the Asia Film Co. in Shanghai in 1909 and subsequently financed the short, which was shot in Hong Kong with local crew and actors. This leads one to ask whether "Stealing a Roast Duck" can even be categorized as a Hong Kong film. The question of local or foreign investment is particularly relevant, as historically few Hong Kong films rely solely on local funding.

To all those involved in some form of celebration or retrospective of the questionable centennial of Hong Kong cinema, the issue of the first actual Hong Kong film is a sticky subject. For historians and the cultural establishment, there is just no definite consensus on the film or the year. "We're not sure of exactly what year the first Hong Kong film was made. So while we support the celebration of the history of Hong Kong cinema in general, we decided the centenary is not something we'd like to endorse," says Sam Ho, film critic and HKFA programmer. "What is unconfirmed should not be presented as fact."

This line of argument is echoed by the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society, which, "as a cultural institution, we cannot endorse the idea that 2009 is the centennial of Hong Kong cinema as definitive," says Li Cheuk-to, programming director of the HKIFF. In order to show the situation as it is to the public, the HKIFF Society has organized a frankly named seminar "The Controversial Centenary of Hong Kong Cinema" on April 5, during the festival, to discuss the early history and present new evidence. A two-day, as-yet-unnamed HKFA-organized conference will follow in November, but its focus will be broadened to early Chinese-language films.

1966's "Come Drink With Me"
Filmmakers and industry insiders, meanwhile, don't appear to have a problem with commemorating 2009 as the centenary. To filmmakers, there's a clear distinction between industry and culture. "I agree that 'Zhuangzi' gave birth to Hong Kong film culture," says as director Gordon Chan, the chairman of the Hong Kong Film Awards Assn. and president of the Hong Kong Film Directors' Guild. Chan is referring to "Zhuangzi Tests His Wife," which was made in either 1913 or 1914 and is widely accepted as the first Hong Kong narrative film.

" 'Duck' marked the beginning of Hong Kong film industry," Chan adds. "So we decided to assign a time. Was Jesus Christ really born on Dec. 25? Why should we get caught up in the academic exactness? Why argue? This is a time for reflection and evaluation. We're an old shop now, which either means we have a long history, or that we're ancient and out-of-touch. But we should cherish our past and find a way to move forward."

Adds Wellington Fung, secretary general of the Hong Kong Film Development Council, who endorsed the 100 years' celebration when the Hong Kong Film Awards Assn. initiated the idea: "It's a means to celebrate Hong Kong film culture and promote Hong Kong film industry," Fung says. Indeed, the HKFDC has almost doubled its sponsorship for the April 19 awards show this year -- from HK$3 million in 2008 to HK$5.8 million in 2009 -- expressly for the centennial theme, according to the Hong Kong Information Services Department.



" 'Stealing a Roast Duck' has a special significance to us -- it was where the path of the eastern and western culture crossed," Chan declares.

1972's "Way of the Dragon"
No matter which Hong Kong film was the first, there has been plenty to celebrate during the past 100 or so years. From the 1930s, Cantonese -- the local dialect of Hong Kong -- films began to flourish. By the '40 and '50s, an influx of filmmakers from China gave a tremendous boost to the Hong Kong film scene, especially for films in Mandarin, the official national language of China.

Films in Cantonese and Mandarin enjoyed rapid growth in the '50s. The influence of Cantonese films in particular spread to neighboring regions. "The Chinese market has closed since 1949, but Cantonese films were popular in Southeast Asia," Wong says. "Movies were presold to Southeast Asian markets before a script was written or a single frame shot, which brought a deluge of money from the Chinese diaspora to the Hong Kong film industry, especially during the 1960s."

The development of films in different dialects also reflected the multicultural nature and business acumen of the people of Hong Kong, where immigrants from various parts of China came and settled. Some productions like those in the Xiayu dialect were made specifically for export to the Taiwanese market; while others were released abroad for the Chinese communities in the U.S. and Europe. At that time, such studios as MP & GI (later renamed Cathay) and Shaw Brothers dominated the Mandarin film market, while slapstick comedies, period dramas of Union Film Enterprises and kung fu movies like the prolific "Wong Fei-hung" series -- tallying more than 60 installments throughout the '50s -- cornered the Cantonese market.

By the '60s, productions reached an all-time high -- more than 2,200 films were made within the decade, with 1,552 of those in Cantonese. Various genres, including martial arts, Cantonese opera, modern musicals and romantic comedies, thrived, buoyed by investments from Southeast Asia, studios big and small all wanted a share of the pie, and some were established only for one single picture. "It was a time of great diversity," Wong says.

The '60s and early '70s saw the rise in recognition for Shaw Brothers kung fu epics in the west, with the studio's name becoming synonymous with Hong Kong cinema. However, the perception is questionable, says Ho says. "The martial arts genre has long been established in early films in China and later, Cantonese cinema," he says. "While Shaw Brothers' power in the local industry is undoubtedly vast, it didn't assume a monolithic status as seen by westerners."

One of the reasons for this enduring perception, according to Ho, is because the studio's golden age coincided with the period when Hong Kong film export to the U.S. peaked. "It was also the time when Shaw Brothers began to establish its theatrical connections in the U.S. and courted non-Chinese audience," he adds.

But the early to mid '70s also marked the emergence of Golden Harvest, whose biggest discoveries need no further elaboration: Bruce Lee and, later, Jackie Chan.

1978's "Five Deadly Venoms"
By the mid '70s, Shaw Brothers and Mandarin films fell into decline, later eclipsed by Golden Harvest and Cantonese cinema, which continued to grow and prosper. The late '70s and early '80s was the period of the Hong Kong New Wave, when such young filmmakers as Tsui Hark, Ann Hui and Patrick Tam came into prominence, and it gave birth to films with a distinct contemporary Hong Kong identity.

"In the 1980s, filmmakers born in Hong Kong in the post-war generation began to emerge, and the so-called Hong Kong characteristics became more pronounced," Wong says. "That, and the economic boom at the time, gave rise to a sense of Hong Kong pride."

The '80s saw a blooming local film industry, when such studios as Golden Harvest, Cinema City and D&B Films flourished, and each new blockbuster including "Aces Go Places" (1982) or the Chan vehicle "Police Story" (1985) surpassed the previous at the boxoffice, breaking records and spawning numerous sequels.



The films also presold brilliantly to Southeast Asia, Taiwan and Korea. By the early '90s, any project with Jet Li or Andy Lau attached could presell for $1 million-$1.5 million, and that's just for Korea. The influx of overseas investments into the local film industry mirrored that of the '60s, and the number of productions and studios soared. In 1992, more than 300 Hong Kong-made films were produced and released.

Then the bubble burst.

Quality suffered in the great boom, which led to diminishing boxoffice returns and the withdrawal of Asian and Taiwanese investors, prompting a vicious circle of decline in the closing of local theatrical circuits and fewer productions. In 1997, less than 100 films were made in Hong Kong; in 2008, the number fell below 50.

Piracy, the advance of home entertainment technology and the shrinking local and overseas markets for Hong Kong films all contributed to what some pessimistic souls called the "death of Hong Kong cinema." However, some stars and directors have retained the old Hong Kong magic: The all-time highest Hong Kong boxoffice record for a local film was set in 2004 by Stephen Chow's "Kung Fu Hustle," which raked in $7.9 million. Recently, John Woo's two-part epic "Red Cliff" grossed a respectable $6 million at the Hong Kong boxoffice, but what's staggering is its gross in China, where part one became the first film to break the 300 million yuan ($43.9 million) mark, while Part 2 collected $38 million.

Likewise, Gordon Chan's "Painted Skin" might only have earned $1.3 million in Hong Kong, but it was a certified blockbuster that earned more than 200 million yuan ($29.2 million) in China. And this is despite the fact that the Chinese market is still in its toddler stage, nowhere near saturation. Indeed, industry insiders are forecasting a 1 billion yuan ($146 million) grossing film within the next 10 years. So why shouldn't it be one that's made by a Hong Kong filmmaker? After all, the aforementioned all were.

That's light at the end of the tunnel for Hong Kong's still-struggling film sector.

But there's a catch: Censorship. Nevertheless, Hong Kong filmmakers have always been famous for being an exceptionally adaptable bunch, and censorship is not exactly new to them, as Wong points out.

"Hong Kong films had to go through a great deal of self-censorship before for the Southeast Asian markets -- for example, no sex and violence for conservative and religious nations," Wong says. "What the filmmakers did was to avoid depictions that'd be problematic, or cut different versions for exports."

For Gordon Chan, making historical epics for the Chinese market is all well and good, but the biggest challenge going forward will be retaining Hong Kong's unique voice. "Instead of merely rushing to make films for China," he says, "we also have to reclaim our traditional markets around Asia. The costume dramas of the last few years were attempts to break into the Chinese market, but they didn't appeal to the people in our traditional overseas markets or in Hong Kong. These audiences essentially saw the same Hong Kong films growing up, and their taste are still quite similar -- just look at how well the Hollywood blockbusters did across the whole region. What they demand is and has always been entertainment value."

He adds: "We have to appreciate the reason that Hong Kong film industry could survive for a hundred years is that we never forget we provide entertainment to the public."
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