The 10 essential films from the Hong Kong New Wave
“I never studied film formally at school, but as a kid, I spent most of my time in cinemas.” – Wong Kar-wai
Before the New Wave arrived in the late 1970s, the film industry in Hong Kong was propped up by a robust mass-production studio system which produced countless world-renowned kung-fu action flicks. Global stars like Bruce Lee had helped introduce the genre to international audiences but after Lee’s death in 1973, there was a significant decline in the quality of martial arts films that were being produced at the time. This is where the Hong Kong New Wave filmmakers stepped in to challenge the status quo and to create a cinematic tradition that was separate from the mainstream works.
This movement is often divided into two distinct periods: the Hong Kong New Wave, which included eminent directors like Ann Hui and Tsui Hark, and the Second New Wave that followed. Unlike other famous film movements like the French New Wave, Hong Kong’s burgeoning filmmakers did not share overtly similar styles or thematic obsessions. They are grouped together because they injected their creative flair into a stagnant industry in their own ways, moving away from studio productions and using new technology, like synchronous sound, new editing techniques and filming on location.
One of the leading figures of the Second New Wave, Stanley Kwan said, “I think that the Hong Kong cinema has always favoured the commercial aspect. Until the late 1970s, before the arrival of the New Wave, all the films produced in Hong Kong focused on the market, aiming for a success at the box office. Whether cape and sword, kung-fu, musical movies, popular comedies, or the erotic films of Li Han Hsiang: all were produced in order to earn money first.”
He added, “I wouldn’t even dare to speak about my artistic ambitions. It’s difficult to exist in the film industry in Hong Kong. As a filmmaker, I try to print a particular style to my movies. Take people like Ann Hui, Wong Kar-wai or myself: from our very beginning, we wanted to shoot with the greatest comedians, because we knew that their names on the bill will allow our films to be distributed properly, and perhaps to meet the success at the box office. It was only after obtaining those actors consent that we can begin to try to impose our own style, our artistic point of view.”
We take a look at some of the definitive works from the Hong Kong New Wave in order to understand the unique artistic sensibilities of this important movement in the history of cinema.
Hong Kong New Wave 10 best films:
Pre-cursors to the New Wave:
Story of a Discharged Prisoner (Patrick Lung Kong – 1967)
This seminal 1967 black-and-white film has a formative influence on the crime genre and has partially inspired John Woo’s famous 1986 work A Better Tomorrow. It tells the story of a prison inmate and how he struggles to assimilate into normative society after being released from prison. It is a powerful investigation of people who solely believe in condemnation and not reformation.
“I entered the Cantonese movie business as an actor in the 1950s and became a director the following decade,” Patrick Lung Kong reflected. “At the time, the industry was mostly making Cantonese opera and cheap Kung Fu pictures, mass production without quality control, to the point of facing extinction.”
The film’s premiere generated massive controversy. Protestors littered the theatre with homemade bombs and called to say ‘Burn that film, burn it!’ At the time of its release, Hong Kong was in a volatile state and there were riots everywhere. The director recalled, “The audience just stepped over the bombs. Thank god, it broke all the records. That’s why I had a third film to make.”
The Arch (Tang Shu Shuen – 1968)
Set in an 18th-century village, this 1968 period drama is a proto-feminist masterpiece tells the story of a widow (Lisa Lu) who suppresses her love for a cavalry captain when she realises her daughter likes him as well. She navigates the restrictive concepts of “honour” and the prevalent patriarchal systems of that time but doing so means to betray her own identity as a woman with autonomous desires.
Tang declared, “I am not interested in politics. If I make a film to talk about a modern Chinese person, I won’t put the emphasis on the social reality. I don’t like social comment. That’s something very superficial, very shallow, very low. Society, country; those are all human creations.
“Throughout several thousand years – it (society) either exists in one form or another, and they are all so similar. Art should go beyond the social and the political to deal with the essential human condition.”
Hong Kong New Wave:
Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind (Tsui Hark – 1980)
One of the most notorious films of the Hong Kong New Wave, Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind was initially banned for its graphic depictions of violence but it generated so much interest in the work that the film became a Box Office success when the edited version was released. It features three young men who are manipulated by a sociopathic beauty after they run over and kill a pedestrian.
In a 2011 interview, Tsui Hark said, “I was a documentary filmmaker in New York City 30 years ago. Not exactly a filmmaker, I was actually assisting people make documentaries. And I envisioned myself as a filmmaker in the future. In later years I became a director in Hong Kong.
“Coming back to New York City again, I do wish that I could work on a documentary about Asian-American history, in order to leave a record of our ancestors, to relate what they’ve done for us so we can know how to connect history together. And so that people can learn from what was created for us in the past and that, maybe, we can do the same for those in the future.”
Father and Son (Allen Fong – 1981)
The winner of the Best Film and Best Director categories at the very first Hong Kong Film Awards, Father and Son is a humanistic masterpiece which tells the story of a man stuck in a low-income job who wants his son to become successful. However, his son dreams of having a career in comics and films and often rebels against his father’s wishes by getting in trouble at school. Father and Son is arguably Fong’s most personal work and a brilliant one at that.
“I started making films at the age of twelve (laughs),” Fong revealed. “Before that, I don’t know, I was not aware. Before I was even 12 in fact, maybe even around 8 or 10-years-old. In Father and Son, there is a fire scene because the child is experimenting. He tries to do some home entertainment. It comes from me.
“There is also Charlie Chaplin, all his films that I love so much. I started doing things on my own very early on. And at the same time I was going to school, I finished my cinema studies at the university. I was pretty confident that I was going to make a career as a filmmaker.”
Boat People (Ann Hui – 1982)
One of the pioneers of the Hong Kong New Wave, Ann Hui paints a compelling portrait of the Vietnamese people after the communist takeover following the Fall of Saigon. Boat People is the last film in Hui’s “Vietnam trilogy” and it focuses on a Japanese photojournalist who tries to document Vietnam’s efforts to rebuild after the devastation of the Vietnam War.
“Even before Boat People, I got offers to make movies from companies that import films to Taiwan,” Hui said. “The companies said they could fix the import regulations. In any case, I could only make one film a year, so it didn’t matter. I’m not losing many offers. Anyway, it just sorted itself out after Boat People.
“When the film was supposed to be distributed in Taiwan, I wrote a letter to the Society of Freedom. The producer of Boat People said I could write anything, that I hadn’t gone to China for any political reasons, purely for the location. But the Society of Freedom [anti-communist organisation] weren’t satisfied.”
Homecoming (Yim Ho – 1984)
Yim Ho’s magnum opus Homecoming is the story of a gorgeous, modern woman Carol who travels to her ancestral home in China after 20 years to visit the grave of her recently deceased grandmother. The film is a China/Hong Kong co-production which is quite fitting because it tries to show how different yet similar the lives of the mainlanders are when compared to the young woman.
When she meets her old friend Pearl, she experiences the allure of the simple life she left behind but nothing is that simple. Carol realises that there is something missing in Pearl’s life as well. The film beautifully contrasts the dynamism of modernity with the tranquility of a primitive agrarian life.
Second New Wave:
An Autumn’s Tale (Mabel Cheung – 1987)
Set in New York, this 1987 romantic drama features a young and naive woman from Hong Kong who goes to the US to study. She is shown around by her street-wise cabbie cousin as she tries to reunite with her boyfriend but unexpected developments take place. The film combines visually stunning cinematography and an impeccable sound design, making An Autumn’s Tale one of the essential films of the Second New Wave.
Cheung spoke of her partnership with Alex Law, “We decide who will be the director first. And that’s based on how much we want to get involved. For example, Echoes Of A Rainbow was about Alex’s childhood, so of course he wanted to be director.
“And for An Autumn’s Tale, it’s more like my version of our life in New York, so I wanted to be the director. Once that is decided the rest is easy, because we used to working in a team in film school, and we know that only one person can make the final decision.”
Rouge (Stanley Kwan – 1987)
An adaptation of a novel with the same title by Lilian Lee, Stanley Kwan manages to construct an atmospheric nostalgia for a lost history in this cinematic re-telling of a tragic story. It questions the idea of “socially-acceptable” romance while transcending the biological limitations of life itself. The film is also remembered for the tragic demise of two of its Hong Kong film legends 15 years after the film came out (Leslie Cheung committed suicide and Anita Mui died of cervical cancer, both in 2003).
“I was raised in a family and environment that had very conservative ideas about gender,” Kwan revealed. “But because my father died early and my mother was always busy trying to bring in an income, I became a sort of ‘mother’ role within my own family. I washed clothes, prepared food and took care of my siblings. When I first started to realise my sexuality, I think the confusion and repression I felt had nothing to do with being gay per se, but everything to do with the fact that I had been performing a traditionally ‘female’ role in my family.
“I felt silenced, because within that conventional dynamic, women often don’t have a voice. I have always been thankful for the fact that the film industry gave me the opportunity to create, express and reflect on my feelings and experiences, and storytelling has helped me in exploring a deeper and more diverse understanding of women and their gender roles.”
Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai – 1994)
Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express has become a cult-classic. It is an unconventional exploration of the concept of love, told in two subtly overlapping sequences involving two separate lovesick Hong Kong policemen mulling over their relationship problems.
Like Godard’s Breathless, Chungking Express is a portrait of lovers lost in the constructs of modernity that a big city has to offer. Wong Kar-wai uses unconventional editing techniques to make the story more immersive, an allegorical account of consumerism, violence and the impotence of being in love in the modern world.
“Every film [has] their luck,” the auteur revealed. “Certain films, the process is really difficult: the weather is not right, the cast is not right, the place is not right. So, there is a lot happening during the production. But for Chungking Express, it was the opposite. I would say it was a very lucky film. Why? Well, we shot the film in six weeks. Relatively, it was the shortest production time of all my films.”
Made in Hong Kong (Fruit Chan – 1997)
A brilliant film by another pioneer of the Second New Wave, Made in Hong Kong is a street-punk-drama which focuses on high-school dropout Autumn Moon. He works as a debt collector with his slow-witted sidekick Sylvester and falls for a debtor’s daughter who has a fatal kidney disease. Made on a very low budget of $80,000, Made in Hong Kong presents an unforgiving urban jungle with fleeting moments of genuine human connections.
The filmmaker said, “I do not want to go just one way, and deal with a love story, for example, with mainstream style. I have my style; maybe because I grew up in the mainstream industry when I am doing an independent or an arthouse movie, I do not want to bore myself.”
Adding, “Actually, I do not want to bore the audience, this is why I make movies that make me happy. Whenever the narrative is of one style or of a set style, I want to change it, this set style is not acceptable for me.”