Hong Kong film is an integral part of the city’s cultural identity. The city’s dramatic cityscape provides is an ideal backdrop for fast-paced action and urban cool.
In one sense Hong Kong resembles a large film-set or a large China-town that encompasses several different micro-worlds in physical proximity.
Like a three dimensional vertical metropolis, Hong Kong has been a source of inspiration for movie makers around the world. Watching films like Blade Runner or Ghost in the Shell you cannot help identifying various aspects and corners of Hong Kong. It is the epitome of the Asian futuristic metropolis.
During its early years, the critical factor behind its flourishing success was colonial Hong Kong’s more liberal stance towards martial arts. The city welcomed numerous talented artists and teachers, who were not allowed to practice their art in the Mainland. In Hong Kong there was no shortage of talent, and there was the freedom to put it to work.
The Kung Fu Tradition in the Spotlight with Enter the Dragon: The famous statue of Bruce Lee on the Kowloon waterfront blends in with the iconic skyline of Hong Kong Island and becomes part of the city’s narrative. Lee was the kung fu genius who put Hong Kong on the radar with Enter the Dragon (1973), which was one of the most classic-and according to some the greatest- martial arts film ever made.
The Kung Fu genre was the basis upon which the Hong Kong Film industry confidence was built. Not only did it introduce a relatively unexplored genre that shed light on the thousand year old Chinese martial arts traditions, but it was also a tool of empowerment.
It introduced the Chinese hero who stands up to the Western imperialists, a storyline that became a popular theme used until today in the new “nostalgic” martial arts films like Ip Man and its sequels. The foreign official in these films is depicted being the Chinese “Gweilo” , the foreign devil. Narrow minded, unrefined and coarse, the “Gweilo” understands very little of the Confucian principles of peace, dignity and respect that underlies the behaviour of the Chinese hero.
Enter the Dragon showed the world that Hong Kong is more than a British colony, and even though its heritage is no doubt predominantly Cantonese, it is a unique place where cultures, stories and identities meet. In the years that followed its release and the death of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, a talented martial artist, comedian and stuntman reached stardom with comedic kung fu films like Drunken Master and Project A.
The importance of these Kung Fu icons should not be overlooked. They are regarded as legitimate-albeit unofficial- cultural ambassadors of the city and its heritage. Jackie Chan’s documentary “Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong” is a great example of this.
The Years of Transformation and The Birth of the Triad Film. During the 1980s, as the city frantically speed up its vertical expansion, the Hong Kong Film Industry reached its most prolific period.
However, with the impending 1997 Handover to China, the awkward Gweilo character was already becoming outdated. The action had shifted to the Triad underworld and its constant battle for power and resources in a complex city-labyrinth that never sleeps. The thin line that separates the policeman and the triad member is a popular theme in these films, that aims to show that there can be goodness in a scoundrel, and evil in a man of law.
John Woo became the pioneer with iconic gangster melodramas such as “For a Better Tomorrow” and “The Killer” that replaced Kung Fu action with fast-paced gun play-otherwise known as Gun Fu- in the street of Hong Kong. In the 1990’s ‘Young and Dangerous” films made it cool to be a young and hip Hong Kong gang member and combined action with light comedy.
Even though these first triad films were initially heavily influenced by similar Hollywood classics, they didn’t stray from their cultural origins. Johnnie To’s Election (2005) is one of the most honest depictions of the Triad world, and for some it is considered the Godfather of Asia. American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino was heavily influenced by Ringo Lam’s “City on Fire” (1987) when making Reservoir Dogs, while Martin Scorsese’s “the Departed” is the american version of Andrew Lau’s intense cop drama “Infernal Affairs”.
The Triad/Underworld killer became something of a cult figure in Hong Kong film, and a quintessential figure. For example, Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels is a film with stylised parallel story telling, that is more about social alienation in a modern metropolis than a gangster film. However, one of the main characters is a paid killer and member of the underworld. The plot develops mainly at night in the dark alleys and narrow spaces of a complex and claustrophobic city, in the heart of Hong Kong. In a very similar style, the famous Chungking Express by the same director explores the ideas of love and alienation by featuring an underworld killer-a woman this time- being the mystery woman with which a lonely policeman,falls in love.
The heart of Hong Kong’s cultural identity and heritage lies in its film industry. Film lovers can only hope that Hong Kong will remain a vibrant art capital that uses film as the vehicle to express the unique imagery, energy and spirit of a truly historical city.
I originally wrote this blog post for Mavel