By: Leon Zhi Wei Chen
With the recent hit, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, bringing back legend Tony Leung Chiu Wai and introducing a previous prominent star of dramas who then pursued further studies at Julliard, Fala Chen, Hong Kong stars have been brought back into the global spotlight. The question is: Why has Hong Kong cinema not been in the global spotlight? Since when, and why?
Photo Source: Vanity Fair
Before analysing the decline of Hong Kong cinema, it is important to first acknowledge the history of its unique style of many national cinemas. The city helped popularise entire genres of film, from kung fu and wuxia to “mo lei tau” comedies and heroic bloodshed action films. Hong Kong films dominated the box office in East Asia and had a cult reputation in the West from the mid-80s to the mid-90s. In fact, the city exported more films than any other country except for the United States.
The first fiction film made in Hong Kong is generally accepted to be Chuang Tsi Tests His Wife (1913). Filmmaking was then widely accepted by 1939, making about 100 films per year, in both Cantonese and Mandarin, becoming the second British colony of most cinematic importance under Shanghai. That changed in 1949 due to the Chinese Communist Revolution forcing many filmmakers to flee south. With an established studio system and as a British colony with access to Western film stock and equipment, filmmakers were able to make any type and level of films due to the limited involvement of the government up till 1988.
Hong Kong films rose out of cult status briefly in the 1970s due to the international icon Bruce Lee. Setting box office records across Asia in his break-out role in The Big Boss (1971), followed by Fist of Fury (1972) which then broke the previous records, Bruce Lee had become a staple of kung fu cinema almost immediately. Then came the nearly simultaneous release of Enter the Dragon (1973), his final film released posthumously, and Shaw Brother’s Five Fingers of Death (1972). The two films brought Hong Kong cinema out of Chinatown cinemas into mainstream cinemas.
The momentum started by kungfu and wuxia films continued to propel future cinema, such as the comedies of Micahel Hui and Stephen Chow that brought the industry to new heights. Hong Kong New Wave was also born, with films from Ann Hui and Tsui Hark that demonstrated there was more to the local cinema than just “chopsocky fisticuffs”. Leading directly towards Hong Kong cinema’s golden age, generally accepted as spanning from 1986 to 1993.
The hybrid East and West content and style of filmmaking became an instantaneous hit for the many Chinese immigrants that had migrated out of China. Leading actors were recruited from all of Asia, such as Michelle Yeoh (Malaysia), Brigitte Lin (Taiwan), and Oshima Yukari (Japan). One of Wong Kar-wai’s biggest films, Chungking Express features the Taiwan-born Japanese pop star Takeshi Kaneshiro as one of two main characters. To adhere to Asia’s wide audience, different cuts were made to appeal to different markets. Taiwanese and Korean distributors wanted more action, Malaysia and Singapore wanted fewer criminal elements, extra scenes from the Young and Dangerous franchise were shot to explain the “heroic” triad protagonists were actually undercover police. Hong Kong cinema prospered until it could not.
In 1993, Jurassic Park stomped the box office while Taiwan introduced cable and satellite television, enticing viewers to stay at home. Due to the success of Jurassic Park, American studios began investing in cinemas outside of the country, helping them push their product more aggressively, gobbling up more and more of the local box office in Asia. Cinemas also started to lose their appeal as the number of modern multiplex cinemas rose, so did the ticket prices of each cinema. Hong Kong’s property prices did not help either. The studios also faced a huge problem of piracy, the major problem depicted by the story of Young and Dangerous producer Manfred Wong being able to buy a pirated copy of Young and Dangerous 4 on premiere day in 1997.
The constant pressure placed on the industry led to higher production numbers to beat the growing international productions, but it was at the cost of quality. What was meant to bring the audience back into the local cinema resulted in audience fatigue instead. The Asian financial crisis dealt a further knock to an already reeling industry. The few productions that were still being bought were purchased in heavily devalued currencies.
The lack of high quality and cost productions has caused the old guard of stars and filmmakers to stay in the spotlight, while no new stars have taken their place. Names such as Chow Yun-fat, Andy Lau, and even Louis Koo still stand tall within the industry. With the lack of new popular actors and filmmakers, Hong Kong cinema is being pushed further and further into the darkness. Will it continue to decline, or will Hollywood’s reintroduction help bring interest and lead the national cinema to prosper once again? Only time will tell.