While mainland China is known in international film circles for its beautiful art films, Hong Kong is known primarily for its commercial action and gangster films, choreographed fight scenes, fancy gun play, motorcycle chases, and sexy, dark-haired Asian women. At one time the Hong Kong movie industry was the world's third largest behind India and the United States. The golden period for the industry was between 1986 and 1992. In 1993, Hong Kong made a record 200 films. In 1992, the industry grossed a record $155 million.

Hong Kong films are known as action movies in much of the world. They generally fall into five categories: action thrillers, gangster movies, romantic comedies, swordsmen dramas and ghost stories. Hong Kong action movies are famous for their quick editing, fast motion action, cheap trick photograph and fights between sword-wielding kung-fu warriors leaping into the air off from a mini-trampoline and doing a couple of flips before kicking an opponent in the face. Action kung fu movies are also made in Taiwan. They are known in the film business as "chopsocky films."

Hong Kong movies, especially those on video, are big around the world, not just in Greater China. Famous Hong Kong movie stars such as Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat are known throughout the world are equally popular in the developed world and the Third World. Film directors such as Quentin Taratino have been influenced by Hong Kong-style choreographed action and even Hong Kong-style plots. The Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo, the director of “Face/ Off”, has done well in the United States.

Websites: Love Hong Kong Film lovehkfilm ; Hong Kong Cinemagic hkcinemagic.com ; Hong Kong Movie Database hkmdb.com; Martial Artist’s Guide to Hong Kong Films magthkf.ronlim.com </a; Chinese Film Classics chinesefilmclassics.org ; Senses of Cinema sensesofcinema.com; 100 Films to Understand China radiichina.com. dGenerate Films is a New York-based distribution company that collects post-Sixth Generation independent Chinese cinema dgeneratefilms.com; Internet Movie Database (IMDb) on Chinese Film imdb.com ; Wikipedia List of Chinese Filmmakers Wikipedia ; Shelly Kraicer’s Chinese Cinema site chinesecinemas.org ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Resource List mclc.osu.edu ; Love Asia Film loveasianfilm.com; Wikipedia article on Chinese Cinema Wikipedia ; Film in China (Chinese Government site) china.org.cn ; Directory of Interent Sources newton.uor.edu ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia yesasia.com and Zoom Movie zoommovie.com ; Bruce Lee, the Divine Wind bruceleedivinewind.com ; Jackie Chan Official Site jackiechan.com ; ; Wikipedia article on Jackie Chan Wikipedia .

History of Hong Kong Films

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Lai Man Wai, father
of Hong Kong cinema
Many founders of the Hong Kong film industry have their roots in Shanghai, which they fled in the 1930s and 1940s to get away from the Japanese and Communists. The most notable of these were producers Sir Run Run Shaw, founder of Shaw Bros., and Raymond Chow of Golden Harvest, the man who made big stars out of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.

Post World War II Hong Kong films featured romances with Zhou Xuan and Grace Chang (Ge Lan), Mandarin-language musicals and Cantonese-language comedies, operas and martial arts dramas.The modern Hong Kong film industry came into its own with the release of the classic Bruce Lee films in the 1970s, which were financed in part by American investors. Until fairly recently many Hong Kong films were filmed silently so they that both a Mandarin dialogue and Cantonese dialogue could be dubbed on afterwards

The kung fu genre was dealt a serious setback by Bruce Lee's sudden death in 1973 and declined after that. Also in 1973, the Hong Kong stock market crashed. During the recession that followed audiences in Hong Kong began favoring comedies and satires.. Following Lee's death, Golden Harvest had success with Hui Brothers' comedies such as “Games Gamblers Play” (1974), “The Last Message” (1975), “The Private Eyes” (1976), “The Contract” (1978) and “Security Unlimited” (1981). Out of this grew the kung fu comedy which appeared in the late 1970s and merged martial arts fighting with Cantonese comedy.

The industry was its peak in mid 1980s when it produced dozens of critically-acclaimed box office successes. and movie fans often went to theaters almost every night. Among the films produced in this period were Jackie Chan's “Police Story” and John Woo's “A Better Tomorrow” with Chow Yun-fat.

At its peak Hong Kong produced about 300 films a year. Many of them were crap. Pop idols and beauty queens were picked over people that could really act. The actor Anthony Wong Chau-Sang told the International Herald Tribune, “It was really frustrating...No one was professional. No script. The directors didn’t know what they’re doing. And the actor or actress, they just stand there, not acting, just pretending to do something.”

Sir Run Run Shaw and Hong Kong Film Producers

The two great Hong Kong film production companies were Clearwater Bay Studio run by Sir Run Run Shaw and his brother, and Golden Harvest studios, the production company that launched Bruce Lee to megastardom. Golden Harvest owned theaters through out Asia. Both companies were trying to attract foreign investors in the 2000s.

Run Run Shaw (1907-2014) is credited with popularizing martial arts and kung ku film and putting Hong Kong on the cinematic map. Jonathan Kandell of the New York Times described him as a colorful Hong Kong media mogul whose name was synonymous with low-budget Chinese action and horror films — and especially with the wildly successful kung fu genre, which he is largely credited with inventing. [Source: Jonathan Kandell, New York Times, January 6, 2014]

“Born in China, Mr. Shaw and his older brother, Run Me, were movie pioneers in Asia, producing and sometimes directing films and owning lucrative cinema chains. His companies are believed to have released more than 800 films worldwide. After his brother’s death in 1985, Mr. Shaw expanded his interest in television and became a publishing and real estate magnate as well. For his philanthropy, much of it going to educational and medical causes, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and showered with public expressions of gratitude by the Communist authorities in Beijing.

“Mr. Shaw enjoyed the zany glamour of the Asian media world he helped create. He presided over his companies from a garish Art Deco palace in Hong Kong, a cross between a Hollywood mansion and a Hans Christian Andersen cookie castle. Well into his 90s he attended social gatherings with a movie actress on each arm. And he liked to be photographed in a tai chi exercise pose, wearing the black gown of a traditional mandarin. Asked what his favorite films were, Mr. Shaw, a billionaire, once replied, “I particularly like movies that make money.”

Making Hong Kong Films

Hong Kong is known for its flexible, sometimes chaotic filming schedules. By comparisoto Hollywood has a reputation for being more systematic. Director Andrew Lau told AP: “In Hong Kong, directors are the boss. They can do whatever they want, In Hollywood, producers, the studios are involved. There are a lot of things to keep you in check. In Hong Kong the investors won’t hold meetings with you to air their views. In the U.S., they like to express their opinions.”

During the Golden Age of the Hong Kong film industry in the 1980s, the average action film took three months to make and cost around $129,000. Directors often worked round the clock and actors juggled their schedules so they could work on several films at the same time. Recalling this period, director Gordon Chan told the Los Angeles Times, "People weren't talking about creativity. They were talking about trying to find something that [makes money].

Director John Woo said he learned to shoot scenes quickly in his early days as a director, when his crews were denied permission from shooting at certain locations but went ahead and shot scenes anyway before the police arrived. Describing his lifestyle in Hong Kong, he told AP, "I worked crazy. I worked seven days week. I worked 18 hours a day. And I spent more time in office than at home."

Gordon Chan told the Los Angeles Times he got his start as a freelance screenwriter, earning less money than a secretary. Once he got the hang of the formula, he said he could produce a script in less than 24 hours. His first major directing hit in the late 1980s, “The Yuppie Fantasia”, cost less than $1 million to make but made $20 million at the box office.

Hong Kong Films and the Triads

A scene from Replacement Killers

Mobsters have traditionally had strong ties with the Hong Kong film industry. Local gangs and triads often demand protection money from film crews to shoot on Hong Kong's streets. Actors who have turned down film offers from the triads and directors who have refused to cast triad-supported actors have received death threats and visits from armed gangsters. There have also been reports of harassment and extortion and even rapes and kidnaps. In 1992, two prominent producers were murdered.

One Hong Kong detective told the Los Angeles Times that most gangsters got into the film industry to make a quick buck but some took the film industry seriously. Charles Heung, a former actor and son on the leader of the powerful Sun Yee On triad, became president of one of Hong Kong's largest entertainment companies. Heung has been praised in the filmmaking industry as being "one of the good gangsters." The Director Wong Kar-wai even went as far as saying, "It's better to deal with a godfather than an accountant."

The film industry fought back against the triads by calling in police to protect their film sets and arrest people demanding protection money. The triads have been less active in films since 1994, when the government passed laws which allowed police to expropriate the legitimate financial assets of triad members. Starting around that time the Triads began killing the Hong Kong film industry through intensive production of pirated videos, VDCs and DVDs.

Hong Kong Style and Martial Arts Films

Martial arts films are regarded as Hong Kong genera rather than a Chinese one. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in China it was a crime to watch a movie or even read about kung fu or the martial arts. Time film critic Richard Corliss wrote that Hong Kong films often feature "a frantic camera style, with slow motion, quick cutting, abrupt flashbacks — all to advance the art or to keep the moviegoer awake or just for the hell of it."

The Hong film expert David Bordwell wrote, "What Western fans consider 'over the top' on Hong Kong movies is a partly a richness of stylistic delivery — an effort to see how delightful or thrilling one can make the mix of dialogue, music, sound effects, light color, color and movement...This delight in expressive technique in a local elaboration of the sensuous abundance sought by popular filmmakers everywhere."

The arrival of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li were critical to the development of martial arts films. The “First Lady of Kung Fu” Angela Mao Ying was discovered at the age of 17 in a 1970 Hong Kong movie, "Angry River".

Hong Kong Ghost Stories

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Chinese-American actor Keye Luke
playing Master Po Kung Fu
Hong Kong is also home to a genre of ghost stories and Asian-style horror films that rely more on strange, creepy ghosts than on chainsaws, ice picks and kitchen knives, John Hodgeman wrote in the New York Times, Asian “ghosts do not fly. They occasionally walk, and don’t really attack anybody. They mainly just mope spookily around on their own ghostly business, puttering in hallways and hanging out in stairwells, taking turns creeping out the heroic until they are escorted to the afterlife by a mysterious group of smudgy, leotarded grim reapers...In Asian horror, there is no puzzle to solve that will chase off the illogical ghosts.”

On American versus Asian ghost films, director Danny Pang told the New York Times that American crave explanation. “Every detail has to be logical. Why is this ghost flying? Why does the ghost the that guy and not the other guy? The keep asking...This is a ghost move. Ghost are already illogical.”

“Rouge” (1987) by Stanley Kwon is regarded as one of the best Hong Kong films ever made. It is about a man who meets a beautiful woman and finds out she is ghost who is looking for here lover whom she committed suicide with 50 years before. The human brings the ghost home much to his girlfriend’s disgust. In the end both the man and the girlfriends help te ghost look for her lover in Hong Kong, with out opium dens and brothels, that the ghost can no longer recognize.

Decline of the Hong Kong Movie Industry

Hong Kong produced 57 films in 2005 and 51 in 2006. Around 90 films were made in 2000. There were only 46 theaters in Hing Kong in the mid 2000s, a third a number as the early 1990s.

Even though ticket prices doubled in the 1990s, the box office earnings of Hong Kong films fell from US$153 million in 1992 to $72 million in 1997. In the same period the number of films produced declined from 234 in 1993 to 40 in 1998. Many Hong Kong film makers are worried that Hong Kong will end up as just another Third World film generator like Taipei, Mexico City and Cairo.

The Hong Kong movie industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s was dominated by exploitation films like “Rape I, Rape II” and “Raped by an Angel” and shoot-em-up gangster films, like “Young and Dangerous: The Prequel”. These films were often made in less than a month on a budget to as little as US$200,000 and left audiences gasping with boredom and reaching for their cell phones.

Hong Kong films have also lost their dominance in markets in South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan and Malaysia. By the mid 2000s, South Korean films were more popular in Asia than Hong Kong films. Only around 30 films were made in Hong Kong in 2005.

The decline is often evident in way Hong Kong films are made. Sometimes budgets are so tight scripts and retakes are dispensed with, film crews consist of little more than actors and cameramen, and the number of choreographed stunt scene has been reduced from ten to three. One producer told the Los Angeles Times, "producers say no one has been able to recoup their investment for the past 24 months. The only reason they keep going is so the industry can't just cease to exist. In reality, nobody is making a profit."

Jackie Chan told Time, "We don't have our own culture anymore in Hong Kong. I don't see anyway Hong Kong films can break through. If you give a ticket to a local person and said Hong Kong film or U.S. film, I bet you $100 they go for the American film." One Hong Kong film executive told Newsweek, "Some of the films are so bad the directors should be killed.”

Reasons for Decline of the Hong Kong Movie Industry

The decline has also been attributed to declining quality; a tendency to make repeated sequels to successful rather than coming up with new films; and the drain of talent to Hollywood.

The Hong Kong movie industry has also been hurt by competition from Hollywood, pirated VCDs and DVDs, rising star salaries, higher ticket prices, competition from karaoke bars, and the poor quality of scripts (actors like Chow Yun Fat have vowed to stay out of Hong Kong until the scripts are better). Business has reportedly gotten so bad that the triads have pulled out their money.

Some blame the decline on a lack of foresight, greed, and a "take the money and run" attitude among film makers. Director Peter Chan told the Los Angeles Times, "The height of the industry, from the mid-80s to the early 90s was a bubble economy, especially when you don't have studios pushing for things 10 to 20 years down the stream. Studios were shortsighted. They were making quick money on bad copies of good movies... Filmmakers turned independent because they could negotiate films on their own---not to make better films but to make more films for more money. There's a mentality in the whole Hong Kong population from 1993 to 1995. People just wanted to make as much money as they could before 1997 so they could get the hell out of there."

Many people say the decline begin with the 1993 release of “Jurassic Park”, after which people began flocking to Hollywood films rather than Hong Kong films. Between 1992 and 1996, the market share of American films in Hong Kong increased from 20 percent to 46 percent. In the same period box office receipts for Hong Kong movies declined by 50 percent.

Pirated VCDs showed up large numbers in 1995 and have robbed the Hong Kong film industry of 40 percent of its business, and forced video shops and theaters to close down. Jackie Chan once led a protest to denounce government plans to liberalize the import of films and laser disks.

In 2004 rules were changed that allowed Hong Kong films to be shown in the mainland on a quota basis and not be lumped with foreign films of which only 20 are allowed to be shown each year.

In 2007, the top Chinese films were Hong Kong co-productions “Curse of the Golden Flower” and “The Banquet”. In Hong Kong seven of the top ten films were co-productions with the mainland.

Image Sources: Ohio State University, Wikipedia. Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2021

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