Hong Kong Cinema: a quick overview from its origins to today
Born in the early 1900s, inspired by the Chinese opera, Hong Kong cinema of the beginning was not very relevant. Anyway, in the first twenty years of the century it suffered a setback, because films were produced in Germany at the time.
The thirties proved to be a good opportunity for Hong Kong cinema, and Hong Kong became synonym for experimentation, against the restrictions applied in mainland China where the nationalist government banned all the films that weren’t shot in Mandarin and that exalted violence. This impulse continued in the years of the war against Japan, and this context inspired films that described the Chinese resistance to the Japanese domain.
But the real internal fight in Chinese cinema has always been the fight between Mandarin and Cantonese languages, that didn’t raise any concern before the innovation of sound. Until then relegated to minor productions, Cantonese cinema took revenge in the mid-fifties with the advent of television, and therefore with greater divulgation.
The real international momentum of Cantonese cinema was in the seventies, when Bruce Lee, a Californian of Chinese descent, brought kung fu to international levels. In the early eighties, then, Jackie Chan came and imposed himself on the screen.
The erotic genre, martial arts and fantasy became refined, while also a cinema with social tones started to manifest. Between the eighties and the nineties, Hong Kong became a real hotbed of film production, where different genres began to influence one another and to get mixed up. The distinctive and unique character of the eastern cinema that mainly influenced western cinema was linked to the quality of the choreography of the action scenes, which seemed flowing as if they were danced (Kill Bill and The Matrix, for example).
With the young generation, then, and with filmmakers more willing to experiment (see Wong Kar-Wai), Hong Kong cinema began to point the camera no more to spectacular and acrobatic scenes, but to the emotional and quiet storms of the characters, towards the inside, the intimacy, rather than towards the outside. In doing so, the cinema made in Hong Kong was recognized also as auteur cinema.
However, from the mid-nineties to the early 2000s, Hong Kong and its cinema were no longer on top of productions of that quality, and they started to go into a downward trend that seemed not to know any turning point. But just like all human, social and cultural phenomena, some aspects burn out, some change and other repeat themselves. Nothing ever disappears for real.
So, in these last few years, Hong Kong cinema has come back to be heard and seen. More and more festivals, shows and events in the West pay attention and give space to film productions and authors from Hong Kong. Not least, Salento International Film Festival. SIFF has always a special, attentive and specific care for Asian cinema. Hong Kong cinema understood that, like humanity and its tensions that it sometimes depicts, it must learn to adapt to change in order to survive. Not least the forced change imposed by the pandemic emergency of these months. Although it is true that Hong Kong was one of the first countries after Wuhan to record Covid-19 cases, it is also true that the strong sense of civic duty and responsibility ensured that in Hong Kong the movie screens reopened at the beginning of May, even though with due precaution in favor of safety, while in the rest of the world the theatre and show business has suffered an unprecedented setback. As if to emphasize that the film industry is an active and integral part of the economy of a territory, the one of Hong Kong, capable of changing its standards without sacrificing anything. Art included. And who knows whether from now on the emergency will constitute – as it is likely to happen – one of the crucial thematic nodes for contemporary filmmakers, Asian and not. We just must wait to see as soon as possible the next film proposals of Hong Kong cinema, maybe beginning right from SIFF!