Cinema of Hong Kong

Cinema of Hong Kong

A bronze statue on a pedestal, with the city skyline in the background. The pedestal is designed in the image of four clapperboards forming a box. The statue is of a woman wrapped in photographic film, looking straight up, with her left hand stretched upwards and holding a glass sphere containing a light.

Replica of the Hong Kong Film Awards statuette on the Avenue of Stars in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong.
Number of screens 204 (2011)[1]
  Per capita 3.1 per 100,000 (2011)[1]
Produced feature films (2005-2009)[2]
Total 56 (average)
Number of admissions (2010)[3]
Total 22,500,000
  Per capita 3.2 (2010)[4]
Gross box office (2014)[5]
Total HK$1.65 billion

The cinema of Hong Kong (Chinese: 香港電影) is one of the three major threads in the history of Chinese language cinema, alongside the cinema of China, and the cinema of Taiwan. As a former British colony, Hong Kong had a greater degree of political and economic freedom than mainland China and Taiwan, and developed into a filmmaking hub for the Chinese-speaking world (including its worldwide diaspora), and for East Asia in general.

For decades, Hong Kong was the third largest motion picture industry in the world (after Indian cinema and Hollywood) and the second largest exporter. Despite an industry crisis starting in the mid-1990s and Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty in July 1997, Hong Kong film has retained much of its distinctive identity and continues to play a prominent part on the world cinema stage. In the West, Hong Kong's vigorous pop cinema (especially Hong Kong action cinema) has long had a strong cult following, which is now arguably a part of the cultural mainstream, widely available and imitated.

The Hong Kong industry

Unlike many film industries, Hong Kong has enjoyed little or no direct government support, through either subsidies or import quotas. It is a thoroughly commercial cinema: highly corporate, concentrating on crowd-pleasing genres like comedy and action, and relying heavily on formulas, sequels and remakes.

Hong Kong film derives a number of elements from Hollywood, such as certain genre parameters, a "thrill-a-minute" philosophy and fast pacing and editing. But the borrowings are filtered through elements from traditional Chinese drama and art, particularly a penchant for stylisation and a disregard for Western standards of realism. This, combined with a fast and loose approach to the filmmaking process, contributes to the energy and surreal imagination that foreign audiences note in Hong Kong cinema.

In 2010, the box office gross in Hong Kong was HK$1.339 billion and in 2011 it was HK$1.379 billion. There were 56 Hong Kong films and 220 foreign films released in 2011.[6]

The star system

According to McDonald, a star system emerged in Hollywood as talent scouts, coaches, and publicists were involved with finding performers and making them into stars. In the vertically integrated Hollywood film industry of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, these responsibilities were all undertaken by the studios themselves. The studios made the stars and, due to notoriously restrictive terms imposed by exclusive services contracts, the studios also owned the stars (McDonald, 2000). As is common in commercial cinema, the industry's heart is a highly developed star system. In earlier days, beloved performers from the Chinese opera stage often brought their audiences with them to the screen. For the past three or four decades, television has been a major launching pad for movie stardom, through acting courses and widely watched drama, comedy and variety series offered by the two major stations. Possibly even more important is the overlap with the Cantonese pop music industry. Many, if not most, movie stars have recording sidelines, and vice versa; this has been a key marketing strategy in an entertainment industry where American-style, multimedia advertising campaigns have until recently been little used (Bordwell, 2000). In the current commercially troubled climate, the casting of young Cantopop idols (such as Ekin Cheng and the Twins) to attract the all-important youth audience is endemic.

In the small and tightly knit industry, actors (as well as other personnel, such as directors) are kept very busy. During previous boom periods, the number of movies made by a successful figure in a single year could routinely reach double digits.


Films are typically low-budget when compared with American films.[7] A major release with a big star, aimed at "hit" status, will typically cost around US$5 million (Yang et al., 1997). A low-budget feature can go well below US$1 million. Occasional blockbuster projects by the very biggest stars (Jackie Chan or Stephen Chow, for example) or international co-productions ("crossovers") aimed at the global market, can go as high as US$20 million or more, but these are rare exceptions.[7] Hong Kong productions can nevertheless achieve a level of gloss and lavishness greater than these numbers might suggest, given factors such as lower wages and value of the Hong Kong dollar.

Language and sound

Films in the Cantonese language have been made in Hong Kong since the beginning. In the 1950s, it also became a center of Mandarin language film making after the Communist takeover in mainland China and the entertainment industry shifted from Shanghai to Hong Kong. From the 1960s to mid-1970s, Mandarin film productions became dominant, especially those made by the Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong.[8] There was also a short-lived period whereby Hokkien films were produced in Hong Kong,[9] and there were also films made in the Teochew dialect.[10] Cantonese films made a comeback in the 1970s, and since the 1980s, films have been made mostly in Cantonese.

For decades, films were typically shot silent, with dialogue and all other sound dubbed afterwards. In the hectic and low-budget industry, this method was faster and more cost-efficient than recording live sound, particularly when using performers from different dialect regions; it also helped facilitate dubbing into other languages for the vital export market (for example, Standard Mandarin for mainland China and Taiwan). Many busy stars would not even record their own dialogue, but would be dubbed by a lesser-known performer. Shooting without sound also contributed to an improvisatory filmmaking approach. Movies often went into production without finished scripts, with scenes and dialogue concocted on the set; especially low-budget productions on tight schedules might even have actors mouth silently or simply count numbers, with actual dialogue created only in the editing process.

A trend towards sync sound filming grew in the late 1990s and this method is now the norm, partly because of a widespread public association with higher quality cinema.


1909 to World War II

During its early history, Hong Kong's cinema played second fiddle to that of the mainland, particularly the city of Shanghai, which was then the movie capital of the Chinese-speaking world. Very little of this work is extant: one count finds only four films remaining out of over 500 produced in Hong Kong before World War II (Fonoroff, 1997). Detailed accounts of this period, especially those by non-Chinese speakers, therefore have inherent limitations and uncertainties.

Pioneers from the stage

A young Lai Man-Wai in 1913, in Zhuangzi Tests His Wife credited as the first Hong Kong feature film

As in most of China, the development of early films was tightly bound to Chinese opera, for centuries the dominant form of dramatic entertainment. Opera scenes were the source for what are generally credited as the first movies made in Hong Kong, two 1909 short comedies entitled Stealing a Roasted Duck and Right a Wrong with Earthenware Dish. The director was stage actor and director Liang Shaobo. The producer was an American, Benjamin Brodsky (sometimes transliterated 'Polaski'), one of a number of Westerners who helped jumpstart Chinese film through their efforts to crack China's vast potential market.

Credit for the first Hong Kong feature film is usually given to Zhuangzi Tests His Wife (1913), which also took its story from the opera stage, was helmed by a stage director and featured Brodsky's involvement. Director Lai Man-Wai (Li Ming Wei or Li Minwei in Mandarin) was a theatrical colleague of Liang Shaobo's who would become known as the "Father of Hong Kong Cinema". In another borrowing from opera, Lai played the role of wife himself. His brother played the role of husband, and his wife a supporting role as a maid, making her the first Chinese woman to act in a Chinese film, a milestone delayed by longstanding taboos regarding female performers (Leyda, 1972). Zhuangzhi was the only film made by Chinese American Film, founded by Lai and Brodsky as the first movie studio in Hong Kong, and was never actually shown in the territory (Stokes and Hoover, 1999).

The following year, the outbreak of World War I put a large crimp in the development of cinema in Hong Kong, as Germany was the source of the colony's film stock (Yang, 2003). It was not until 1923 that Lai, his brother and their cousin joined with Liang Shaobo to form Hong Kong's first entirely Chinese-owned-and-operated production company, the Minxin (or China Sun) Company. In 1924, they moved their operation to the Mainland after government red tape blocked their plans to build a studio. (Teo, 1997)

The advent of sound

With the popularity of talkies in the early 1930s, the problem of China's various spoken dialects had to be grappled with. Hong Kong was a major center for Cantonese, one of the most widely spoken, and political factors on the Mainland provided other opportunities. In 1932, the Shaw brothers, who formed the Tianyi Film Company, teamed up with Cantonese opera singer Sit Gok-Sin (薛覺先) to make the first Cantonese talkie, White Gold Dragon (白金龍), in Shanghai. This film proved to be very successful, and in 1934, they established a branch of the Tianyi Studio in Kowloon to make Cantonese films.[11][12] The government of the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party wanted to enforce a "Mandarin-only" policy and was hostile to Cantonese filmmaking in China. It also banned the wildly popular wuxia genre of martial arts swordplay and fantasy, accusing it of promoting superstition and violent anarchy. Cantonese film and wuxia film remained popular despite government hostility, and the British colony of Hong Kong became a place where both of these trends could be freely served. Tianyi soon moved the entire film production operation from Shanghai to Hong Kong and reorganised Tianyi into Nanyang (南洋) Productions.[13] The name 粵語長片 (Pinyin: Yuèyǔ zhǎng piàn, Jyutping: jyut6 jyu5 coeng4 pin3*2) soon became the standard name for black and white Cantonese movies.

Filmed Cantonese operas proved even more successful than wuxia and constituted the leading genre of the 1930s. Major studios that thrived in this period were Grandview, Universal, and Nanyang (which later became the Shaw Brothers Studio that would have an enduring influence on Chinese film). (Teo, 1997)

The war era

Another important factor in the 1930s, was the second Sino-Japanese War. "National defense" films—patriotic war stories about Chinese resisting the Japanese invasion—became one of Hong Kong's major genres; notable titles included Kwan Man Ching's Lifeline (1935), Chiu Shu Sun's Hand to Hand Combat (1937) and Situ Huimin's March of the Partisans (1938). The genre and the film industry were further boosted by emigre film artists and companies when Shanghai was taken by the Japanese in 1937.

This of course came to an end when Hong Kong itself fell to the Japanese in December 1941. But unlike on the Mainland, the occupiers were not able to put together a collaborationist film industry. They managed to complete just one propaganda movie, The Attack on Hong Kong (1942; aka The Day of England's Collapse) before the British returned in 1945 (Teo, 1997). A more important move by the Japanese may have been to melt down many of Hong Kong's pre-war films to extract their silver nitrate for military use (Fonoroff, 1997).

The 1940s–60s

Postwar Hong Kong cinema, like postwar Hong Kong industries in general, was catalyzed by the continuing influx of capital and talents from Mainland China. This became a flood with the 1946 resumption of the Chinese Civil War (which had been on hold during the fight against Japan) and then the 1949 Communist victory. These events definitively shifted the center of Chinese-language cinema to Hong Kong. The colony also did big business exporting films to Southeast Asian countries (especially but not exclusively due to their large Chinese expatriate communities) and to Chinatowns in Western countries (Bordwell, 2000).

Competing languages

The postwar era also cemented the bifurcation of the industry into two parallel cinemas, one in Mandarin, the dominant dialect of the Mainland emigres, and one in Cantonese, the dialect of most Hong Kong natives. The distinction between the two languages is in sound (Kei, 1994). During the silent film age the written language was Chinese and was known to all, no matter the language spoken (Kei, 1994). Subtitles allow both markets access to films (Kei,1994).[14] Mandarin movies sometimes had much higher budgets and more lavish production. Reasons included their enormous export market; the expertise and capital of the Shanghai filmmakers. For decades to come, Cantonese films, though sometimes more numerous, were relegated to second-tier status (Leyda, 1972).

Another language-related milestone occurred in 1963: the British authorities passed a law requiring the subtitling of all films in English, supposedly to enable a watch on political content. Making a virtue of necessity, studios included Chinese subtitles as well, enabling easier access to their movies for speakers of other dialects. (Yang, 2003) Subtitling later had the unintended consequence of facilitating the movies' popularity in the West.

Cantonese movies

During this period, Cantonese opera on film dominated. The top stars were the female duo of Yam Kim Fai and Pak Suet Sin (Yam–Pak for short). Yam specialised in male scholar roles to Pak's female leads. They made over fifty films together, The Purple Hairpin (1959) being one of the most enduringly popular (Teo, 1997).

Low-budget martial arts films were also popular. A series of roughly 100 kung fu movies starring Kwan Tak Hing as historical folk hero Wong Fei Hung were made, starting with The True Story of Wong Fei Hung (1949) and ending with Wong Fei Hung Bravely Crushing the Fire Formation (1970) (Logan, 1995). Fantasy wuxia (swordplay) serials with special effects drawn on the film by hand, such as The Six-Fingered Lord of the Lute (1965) starring teen idol Connie Chan Po-chu in the lead male role, were also popular (Chute and Lim, 2003, 3), as were contemporary melodramas of home and family life.

Mandarin movies and the Shaws/Cathay rivalry

In Mandarin production, Shaw Brothers and Motion Picture and General Investments Limited (MP&GI, later renamed Cathay) were the top studios by the 1960s, and bitter rivals. The Shaws gained the upper hand in 1964 after the death in a plane crash of MP&GI founder and head Loke Wan Tho. The renamed Cathay faltered, ceasing film production in 1970 (Yang, 2003).

A musical genre called Huángméidiào (黃梅調) was derived from Chinese opera; the Shaws' record-breaking hit The Love Eterne (1963) remains the classic of the genre. Historical costume epics often overlapped with the Huángméidiào, such as in The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959). (Both of the above examples were directed by Shaw's star director, Li Han Hsiang). Romantic melodramas such as Red Bloom in the Snow (1956), Love Without End (1961), The Blue and the Black (1964) and adaptations of novels by Chiung Yao were popular. So were Hollywood-style musicals, which were a particular specialty of MP&GI/Cathay in entries such as Mambo Girl (1957) and The Wild, Wild Rose (1960).

In the second half of the 1960s, the Shaws inaugurated a new generation of more intense, less fantastical wuxia films with glossier production values, acrobatic moves and stronger violence. The trend was inspired by the popularity of imported samurai movies from Japan (Chute and Lim, 2003, 8), as well as by the loss of movie audiences to television. This marked the crucial turn of the industry from a female-centric genre system to an action movie orientation (see also the Hong Kong action cinema article). Key trendsetters included Xu Zenghong's Temple of the Red Lotus (1965), King Hu's Come Drink with Me (1966) and Dragon Inn (1967, made in Taiwan; aka Dragon Gate Inn), and Chang Cheh's Tiger Boy (1966), The One-Armed Swordsman (1967) and Golden Swallow (1968).

Years of transformation (1970s)

Mandarin-dialect film in general and the Shaw Brothers studio in particular began the 1970s in apparent positions of unassailable strength. Cantonese cinema virtually vanished in the face of Mandarin studios and Cantonese television, which became available to the general population in 1967; in 1972 no films in the local dialect were made (Bordwell, 2000). The Shaws saw their longtime rival Cathay ceasing film production, leaving themselves the only megastudio. The martial arts subgenre of the kung fu movie exploded into popularity internationally, with the Shaws driving and dominating the wave. But changes were beginning that would greatly alter the industry by the end of the decade.

The Cantonese comeback

Paradoxically, television would soon contribute to the revival of Cantonese in a movement towards more down-to-earth movies about modern Hong Kong life and average people.

The first spark was the ensemble comedy The House of 72 Tenants, the only Cantonese film made in 1973, but a resounding hit. It was based on a well-known play and produced by the Shaws as a showcase for performers from their pioneering television station TVB (Yang, 2003).

The return of Cantonese really took off with the comedies of former TVB stars the Hui Brothers (actor-director-screenwriter Michael Hui, actor-singer Sam Hui and actor Ricky Hui). The rationale behind the move to Cantonese was clear in the trailer for the brothers' Games Gamblers Play (1974): "Films by devoted young people with you in mind." This move back to the local audience for Hong Kong cinema paid off immediately. Games Gamblers Play initially made US$1.4 million at the Hong Kong box office, becoming the highest-grossing film up to that point. The Hui movies also broke ground by satirising the modern reality of an ascendant middle class, whose long work hours and dreams of material success were transforming the colony into a modern industrial and corporate giant (Teo, 1997). Cantonese comedy thrived and Cantonese production skyrocketed; Mandarin hung on into the early 1980s, but has been relatively rare onscreen since.

Golden Harvest and The Rise of the Independents

In 1970, former Shaw Brothers executives Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho left to form their own studio, Golden Harvest. The upstart's more flexible and less tightfisted approach to the business outmaneuvered the Shaws' old-style studio. Chow and Ho landed contracts with rising young performers who had fresh ideas for the industry, like Bruce Lee and the Hui Brothers, and allowed them greater creative latitude than was traditional. California-born, Bruce Lee only found minor roles in U.S. films and television until Golden Harvest's The Big Boss (aka The Fists of Fury, 1971) came into theatres. This jump-started Lee's career into stardom and made martial arts and kung fu a global trend.[15]

By the end of the 1970s, Golden Harvest was the top studio, signing up Jackie Chan, the kung fu comedy actor-filmmaker who would spend the next 20 years as Asia's biggest box office draw (Chan and Yang, 1998, pp. 164–165; Bordwell, 2000). Raymond Chow built upon Lee's success with Fist of Fury (aka The Chinese Connection, 1972) and The Way of the Dragon (aka The Return of the Dragon, 1972), each of which broke Hong Kong box office records. Bruce Lee appeared with minor Hollywood actors in a larger budget Enter the Dragon (1973), a coproduction with Warner Bros. Lee's death under mysterious circumstances made him a cult hero. Lee played a key role in opening foreign markets to Hong Kong films. Lee's films enjoyed throughout the Third World, were often taken as symbolizing the rebellious pride of insurgent Asia.[16]

Meanwhile, the explosions of Cantonese and kung fu and the example of Golden Harvest had created more space for independent producers and production companies. The era of the studio juggernauts was past. The Shaws nevertheless continued film production until 1985 before turning entirely to television (Teo, 1997).

The rapidly growing permissiveness in film content that was general in much of the world affected Hong Kong film as well. A genre of softcore erotica known as fengyue became a local staple (the name is a contraction of a Chinese phrase implying seductive decadence). Such material did not suffer as much of a stigma in Hong Kong as in most Western countries; it was more or less part of the mainstream, sometimes featuring contributions from major directors such as Chor Yuen and Li Han Hsiang and often crossbreeding with other popular genres like martial arts, the costume film and especially comedy (Teo, 1997; Yang, 2003). Violence also grew more intense and graphic, particularly at the instigation of martial arts filmmakers.

Director Lung Kong blended these trends into the social-issue dramas which he had already made his specialty with late 1960s Cantonese classics like The Story of a Discharged Prisoner (1967) and Teddy Girls (1969). In the 1970s, he began directing in Mandarin and brought exploitation elements to serious films about subjects like prostitution (The Call Girls and Lina), the atomic bomb (Hiroshima 28) and the fragility of civilised society (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1970), which portrayed a plague-decimated, near-future Hong Kong) (Teo, 1997).

The brief career of Tang Shu Shuen, the territory's first noted woman director, produced two films, The Arch (1970) and China Behind (1974), that were trailblazers for a local, socially critical art cinema. They are also widely considered forerunners of the last major milestone of the decade, the so-called Hong Kong New Wave that would come from outside the traditional studio hierarchy and point to new possibilities for the industry (Bordwell, 2000).

1980s – early 1990s: the boom years

The 1980s and early 1990s, saw seeds planted in the 1970s come to full flower: the triumph of Cantonese, the birth of a new and modern cinema, superpower status in the East Asian market, and the turning of the West's attention to Hong Kong film.

A cinema of greater technical polish and more sophisticated visual style, including the first forays into up-to-date special effects technology, sprang up quickly. To this surface dazzle, the new cinema added an eclectic mixing and matching of genres, and a penchant for pushing the boundaries of sensationalistic content. Slapstick comedy, sex, the supernatural, and above all action (of both the martial arts and cops-and-criminals varieties) ruled, occasionally all in the same film.

One iconic film during this period was The Killer (1989), by John Woo, which is archetypal of the heroic bloodshed genre.

The international market

During this period, the Hong Kong industry was one of the few in the world that thrived in the face of the increasing global dominance of Hollywood. Indeed, it came to exert a comparable dominance in its own region of the world. The regional audience had always been vital, but now more than ever Hong Kong product filled theatres and video shelves in places like Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Korea. Taiwan became at least as important a market to Hong Kong film as the local one; in the early 1990s the once-robust Taiwanese film industry came close to extinction under the onslaught of Hong Kong imports (Bordwell, 2000). They even found a lesser foothold in Japan, with its own highly developed and better-funded cinema and strong taste for American movies; Jackie Chan in particular became popular there.

Almost accidentally, Hong Kong also reached further into the West, building upon the attention gained during the 1970s kung fu craze. Availability in Chinatown theatres and video shops allowed the movies to be discovered by Western film cultists attracted by their "exotic" qualities and excesses. An emergence into the wider popular culture gradually followed over the coming years.

Leaders of the boom

The trailblazer was production company Cinema City, founded in 1980 by comedians Karl Maka, Raymond Wong and Dean Shek. It specialised in contemporary comedy and action, slickly produced according to explicitly prescribed commercial formulas. The lavish, effects-filled spy spoof Aces Go Places (1982) and its numerous sequels epitomised the much-imitated "Cinema City style" (Yang, 2003).

Directors and producers Tsui Hark and Wong Jing can be singled out as definitive figures of this era. Tsui was a notorious Hong Kong New Wave tyro who symbolised that movement's absorption into the mainstream, becoming the industry's central trendsetter and technical experimenter (Yang et al., 1997, p. 75). The even more prolific Wong is, by most accounts, the most commercially successful and critically reviled Hong Kong filmmaker of the last two decades, with his relentless output of aggressively crowd-pleasing and cannily marketed pulp films.

Other hallmarks of this era included the gangster or "Triad" movie trend launched by director John Woo, producer and long-time actor Alan Tang and dominated by actor Chow Yun-fat; romantic melodramas and martial arts fantasies starring Brigitte Lin; the comedies of stars like Cherie Chung and Stephen Chow; traditional kung fu movies dominated by Jet Li; and contemporary, stunt-driven kung fu action epitomised by the work of Jackie Chan.

Category III films

The government's introduction of a film ratings system in 1988 had a certainly unintended effect on subsequent trends. The "Category III" (adults only) rating became an umbrella for the rapid growth of pornographic and generally outré films; however, while considered graphic by Chinese standards, these films would be more on par with movies rated "R" or "NC-17" in the United States, and not "XXX". By the height of the boom in the early 1990s, roughly half of the theatrical features produced were Category III-rated softcore erotica descended from the fengyue movies of the 1970s. (Yang, 2003) A definitive example of a mainstream Category III hit was Michael Mak's Sex and Zen (1991), a period comedy inspired by The Carnal Prayer Mat, the seventeenth century classic of comic-erotic literature by Li Yu (Dannen and Long, 1997). Naked Killer (1992) also became an international cult classic.

The rating also covered a trend for grisly, taboo-tweaking exploitation and horror films, often supposedly based on true crime stories, such as Men Behind the Sun (1988), Dr. Lamb (1992), The Untold Story (1993) and Ebola Syndrome (1996). Films depicting Triad rituals would also receive a Category III rating, an example of this being Crime Story (1993) starring Jackie Chan.[17]

Since the mid-1990s, the trend has withered with the shrinking of the general Hong Kong film market and the wider availability of pornography in home video formats (Bordwell, 2000). But in 2000s, three Category III movies: Election, its sequel, Election 2 (aka Triad Election), and Mad Detective, all directed by Johnnie To, still enjoyed surprising box office successes in Hong Kong.

Alternative cinema

In this landscape of pulp, there remained some ground for an alternative cinema or art cinema, due at least in part to the influence of the New Wave. Some New Wave filmmakers such as Ann Hui and Yim Ho continued to earn acclaim with personal and political films made at the edges of the mainstream.

The second half of the 1980s also saw the emergence of what is sometimes called a "Second Wave". These younger directors included names like Stanley Kwan, Clara Law and her partner Eddie Fong, Mabel Cheung, Lawrence Ah Mon and Wong Kar-wai. Like the New Wavers, they tended to be graduates of overseas film schools and local television apprenticeships, and to be interested in going beyond the usual, commercial subject matters and styles.[18]

These artists began to earn Hong Kong unprecedented attention and respect in international critical circles and the global film festival circuit. In particular, Wong Kar-wai's works starring Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Maggie Cheung in the 1990s have made him an internationally acclaimed and award-winning filmmaker.

Mid-1990s – present: Post-boom

The industry in crisis

During the 1990s, the Hong Kong film industry underwent a drastic decline from which it has not recovered. Domestic ticket sales had already started to drop in the late 1980s, but the regional audience kept the industry booming into the early years of the next decade (Teo, 1997). But by the mid-1990s, it went into freefall. Revenues were cut in half. By the decade's end, the number of films produced in a typical year dropped from an early 1990s high of well over 200 to somewhere around 100 (it should be noted, however, that a large part of this reduction was in the "Category III" softcore pornography area [Bordwell, 2000].) American blockbuster imports began to regularly top the box office for the first time in decades. Ironically, this was the same period during which Hong Kong cinema emerged into something like mainstream visibility in the U.S. and began exporting popular figures to Hollywood.

Numerous, converging factors have been blamed for the downturn:

The greater access to the Mainland that came with the July 1997 handover to China, was not as much of a boon as hoped, and presented its own problems, particularly with regard to censorship.

The industry had one of its darkest years in 2003. In addition to the continuing slump, a SARS virus outbreak kept many theatres virtually empty for a time and shut down film production for four months; only fifty-four movies were made (Li, 2004). The unrelated deaths of two of Hong Kong's famous singer/actors, Leslie Cheung, 46, and Anita Mui, 40, rounded out the bad news.

The Hong Kong Government in April 2003, introduced a Film Guarantee Fund as an incentive to local banks to become involved in the motion picture industry. The guarantee operates to secure a percentage of monies loaned by banks to film production companies. The Fund has received a mixed reception from industry participants, and less than enthusiastic reception from financial institutions who perceive investment in local films as high risk ventures with little collateral. Film guarantee legal documents commissioned by the Hong Kong Government in late April 2003 are based on Canadian documents, which have limited relevance to the local industry.

Andy Lau at a film interview

Efforts by local filmmakers to refinish their product have had mixed results overall. These include technically glossier visuals, including much digital imagery; greater use of Hollywood-style mass marketing techniques; and heavy reliance on casting teen-friendly Cantopop music stars. Successful genre cycles in the late 1990s and early 2000s have included: American-styled, high-tech action pictures such as Downtown Torpedoes (1997), Gen-X Cops and Purple Storm (both 1999); the "Triad kids" subgenre launched by Young and Dangerous (1996); yuppie-centric romantic comedies like The Truth About Jane and Sam (1999), Needing You... (2000), Love on a Diet (2001); and supernatural chillers like Horror Hotline: Big-Head Monster (2001) and The Eye (2002), often modeled on the Japanese horror films then making an international splash.

In the 2000s, there have been some bright spots. Milkyway Image, founded by filmmakers Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai in the mid-1990s, has had considerable critical and commercial success, especially with offbeat and character-driven crime films like The Mission (1999) and Running on Karma (2003). An even more successful example of the genre was the blockbuster Infernal Affairs trilogy (2002–03) of police thrillers co-directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak (the Oscar-winning movie The Departed, was based on this movie). Comedian Stephen Chow, the most consistently popular screen star of the 1990s, directed and starred in Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004); these used digital special effects to push his distinctive humor into new realms of the surreal and became the territory's two highest-grossing films to date, garnering numerous awards locally and internationally. Johnnie To's two Category III movies: Election and Election 2 also enjoyed Hong Kong box office successes. Election 2 has even been released in the US theatrically under the new title Triad Election; this movie received very positive reviews in the United States, with a more than 90% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[19] New LGBT films such as City Without Baseball (2008), Permanent Residence (2009) and Amphetamine (2009) followed the success of earlier 1990s films such as Bugis Street (a 1995 Hong Kong–Singapore co-production), and Hold You Tight (1998).

Still, some observers believe that, given the depressed state of the industry and the rapidly strengthening economic and political ties among Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan, the distinctive entity of Hong Kong cinema that emerged after World War II may have a limited lifespan. The lines between the mainland and Hong Kong industries are ever more blurred, especially now that China is producing increasing numbers of slick, mass-appeal popular films. Predictions are notoriously difficult in this rapidly changing part of the world, but the trend may be towards a more pan-Chinese cinema, as existed in the first half of the twentieth century.

See also

Film awards


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  11. Meaghan Morris, Siu Leung Li, Stephen Ching-kiu Chan (2006). Hong Kong Connections: Transnational Imagination in Action Cinema. Duke University Press Books. p. 193. ISBN 978-1932643015.
  12. Lisa Odham Stokes (2007). Historical Dictionary of Hong Kong Cinema. Scarecrow Press. p. 427. ISBN 978-0810855205.
  13. Poshek Fu (2003). Between Shanghai and Hong Kong: The Politics of Chinese Cinemas. Stanford University Press. pp. 56–57.
  14. Kei, Sek (1994). "A Brief Historical Tour of the Honk Kong Martial Arts Film". Retrieved from
  15. Thompson, Kristin (2003). Film History: An Introduction. New York, NY: McGraw Hill. p. 654. ISBN 0-07-038429-0.
  16. Thompson, Kristin (2003). Film History: An Introduction. New York, NY: McGraw Hill. pp. 654–655. ISBN 0-07-038429-0.
  17. Bey Logan. (Crime Story, 2003) (DVD). Audio Commentary. Hong Kong Legends.
  18. Teo, 1997
  19. "Election 2". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2012-07-14.

Further reading

In English

Hong Kong cinema

Note that "[e]very year, since 1978, the HKIFF has published both a catalog of films released that year and a retrospective book—and sometimes, special interest publication or two in the form of books and pamphlets. In 1996, a 10th Anniversary special was issued, and from 1997 onward, there have been yearly 'Panorama' special interest books in addition to the annual catalogs, retrospective books, and occasional pamphlets. In 2003, the HKIFF started carrying publications of the Hong Kong Film Archive, as well."—Bibliography of Hong Kong International Film Festival Retrospective Books Related to Hong Kong Action Cinema

Works which include Hong Kong cinema

In other languages





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