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More than just kung fu

Philipp Jedicke
October 18, 2021

Censorship is threatening the Hong Kong film scene more than ever. Yet the industry has long been a global inspiration with its diversity and creativity.

A woman in a floral dress with a mandarin collar faces a man whose back is towards the camera
Multi-award-winning classic love story: Wong-Kar Wai's 'In the Mood for Love' with Tony Leung and Maggie CheungImage: picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library/Ronald Grant Archive

From Wong Kar-Wai's visual opulence to the fast-paced action cinema of John Woo and Johnnie To, films from Hong Kong have been highly regarded for decades and have provided stimulation to international cinema.

US director Quentin Tarantino once said during an interview with the South China Morning Post  that he wasn't just a fan of Hong Kong cinema, but that he studied it. Other notable US filmmakers such as siblings Lana and Lilly Wachowski of Matrix fame also cite Hong Kong cinematic art in their works.

The inner and outer turmoil of this dazzling metropolis, which was returned to China as a special administrative zone in 1997 after 156 years of British colonial rule, has repeatedly found its way into film plots – both openly and subtly. Hong Kong films have often touched on subjects that are taboo in China, such as homosexuality, mental illness and the democracy movement.

A young man in the headlock of several police officers, surrounded by people
Police violence against demonstrators: scene from the documentary film 'Do Not Split'Image: Field of Vision

Threat of censorship

That could soon be over. In August 2021, the Chinese-controlled authorities in Hong Kong unveiled a new censorship law under which new releases and even older films will be scrutinized. Commerce Secretary Edward Yau said, "Any film shown in public, past, present or future, must be approved."

It is devastating news not just for Hong Kong filmmakers, but for film lovers worldwide.

Chinese censors are thus threatening a film industry that has enjoyed a long tradition. Following the projection of motion pictures in the former British colony at the end of the 19th century by brothers and pioneers of cinema, August and Louis Lumiere, the first Hong Kong feature film was released as early as 1909. Subsequently, a lively film scene developed, which was initially still overshadowed by Shanghai.

Intro with a bang

It was a swift kung fu kick in the 1970s that propelled Hong Kong onto the international stage. Films starring the late martial arts legend, Bruce Lee, became a worldwide sensation and unleashed a martial arts craze that continues to this day. His countryman, Jackie Chan, followed in his footsteps in the 1980s. Despite his global fame, Chan is extremely unpopular among supporters of Hong Kong's democracy movement, as he has made no secret of his patriotism towards China. Among other things, Chan said at a 2009 press conference that "too much freedom" makes for "chaotic " societies like Hong Kong and that he was beginning to feel that the Chinese needed to be "controlled."

Bruce Lee in fight pose
Bruce Lee - seen here in the 1972 film 'Death Greetings from Shanghai' - was once Hong Kong's most important film export Image: United Archives/IFTN/picture alliance

Those martial arts films not only paved the way for other filmmakers during the '80s and '90s who are still active today, but also cemented the position of Hong Kong cinema on the international stage. More than 30 years after his breakthrough with The Killer (1989), John Woo continues to set aesthetic standards with action films such as Atomic Blonde (2017) and the John Wick series (2014), which have had an influence not only on Hollywood thrillers, but also on independent films.

Poetry of subversion

Wong Kar-Wai rose to prominence alongside Woo. The multiple award-winning filmmaker has impressed audiences with films like Chungking Express (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000) — both classics in the tradition of film noir and new wave. Dealing with unrequited love and longing, they are cinematic declarations of love to his native Hong Kong.

Two men stand on top of a building, with the Hong Kong skyline behind them. One is pointing a gun at the other, who is handcuffed.
'Infernal Affairs' (2002) starring Andrew Lau and Alan Mak reflects a divided societyImage: Splendid Film

The thriller Infernal Affairs (2002) by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak is an example of the subversive power of Hong Kong cinema. In this action thriller, two men on different sides of the law play a deadly game of cat and mouse. Made a few years after the 1997 British handover of Hong Kong to China, the identity crises of the two protagonists reflect the fractured nature of Hong Kong society. In 2007, Hollywood veteran Martin Scorsese remade this film as The Departed, which won several awards including a Golden Globe and four Oscars.

Filming against all odds

Despite the growing influence of the authorities, some courageous filmmakers in Hong Kong have persevered in practicing their artistic freedom. The political satire Ten Years (2015) is set in the year 2025 and consists of five short episodes by different directors. These include stories of cab drivers having to pass a Mandarin language exam, an activist who sets herself on fire in front of the British Embassy, and children in military uniforms who control adults. In Hong Kong, the film was a huge success despite a small budget and few screening opportunities; in China, it was censored.

A man looks at himself in a three-way mirror
Inwardly torn and without help: Shawn Yue in 'Mad World' (2016)Image: Golden Scene Company Limited

With Mad World (2016), director Wong Chun looked deep into the current abysses of Hong Kong society. The film depicts a former financial analyst who loses his job due to bipolar disorder and is subsequently released from a psychiatric hospital. He returns home to his truck-driver father who grudgingly takes cares of him. The film criticizes the treatment of people with mental health problems and questions the existence of God,

Reflecting reality

The documentary Vanished Archives (2017) deals with the 1967 riots against the British colonial power, in which 51 people died and more than 1,000 were injured. Since the film also examines the role of the Chinese government, director Connie Lo Yan-Wai had to produce it at her own expense and with the help of private donors. She was also unable to find a distributor. Pro-democracy Hong Kongers then supported her by buying many copies of film on DVD.

Hong Kong activist, Edward Leung, surrounded by people
The now imprisoned activist Edward Leung in 'Lost in the Fumes' by Nora LamImage: Kong Arts Development Council

Nora Lam's biographical documentary film Lost in the Fumes (2017) features young independence activist and politician Edward Leung, who was harassed by the government. The film won an award at the Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival, but was not allowed to be shown in commercial cinemas in Hong Kong, allegedly because of its depiction of violence. Leung was convicted of rioting and has been in prison since 2018.

The drama No. 1 Chung Ying Street (2018) contrasts the 1967 riots and the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, raising questions about issues such as police violence. This film also received no financial support, reportedly because it was too "uncommercial," and was rejected by the Hong Kong International Film Festival. However, it took top prize at the Osaka Asian Film Festival in Japan.

Two young men and a young woman at a demonstration
Rejected in Hong Kong but celebrated in Japan: 'No. 1 Chung Ying Street' (2018)Image: Derek Chiu/Panorama (HK)

Hong Kong is also being addressed by filmmakers in other parts of the world. The US/Norwegian film Do Not Split (2020) by Norwegian director Anders Hammer is about the mass demonstrations and police brutality against democracy activists in 2019, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short in 2021.

This article was translated from German.