This article appeared originally in the all-Hong Kong issue of Bright Lights #13 (1994).
* * *
A comprehensive look at a seminal decade in one of the world’s great cinemas
The Sole Cinema “Dragon”
Hong Kong, together with South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, make up the region’s four “economic dragons.” The rapid economic and social development of these countries, with record achievements in the 1980s, has conferred a measure of pride and confidence on the region. It has also strengthened a resolve in these countries to be more independent in facing the conflict between Western influence and Eastern tradition. No longer is there only a passive acceptance of the principle of a harmonic East-West combination.
Surprisingly, only the Hong Kong film industry, among those of the “four dragons,” has been able to present a concrete and comprehensive case of prosperity and achievement. This parallels the broader economic miracle achieved in the territory. The film industries of the other three “dragons” cannot compare as favorably. In Singapore, a film industry is nonexistent and its entertainment market is dominated by Hong Kong and Western products. In Taiwan, the local film industry went through an unprecedented period of malaise in the ’80s, although it did produce a number of distinguished works. The malaise in the Taiwanese film industry was contrary to the vibrant developments in the broader economic and sociopolitical fields. Its entertainment market was dominated by Hong Kong and Western products.
I am not well acquainted with developments in South Korean cinema but if one were to speak purely of dynamism in the film industry and the prevalence of local products in regional markets, the South Korean cinema quite obviously cannot compare with its Hong Kong counterpart. In fact, only a handful of film industries in the world have been able to follow Hong Kong’s example of closely integrating its film industry into the entire spectrum of prosperity achieved by its society.
Why is Hong Kong’s case so distinctive? One may roughly offer the following analysis.
- Hong Kong is a small city with a dense population. The city is tight and compact and so are its lifestyle, psychology, and sense of destiny. The cinema has all along been a medium for mass entertainment and has not been greatly affected by competition from the TV and video industries. This has allowed the Hong Kong film industry to preserve advantageous conditions for competitive preeminence in the East Asian and Southeast Asian markets.
- Among the “four dragons, ” Hong Kong has all along possessed a great degree of freedom of expression, with minimal interference from authorities. Filmmakers are free to express themselves and to compete with each other. In the ’80s, the censorship authority has gone even further to relax restrictions against politics and sex. Although there is still censorship, Hong Kong has the most relaxed and liberal attitudes in the whole of Asia.
- The Hong Kong cinema is a double-headed dragon. It possesses both Chinese and international qualities and aspires to be both East and West. This is its attraction. Because the territory has a large degree of freedom, it is the richest and most dynamic production center of Chinese cinema, including the industry in the Mainland. Hong Kong movies are the most representative examples of Chinese cinema as inheritors and carriers of the special characteristics of Chinese culture and popular folklore, as well as of Chinese people absorbing Western influence on the road to modernization. In this respect, the Chinese-style kung fu genre and Western-style gangster thrillers are typical and successful examples.
Because of this factor, Hong Kong movies have, over a long period, dominated all those markets in which overseas Chinese are active. Individual movies have also achieved a close following in Japan and South Korea, markets that may be described as falling into the East Asian cultural sphere.
The Hong Kong cinema also exerts an influence over the distribution prospects of commercial films produced in the Mainland. It occupies a crucial position as a middleman broker for coproduction ventures between China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong itself.
However, the sense of achievement is not all pervasive. There is also a feeling of foreboding and crisis, which in its own way plays an important part in stimulating the Hong Kong film industry to greater dynamic heights. As a colony of Britain, Hong Kong is living on borrowed space and borrowed time. Its inhabitants harbor a crisis mentality as a result of this reality, driving them to heights of achievement so as to make the most of a desperate situation and to guarantee stability and prosperity (so that the interests of both Hong Kong and Britain may be served). This sense of crisis reached fever pitch in the ’80s. With each passing day, there is a greater need to keep up with the path to modernization and to stay competitive, since Britain and China have decided that Hong Kong will return to the Mainland in 1997.
The sense of crisis is no longer a hidden danger but a pressing reality. It has forced Hong Kong’s citizens to examine their identity in the ’80s more than at any other period. At the same time, it has fostered a sense of common purpose – that people in the same boat must help each other – and the idea that a common medium is needed to give vent to collective feelings. This common medium is the cinema.
Perhaps this serves to explain why the average cinema admission rate in Hong Kong remained high throughout the ’80s and why Hong Kong filmmakers, on the whole, tend to cater to a collective mass audience and to play up the sentiments of such an audience. This is a feature of Hong Kong cinema not found in the movies produced in other countries.
The collusion between the two states of mind – achievement and crisis – has, in the ’80s, increased the sense of tension already existing in Hong Kong movies. This is true of both common entertainment-oriented pictures and more refined, “artistic” pictures. Throughout the decade, Hong Kong movies have become more intense, direct, exciting, and inventive as compared to earlier decades.
The Modernization of Hong Kong
Hong Kong cinema in the ’80s has obviously reflected an all-new facade. It has resolutely followed the track of modernization. In terms of a production system, the decade saw the end of the studio system dominated by big studios such as Shaw Brothers, which closed down production in 1986. Production shifted into the hands of a more vibrant and freer production house system. At the same time, a new generation of filmmakers, mostly born and educated in the territory itself, was coming of age and appeared to take over the reins of the industry. (The active filmmakers of the ’60s and ’70s, such as Li Hanxiang, Zhang Che, and King Hu, were born in the Mainland, grew up there, and had come to Hong Kong as immigrants.) Many of the new generation of Hong Kong filmmakers started their careers in television or had undergone education and technical training in the West.
In terms of film genres, the more traditional genres with historical backgrounds in China had given way to more Westernized, urban-based genres. This tendency had appeared in the ’70s but the main achievement of that decade was the development and innovation of traditional Chinese genres, as in the kung fu genre of that period. The popular series of films that director Chu Yuan made from the martial arts novels of Gu Long may be taken as representative examples. Another example is the film, which gave Michael Hui an opportunity to first show his talent on the screen, The Warlord (1972), which belongs to traditional genres with historical China backgrounds made famous by veteran director Li Hanxiang. Later in the decade, Hui became even more famous for making comedies with a purely urban Hong Kong background and characters that all Hong Kong people could identify with. As to the film that is acknowledged to have single-handedly revived the Cantonese cinema, House of 72 Tenants (1973), this too is an adaptation of an old Shanghai comedy classic.
The situation began to change in the ’80s. The kung fu films with old-China backgrounds were still successful in the early ’80s but soon changed to reflect modern urban settings. The films of Karl Maka and Dean Shek are informative of such changes. In the late ’70s, the kung fu comedies of Maka and Shek (who, together with actor Raymond Wong, founded Cinema City in 1980) were still set in China’s early Republican period. in the ’80s, they changed the settings of their popular comedies to the recognizably urban settings of modern Hong Kong in films such as Chasing Girls (1981) and Aces Go Places (1982), films which no doubt helped establish Cinema City as the most successful film production company in Hong Kong in the early ’80s.
Similarly, Sammo Hung, whose successes in the early ’80s were kung fu comedies set in the late Qing or early Republican period (such as Encounter of the Spooky Kind, 1980, and The Dead and the Deadly, 1982) reverted to modern-day urban settings in comedies such as Winners and Sinners (1983), My Lucky Stars, and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (1985).
Jackie Chan, too, went through the same transformation phase from old to new. In Drunken Master (1978), which broke successfully into the Japanese market, Chan was a young Huang Fei Hong (Wong Fei Hong), the Cantonese kung fu hero of the early Republican period (and a popular character of Cantonese cinema in the ’50s and ’60s). The star shed the image of a historical hero in the ’80s and set his subsequent films such as Police Story (1985) and Armour of God (1986) in the modern era.
Tsui Hark, who became one of the most important directors of the ’80s, began his career with two films set in traditional China, Butterfly Murders (1979) and We’re Going to Eat You (1980). These two films were not box-office successes. It was only with All the Wrong Clues (for the Right Solution) (1981), a contemporary comedy, that Tsui achieved box-office respectability.
Themes dealing with traditional Chinese backgrounds or history were consigned to the back burner by Hong Kong cinema. In their place came films with modern settings that were increasingly shot in locations all over the world. More significantly, the Hong Kong cinema gave a sense of belonging to Hong Kong itself. No longer was there a grappling for identity, to belong either to the left, right, or center (although, of course, production companies established with either Taiwan or Mainland investments continued to exist). The Hong Kong cinema belonged completely to Hong Kong.
Even when there was a sense of nostalgia for the old days of Chinese history, the status of Hong Kong prevailed. Jackie Chan’s Project A (1983) is set in Hong Kong in the last century, during the early days of British administration. Chan plays a police sergeant loyal to the colonial administration and doing battle with Chinese pirates who prey off the South China coast. In the film, Chan is also portrayed as a “patriot” who sympathizes with Mainland revolutionaries fighting for the demise of the Qing Dynasty. At the same time, he declares his loyalty to Hong Kong.
Ann Hui’s first film, The Secret (1979), set in the evocative West Point district, is full of nostalgic reminiscences of old Hong Kong. Her next film The Spooky Bunch (1980) may be described as the first film to capture a fully local Hong Kong flavor on film. It is set in Hong Kong’s outlying islands, where the feel of a more “traditional” Hong Kong comes through more strongly. Love in a Fallen City (1984) goes back to the days immediately prior to the outbreak of the Pacific War and the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong.
Other representative works that fall into this genre of nostalgic reminiscence of old (or pre-war) Hong Kong include Hong Kong 1941 (1984), Welcome (1984), Rouge (1988), and Painted Faces (1988).
One reason for this upsurge in nostalgia for “old Hong Kong” may be due to the common perception that a vital part of the territory’s historical legacy may vanish. Naturally, the present is felt to be more important. Hong Kong has grown into a modern and prosperous city, and as such, may have grown increasingly distant from its own Chinese traditions. Its lifestyle and modes of entertainment have acquired a distinct style that may now be described as a “Hong Kong tradition.” It is with this newly acquired local tradition that Hong Kong must now maintain its existence and face China, which is to recover it in 1997.
The genres with old China backgrounds such as martial arts, historical costume epics, and the opera film had been the staples of Hong Kong cinema since its inception. In the ’80s, such genres practically vanished from the screen, with the exception of the ghost story genre. Themes or stories dealing with China would henceforth be treated from the perspective of Hong Kong.
In Happiness Is Tragedy: The Aces Go Places Series
The most successful comedy series in the ’80s are the Cinema City-produced Aces Go Places pictures starring comedy star Karl Maka, popular singer Sam Hui (also of the Hui Brothers fame), and Taiwanese female star Sylvia Chang. It was a breakthrough series, setting trends for all comedy films to follow. The first entry, Aces Go Places (1982), grossed HK$26m. By the third entry, Aces Go Places: Our Man in Bond Street (1984), Cinema City had broken all box-office records at the time, grossing $29m. These records have since been broken by other films but in terms of sheer audience attendance, the five films in the series are probably still the champions.
From the plot and tone in each of the five films, we may discern both the sense of achievement and the sense of crisis that distinguishes Hong Kong cinema. The first entry, Aces Go Places, presents an entirely new concept of comedy hitherto expressed only through elements appropriated from the martial arts costume genre or the country hick kung fu pictures or the urban working class comedy (such as those produced by Michael Hui). The series brought in state-of-the-art special effects, elaborate action stunts meant both to thrill and as slapstick, recalling the James Bond and Pink Panther pictures.
The series also portrays the virtues of hardworking overseas Chinese who seek to catch up with the superior technology of the West and who view the world with a more modern outlook (the sense of achievement inherent in the series itself). There is an emphasis on modern technological gadgetry and fast cars rather than purely on kung fu prowess. The latest fashion in wardrobe and hairstyles plus a sexy and lovable star added to the overall feeling of confidence and optimism. It captured the hearts of Hong Kong audiences and became a runaway success.
The first edition was released as a Chinese New Year attraction in January 1982, in retrospect an optimistic period for the people of Hong Kong. Later that year, the 1997 problem officially became a pressing concern. In an extreme state of optimism and happiness, a sense of crisis began to emerge. 1982 was also the year that saw the release of Ann Hui’s The Boat People, a film that can hardly be described as optimistic. This film was able to pander to the Hong Kong people’s fear of communism. Its success at the box office transformed the sense of optimism and achievement as expressed through Aces Go Places to one of dread and crisis.
After the initial sense of shock, a feeling of stability settled in. The Sino-British negotiations over Hong Kong’s future were in progress and things seemed to be going well. At the same time, China’s open-door policy was yielding results, building up confidence for the future. In this atmosphere, the second entry of Aces Go Places and its third, Our Man in Bond Street, were released, in 1983 and 1984, respectively. Predictably, both were commercially successful, sustaining positions at the top of the box-office chart.
The third entry, Aces Go Places: Our Man in Bond Street (1984), directed by Tsui Hark, probably has the most ingenious plot. A Chinese “hero” is recruited by Hong Kong police to recover the stolen Crown Jewels. Not only does the movie touch on the attitudes of Hong Kong people toward the British, it also makes the proposition that Hong Kong’s achievement is something to be proud of in the plot device of giving the honor of recovering the Crown Jewels to a Hong Konger.
The fourth entry, released in 1986, was shot on location in New Zealand and preserves the sense of optimistic well-being, although its James Bondish plot, gadgets, and villains make it a more representative picture of anxiety-ridden Hong Kong in the mid-’80s than the earlier films in the series. After this fourth sequel, the series went into quarantine for three years, as if in reaction to the public mood of despair and anxiety. The fifth entry, directed by veteran kung fu director Liu Jialiang, came out as the Chinese New Year attraction for 1989. A sense of crisis and tragedy pervades what is supposed to be a happy holiday picture. Its two heroes (played by Karl Maka and Sam Hui) are no longer portrayed as buddies. They are unemployed, disappointed, and unloved. The film climaxes with scenes of the heroes taken prisoner in a Peking jail and undergoing various forms of torture and coercion by the military.
The box-office showings for the fifth entry were disappointing. Already steeped in anxiety, the Hong Kong audience seemed not to want their screen heroes to be similarly down and out. The box-office failure of Aces Go Places 5 has effectively put the lid on the series.
From any angle, the five films in the series reflect the twin elements of achievement and crisis prevalent in the territory in the ’80s. The status of its heroes has ranged from international superstars, called in to recover the British Crown Jewels in the early optimistic days, to vagrants tortured by the PLA in a Peking jail in the anxious days of the late ’80s.
Ghosts and Humans from China
Although China was the source of the anxiety felt by Hong Kong people in the ’80s, it is also true that the relationship between the territory and the Mainland had never been so close since 1949. This was the result of Deng Xiaoping’s open door policy proclaimed in the late ’70s. The ’80s saw Hong Kong companies queuing up for coproductions with the Mainland and shooting on locations there. The most representative example may well be Li Hanxiang’s two-part historical saga of the demise of the Qing Dynasty, Burning of the Imperial Palace and Reign Behind the Curtain (1983). The most curious example, however, is Ann Hui’s “anti-communist” production The Boat People (1982), a film financed by Mainland money and shot on Hainan Island. Hui apparently secured the trust of her Mainland investors so that she later made her two-part epic Romance of Book and Sword (1987) in China as well. Companies in the Mainland got into the act by soliciting financing from Hong Kong-based companies.
Mainland kung fu star Li Lianjie (Jet Li) made his name in a coproduction with Hong Kong, The Shaolin Temple (1982), which also used behind-the-camera expertise from the territory. Its success influenced many Mainland companies to follow the trend and set off a profusion of made-in-China kung fu movies.
As mentioned above, the kung fu genre with traditional Chinese settings was going out of fashion in Hong Kong itself. In its place came the action film with a modern setting. However, the traditional kung fu genre could still develop as long as certain elements were adapted to suit the changing tastes. For example, the hero could no longer be an exponent of orthodox kung fu methods but must be a superhero with supernatural abilities. Tsui Hark’s Zu, Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1982) was the pathbreaker for such superheroes, and so was Yuen Woo-ping’s The Miracle Fighters (1982). But the genre that would launch the new breed of superheroes was a blend of kung fu and the ghost story, with its attendant supernatural creatures, monsters, and strange beings.
The new genre of kung fu and ghost story became the most popular of the ’80s. Although apparently influenced by Hollywood ghost movies, it was a new attempt to revitalize Chinese-style special effects arising from the strange and wonderful world of Chinese ghost stories. Ann Hui’s The Spooky Bunch (1980) may well have been the first movie in the ’80s to expound the renewed emphasis on a tried genre. Following on her heels, Sammo Hung and his troupe of kung fu stuntmen brought the genre to new heights with Encounter of the Spooky Kind (1980) and The Dead and the Deadly (1982). The series of films beginning with Mr. Vampire (1985) consolidated the success of the kung fu ghost story genre and confirmed its status as the dominant genre of the ’80s. The Mr. Vampire series brought back to Hong Kong scenes a touch of traditional Chinoiserie, not to mention superstition. It was the new genre that brought China back into the minds of Hong Kong filmmakers.
The ghost story pandered to the prevailing sense of crisis felt by Hong Kong people. The characters of Chinese ghosts personified the fear with which Hong Kong people viewed their cousins from the Mainland. Nevertheless, Hong Kong Chinese still maintained a profound connection with the Mainland, although through a love-hate relationship. While distrust of the Chinese was reserved for the “evil” ghosts, they showed a happy face to “good” ghosts. A film with good ghost characters, The Happy Ghost (1984), was one of the most commercially successful pictures in the ’80s.
The new genre developed from bad ghost to woman ghost, as represented by Ching Siu-tung’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1984) and Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (1988). Both films possessed characteristics of “Chinese-ness” and were critical and box-office successes. Other films belonging to the ghost story genre include Life After Life (1981), Dream Lovers (1984), and The Iceman Cometh (1988), but these also incorporated special effects and elements of science fiction, reincarnation, and time travel.
The mistaken identity of human and ghost and contradictions between the nether and real worlds bring up the theme of the identity crisis. It is, of course, a theme that is also explored by films in other genres, such as Alex Cheung’s Man on the Brink (1981) and Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987). Both are police thrillers with undercover cop protagonists. Another identity-crisis film is Ann Hui’s martial arts epic Romance of Book and Sword (1987), which examines the historical enmity between Han Chinese and the Manchus, the rulers who established the Qing Dynasty.
The attitudes of Hong Kong people toward their Mainland cousins are reflected as contradictory and dynamic elements sustaining interest in Hong Kong movies. This can be seen in two 1983 releases, Johnny Mak’s violent crime thriller Long Arm of the Law and Yim Ho’s Homecoming. The latter shows its leading character, a Hong Kong woman, returning to her native village in China and reuniting with her childhood friend. Mak’s Long Arm of the Law, like Homecoming, seems to paint its Mainland protagonists in an unfavorable light but in fact acknowledges commonality with its rather unsavory characters. It indirectly recognizes that Hong Kong people have discriminated against immigrants from the Mainland.
The feelings of the new immigrants from China toward the Mainland may in truth be even more complex than that of “native” Hong Kongers. Their marginalized existence in the territory is like that of the half-human, half-ghost protagonists of ghost movies. Their existence at the lower strata of Hong Kong society indicates the great gulf between them and the middle to upper classes.
The Hong Kong cinema has all along tended to satirize Mainlanders but this attitude may slowly be changing. In The Greatest Lover (1988), Chow Yun-Fat plays an illegal immigrant from the Mainland who becomes a rich playboy and communicates with the Governor in Mandarin. His character in The Romancing Star (1987) is a similarly uncouth immigrant from the Mainland who sees the contradictions between Hong Kong and Mainland societies as well as between Hong Kong’s rich and poor. The film underlines these contradictions with a fairy tale myth in which the Mainland frog may turn into a Hong Kong prince.
This outlook of Mainland characters in the Hong Kong cinema may point up a demographic fact of the late ’80s – that the population in the territory would consist of mainly working-class immigrants from China and Hong Kong’s own lower strata of society, since much of the middle and upper classes have emigrated overseas. This also means that high-quality works in Hong Kong cinema became more rare, and the lowest-common-denominator factor in production remained in force.
In the late ’80s, Hong Kong cinema was still examining the satirical aspects of the China–Hong Kong relationship, particularly in two Michael Hui comedies, Chicken and Duck Talk (1988) and Mr. Coconut (1989). The former deals with the theme of Chinese conservatism and the need for change and modernization. It ends optimistically with the message that modernization will succeed. In the latter film, Hui gives a comic performance as a country hick from Hainan who comes to Hong Kong, bringing along all his distasteful habits and quaint manners. Hui’s characterization, however, is not obnoxious but, on the contrary, points up the lovable nature of the character.
By 1990, although Hong Kong was still recovering from the shock of the June 4 incident in Tian’anmen Square the previous year, and the rush to get out of Hong Kong became more intense, filmmakers do not seem to have greatly reverted to making villains of Mainlanders. If anything, they became even more lovable, as evidenced by the generally positive characterizations of Stephen Chow in All for the Winner (1990), Hong Kong’s most successful film up to that time, and Carol “Dodo” Cheng in Her Fatal Ways (1990), both characters hailing from the Mainland. The Hong Kong cinema no longer looks at Mainland characters as transients or strangers but as people on the same side, brought together by fate.
The Hong Kong cinema has ultimately come to recognize that it cannot shake off the Chinese connection. The attempt to break into the international market would also necessarily entail an acknowledgment of Chinese roots since it is thought that international audiences would be more interested in Chinese culture and Chinese kung fu action. Those who have emigrated from Hong Kong soon realize that they cannot repudiate their roots and culture. There is also the fact that Chinese people themselves are undergoing a process of Hong Kong- and Taiwan-style modernization, which effectively means Westernization. It is clear that the ’90s will be a crucial decade in which the gulf between China and Hong Kong will close. Whether the establishment of a common identity will lead to exhilaration or despair remains to be seen.
The Merits and Shortcomings of the New Wave
The Hong Kong cinema in the ’80s not only recorded advances in technique, production values, and “packaging” styles, but grew more daring in tackling social, political, and artistic concerns. However, this cinema has not gone deep enough into arts, politics, or society and has not come up with more mature examples than have been provided thus far. The Hong Kong New Wave, which surfaced in 1979, briefly captured world attention, but was soon eclipsed by “new wave” movements in China and Taiwan.
In studying the reasons for the demise of the Hong Kong New Wave, one may first suggest that Hong Kong is an extremely commercialized and opportunistic city in which the cinema is regarded purely as a medium for mass entertainment. Second, as a free city port where East and West freely intermingle, Hong Kong excels in adapting to new trends and developments but lacks a knack for analysis in depth and a holistic approach to development.
The more creative filmmakers such as Ann Hui, Allen Fong, Tsui Hark, Yim Ho, Alex Cheung, Patrick Tam, and John Woo may attempt to move into deeper terrain but upon doing so, usually falter in logic and reasoning, often falling into a trap of superficiality and confusion. The group of filmmakers following on the heels of these pioneers have been more practically minded. Directors such as Stanley Kwan, Alfred Cheung, Mabel Cheung, Alex Law, Gordon Chan, Ching Siu-tung, and Lawrence Ah Mon have tended to shy away from “big themes” or difficult experimentation. Instead they have tried to balance art with entertainment and have dealt with human relationships in more sentimental terms. These directors, however, lack the vision or the imagination that distinguished the New Wave directors.
By integrating into the commercial mainstream cinema, the New Wave brought in new blood and a greater impetus for change. Their contribution to the Hong Kong cinema has also added momentum to the rise of the Chinese and Taiwanese new waves, both of which tended to be bolder in artistic experimentation.
Heroes and Beautiful People in a State of Crisis
One trend in the Hong Kong cinema that has remained consistent from the ’70s is the dependence on “heroic” personalities, whether in comedies or action thrillers. Changes in styles have brought about a greater emphasis in the ’80s on emotions and the role of women, as compared to the emphasis on macho males in previous decades.
Ann Hui, probably the most influential director in the ’80s, did the most in giving new emphasis to female roles. Her first film, The Secret (1979), was a model of female creativity. All the major creative departments were filled by women, including Hui as director, Joyce Chan as writer, composer Violet Lam, producer Audrey Li, and star Sylvia Chang. Among her other films in which female leads form the center of the narratives are Starry Is the Night (1988) and Song of the Exile (1990). However, Ann Hui cannot be described as a feminist director. She does not take an anti-male stand. She strives for a vision of an ideal state in which females exist as equals to men and she laments the fact that such a state seems impossible. Her male protagonists are more ideal characters than the male leads in other directors’ movies. Their masculinity does not preclude shows of sentiment or commitment to honor and duty.
Her comedy film The Spooky Bunch (1980) not only brought the genre into the realm of ghosts and spirits (which the Hong Kong cinema would later combine with the kung fu film), but also feminist concerns and a love story theme. The film indirectly influenced the newly established Cinema City to specialize in comedies with a romantic theme, with Chasing Girls (1981) a typical example. In the same way, Hui’s The Story of Woo Viet (1981) was not only one of the first films to deal with the sense of political crisis that would engulf Hong Kong but was also a precursor of the hero thrillers, although Hui’s film is of a more modern disposition. It also differs from later hero thrillers in its narrative of a love story between the male and female leads.
The emphasis on women and emotion is a natural development in the ’80s since it is seen as a necessary adjunct to the sense of achievements in terms of career, marriage, and family. Also, women were becoming major players in Hong Kong society as it surged toward modernization. Women were becoming more economically independent and could not be neglected as characters in their own right. The age when women were seen only as housewives was past. Filmmakers had to take into account the tastes of the female sector of the audience. Above all, the sense of crisis and anxiety brought about by the 1997 problem had also “humanized” Hong Kong society to the extent that it made it more sensitive and receptive to emotion.
Love stories and “women’s films” increased in output. Action films with women as heroines also became more popular (for example, 1985’s Yes, Madam). However, this is not to say that women entirely displaced men as protagonists. Indeed, as elsewhere in the world, women continued to be viewed as subordinate, and as objects of beauty to be admired and fought over by men.
As for male heroes on the screen, they have continually maintained their dominant status, compared with female heroines. Comedy heroes have always been popular but in the ’80s became less visible. Although active throughout the decade, comedy stars such as Michael Hui, Karl Maka, and Richard Ng are echt ’70s symbols. Hence the status of “heroes” of the screen belonged to the characters of violent action thrillers, who were really the modernized alter egos of the old swordfighting knight errants or kung fu martial artists.
One may point to Jackie Chan as the most representative and successful personification of this type of screen hero. He and other stars of this style, such as Sammo Hung, have actually dressed up traditional kung fu acrobatics and techniques in modern clothes. But the real modern-day heroes of Hong Kong’s screens are those depicted in a series of John Woo–directed thrillers, beginning with A Better Tomorrow (1986) and culminating in The Killer (1989). But even these films are the result of an evolutionary process in cinema genres. These modern heroes are nothing more than Western-suited variations of the old swordfighting heroes of the popular Chu Yan adaptations of the Gu Long martial arts novels in the ’70s. The emphasis on an underworld code of honor is a consistent theme. So too are the stylized aesthetic of violence and the plot turns in which friend becomes enemy or vice versa.
The evolution of swordfighting martial arts hero into gun-toting gangster must necessarily entail a new concept in production design. Accordingly, the ’80s saw a greater emphasis on special effects hardware and more elaborate stuntwork, to make the gun battles more gory and realistic. If nothing else, the development of special effects and action stunts was the major technical achievement of Hong Kong cinema in the ’80s.
The interest in special effects hardware was already evident in the late ’70s. Tsui Hark’s Butterfly Murders (1979) was one of the more famous attempts to incorporate special effects into the traditional swordfighting martial arts genre. In that film, Tsui suggested that medieval China already possessed modern gadgetry such as missiles, armored carriers, and even machine guns. Tsui’s film was not a box-office success, which suggests his audience was not convinced.
Violent modern-dress thrillers were more receptive to special effects. It was in the genre of gangster movies (and also traditional ghost stories) that special effects found its niche. Ann Hui’s The Story of Woo Viet and Terry Tong’s Coolie Killer (1982) were early examples of the advent of “hero” thrillers, but it is the films of John Woo from A Better Tomorrow on that best exemplify this development.
Woo, who began his career in the swordfighting martial arts genre, has spoken of his fondness for the French thrillers of the ’60s (those usually starring Alain Delon or Jean-Paul Belmondo and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville). Hence it is perhaps only fitting that Woo should have helmed A Better Tomorrow, produced by Tsui Hark, which by now can be put up as a classic example of the fully evolved Hong Kong contemporary martial arts thriller, a model of cinema influenced by both East and West. This combination of East and West, old and new genres, evolution and transformation, reached a peak with Woo’s The Killer (1989).
A Better Tomorrow was, of course, the film that officially started the trend of “hero” movies (the word “hero” here is culled from the film’s Chinese title which, translated literally, means “The Essence of Heroes”). Apart from its balletic set-pieces of gunfights, the film ran a gauntlet of emotions from violent excitement to melodramatics to softhearted sentimentality. It also dealt with the notion that honor among thieves and murderers was the highest type of honor – a theme common in the swordfighting martial arts genre, as is the theme of revenge for betrayal. It epitomized the sense of crisis and achievement that characterized the public mood of Hong Kong and was rewarded for doing so with phenomenal box office success (the all-time highest grosser at the time).
What is noteworthy in the rise of the “hero” movies is that, apart from attaching greater value to the theme of underworld honor than to the forces of law and order (no doubt a reflection of the perception that the Hong Kong government would become a lame duck administration in the run-up to 1997), it also laid a particular emphasis on male bonding and the homoerotic aspects of violence which “beautiful looking” male gangsters mete out to each other. In the age of AIDS consciousness, “hero” movies were curiously renewing the tendency to discriminate against women, and downgrading the general line towards love and romance.
I don’t wish to go into the complex reasons for this reversal phenomenon, except to say that the sense of crisis felt among Hong Kong people is a result of modernization and its attendant effects, including the rise of the status of women, and changes to traditional thinking and morality – all of which have tended to threaten the longstanding position of men in society. Hero movies came along at just the right time for men to bolster their weakening sense of security.
Another reason may have to do with a distinctive feature of Chinese tradition – that is, in times of crisis, love and romance are not a priority and are in fact incompatible with the prevailing mood. Heroes should be celibate and have nothing to do with women.
Simply put, the genre of hero movies contains a traditional anti-woman bias and renews the macho sensibilities of underworld-honor concepts of triad gangs and secret societies. The resurrection of such “traditional” values in the hero movies during our modern age of crisis is one of the reactionary developments of Hong Kong cinema.
However, we must not lose sight of the fact that although the Hong Kong cinema resolutely clings to the principle of fulfilling the dreams of the mass audience, it sometimes fails to deliver and does not always satisfy the audience. Hence we must be wary of saying that what we see on Hong Kong screens fully reflects the psychology or sentiments of Hong Kong society. Filmmakers may sometimes make mistakes and use the cinema as a medium for expressing pent-up individual feelings.
Time may prove that the hero thrillers were a flash in the pan. Moreover, Hong Kong people have come to realize, in the wake of the 1989 Tian’anmen massacre, that fists, swords, and even guns alone cannot win the battle for them. They must count on wits and be quick on their feet in a gamble with destiny.
It is little wonder that in late 1989 “gambling” movies returned to Hong Kong screens with a vengeance. What is more, filmmakers again came up with concoctions of mixed genres, grafting hero thrillers onto the now more popular gambling movies. The ultimate “hero, ” Chow Yun-Fat, was recruited to provide box-office insurance. In God of Gamblers (1989), he was packing decks of cards instead of handguns, but the crisis-achievement dichotomy is still evident, the contradictions being resolved at a gaming table. God of Gamblers broke all box office records, its achievement only to be surpassed the following year by yet another gambling movie, All for the Winner (1990).
Hong Kong cinema can only be taken whole. It is impossible to focus on any one particular angle. It is obvious that it incorporates both brains and brawn, both martial arts and fine arts, both love between couples and honor among thieves. The year 1990 marks the start of yet another evolutionary process in the development of Hong Kong cinema. It has been the year of a new superstar, Stephen Chow, the star of All for the Winner with its proposal of a new set of screen values: action plus comedy plus gambling. It goes further by incorporating virtually all the successful ingredients of screen genres seen in Hong Kong cinema in the ’80s, including romance, traditional lady knight errants, and illegal immigrants from China. The most successful movie up to its time in Hong Kong theaters, All for the Winner is the picture that sums up the ’80s as well as setting the trend for the upcoming ’90s.