Hong Kong

Hong Kong cinema is shaped by two major factors— geographical location and politics. As a major port and trading center, Hong Kong was the first Chinese city exposed to the invention of cinema. During the ''Chinese war against Japanese aggression'' (World War II), due to its geographical marginality from China, Hong Kong became the wartime filmmaking capital. Hong Kong's British colonial status also protected it from the subsequent Chinese civil war and the eventual takeover of mainland China by the Communist Party in 1949. The subsequent exodus of money and talents from the mainland provided the base for a permanent filmmaking capital. In the 1980s, after the Sino-British Joint Declaration affirmed the coming (1997) reunification of Hong Kong with China, anxiety permeated the political climate, and Hong Kong cinema, which had established its own subjectivity, found itself in crisis. The new challenge became the process of internationalization, which has required a commercial strategy for combating global competition and a political position to fend off interference from China.

EARLY CINEMA: 1896-1923

According to Hong Kong film historian Yu Mo Wan, among all Chinese societies (the China mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the diasporic communities overseas), Hong Kong was the first to encounter cinema. During early 1896 the Lumière brothers came to Hong Kong to shoot actualités—scenes of city life—thus marking the beginning of cinema in China. Later that year the Edison Company also came to shoot film in both Hong Kong and Shanghai, and it edited the footage to form two films, Shanghai Police and Hong Kong Street Scenes.

Their exhibitions were the first commercial screenings in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Between 1896 and 1903 all film activities (production and exhibition) in Hong Kong were carried out by Westerners. Short films, which came mostly from the United States, were shown in open spaces beside crowded markets. But the rainy weather of Hong Kong proved too much of a challenge, and soon screenings were moved indoors to restaurants and Cantonese opera houses. In 1901 Hong Kong opened its first nickelodeon, He Lio Garden (Joy Garden), a few years ahead of the opening of a similar theater in Shanghai.

Most film scholars take 1909 as the real beginning of Hong Kong cinema. That year saw the first (Hong Kong) Chinese-directed narrative film, Tou Shao Ya (Stealing the Roasted Duck), a comedy about a poor man who steals a roasted duck from its plump owner and is eventually caught by the police. It was produced by the Asia Motion Picture Company (headquartered in Shanghai and owned by the American Benjamin Polaski), directed by Leung Sui Bor, and shot in Hong Kong. In 1913 Polaski met another Hong Kong Chinese, Li Man Wei (1893— 1953), and together they formed the Wah-Mei (China-US) Production Company. Li would later become the ''father'' of Hong Kong Cinema.

In 1923 Li, along with his friend Leung Sui Bor, his cousin Li Hai Tsan, and his brother Li Pei Hai, formed the first Hong Kong Chinese-owned production company, Man Sun (Minxin) Motion Picture Production Company. A few years later, he built theaters and studios, thus setting up vertical integration, a complete (albeit unstable, because of the politics of China) infrastructure

Wong Hong Wei
Wong Kar Wei. © warner independent pictures/courtesy everett collection. reproduced by permission.

for film production. With Man Sun as a model, smaller film companies rapidly formed. Between 1930 and 1937, the eve of the Japanese invasion of China, some fifty small film companies were making Cantonese films and screening them in Hong Kong, Macau, southern China, Malaya, Singapore, the Philippines, and Chinatowns in Australia, the United States, and Canada. Most of these films were genre movies made with shoestring budgets: comedies, dramas, swordplay epics, and Cantonese operas. Many of these small companies survived for no more than one or two films.

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