In the early 20th century soon after the advent of feature motion pictures in the West, Hong Kong emerged as an important gateway for introducing foreign films across mainland China. A host of foreigner filmmakers as well travelled to China via Hong Kong to shoot travelogues and newsreels, while trying to work with the Chinese. In 1914, Russian-American Benjamin Brodsky collaborated with the Lai Brothers in Hong Kong to produce a series of short films, including the release - Zhuang Zi Tests His Wife. However, due to unfavorable filming conditions at the time, it was not until 1925 that the first ever local production appeared, entitled - Rouge. Soon after its release a general strike hit the Territory, and Hong Kong’s nascent film industry ground to a halt.
When sound films, also known as ‘ talkies’, first appeared in the 1930s, the very first Cantonese feature films like The White Gold Dragon (1933), made in Shanghai, and Romance of the Songsters (1933) produced by overseas Chinese in San Francisco, became popular hits both at home and abroad. By the mid-1930s, Hong Kong had become an important centre for the production of Cantonese films, which were then sold to mainland Chinese and Southeast Asian distributors. It was also at this time that popular Cantonese opera actors began to appear in the so called -- ‘sing-song films’, followed by other genres that borrowed plot lines or treatments from Western cinematic releases. When war broke out in Asia in 1937, acting and production talent as well as capital flooded into Hong Kong from China, which helped facilitate the production of Mandarin films. After the war, Cantonese and Mandarin films continued to develop in tandem.
The 1950s was a boom era for the Hong Kong film industry with sing-song films leading in popularity, followed by martial arts films and comedies. The Union Film Company, founded in 1952, set its sights on producing serious, realistic dramas, and soon became the box office leader. By the mid-1950s, Hong Kong became a paradise for motion picture production and companies like Great Wall, Motion Picture & General Investment Co, as well as Shaw Brothers all chose Hong Kong as their operations base. During this period, they began to train a new generation of filmmakers and set up a self-sustaining network of production, distribution and cinema chains. While Mandarin film production was entering into a big studio era, Cantonese films were run on a comparatively smaller scale with lower profits but faster turnover. As stage operas declined in popularity, Cantonese opera singers turned to the movies and adapted their best stage pieces onto the silver screen.
Tapping into the rapidly growing popularity of Mainland opera films in Hong Kong, Shaw Brothers Studio made a series of Huang Mei Diao opera films, which immediately took the Southeast Asian market by storm. Motion Picture & General Investment Co collaborated with Japan to produce chic colour features while Great Wall worked with Mainland talents to produce operatic films. The Cantonese cinema industry continued to churn out fantasy martial arts films followed later by iconic youth films that launched the careers of idols like Connie Chan Po-chu and Josephine Siao. The success of Huang Mei Diao films prompted Shaw Brothers to launch other impressive releases like the “New Martial Arts” series. The kung fu genre also helped groom action stars like Jimmy Wang Yu, Ti Lung, David Chiang, Fu Shing, Chan Kuan-tai, Cheng Pei-pei, Lily Ho and others. As a result, Hong Kong became Shaw Brothers’ powerful base to build its vast entertainment kingdom.
With the successes of the big studios and the emergence of free television broadcasting, small-scale Cantonese productions were forced out of the market. Actors next tried their luck with television productions and even the big studios had to survive by injecting violence or sensational elements into their films. This was the era when Hui Brothers’ comedies and Bruce Lee’s kung fu films took centrestage. At the same time television was nurturing a number of new talents which later came to be known as the "Hong Kong New Wave". This genre became distinctive for blending gags and action together to create kung fu comedy, a unique style of Hong Kong film-making that made international stars out of: Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Lau Kar-leung, Gordon Liu, Yuen Woo-ping, Dean Shek, and Karl Maka.
In the eighties, the kung fu genre evolved into urban action movies while at the same time Hong Kong New Wave found a new home among mainstream movie audiences. This spurred positive advances in terms of both marketing strategies and cinematic skills development. New creative techniques as well opened up formerly untapped markets both locally and overseas. Golden Harvest soon overtook Shaw Brothers in terms of box office supremacy and companies like Cinema City, D&B Films, Century, and Sil-Metropole became newly established. Each of these studios set up their own dedicated overseas partnerships in mainland China, Hollywood and across Asia. These collaborations resulted in some brilliantly produced Shaolin kung fu films and a series of heroic action films distinctive for their amusing plot lines and memorable characters. As box office receipts soared, Hong Kong took pride in its new recognised status as the “Oriental Hollywood”.
As uncertainty and political tensions rose prior to the 1997 reunification with China, the movie industry in Hong Kong took a downturn. Experienced filmmakers were all trying to capture the city’s various sentiments and the general zeitgeist into their movie productions. Stephen Chow starred in a nonsensical comedy about the Sino-British handover negotiations that depicted a grotesque charade; Tsui Hark’s volatile martial arts films unscrupulously reflected society’s unrest; gangster films of this period portrayed a younger generation trying hard to seek refuge and outlets from the confusion of Hong Kong’s new identity as part of China while Wong Kar-wai used his stylistic compositions to depict the Territory’s decadent beauty. These complex and diverse attempts at local cinematic expression caught the attention of the global film industry, and as a result, many local talents moved on to the international movie-making platform.
Now approaching the second decade of the new millennium, Hong Kong cinema is experiencing a kind of “post-glamour” phase, revealing more settled and pragmatic ideas in its movies. Big companies have more recently been taken over by smaller independent players. In 2004, new opportunities for filmmaking opened up after the historic CEPA agreement with China, inspiring a number of filmmakers to head north to blaze new trails in uncharted waters. Those who chose to stay in Hong Kong adopted a more cautious approach towards their productions. Greater efforts were made to refine scripts and exercise cost controls. Whether it was a human drama or gangster film, much more emphasis was put into building story plot lines and developing depth in the characters. Today an encouraging industry phenomenon is the devotion and determination of up and coming young filmmakers to produce memorable movies. At the same time, the north-bound filmmakers are continuing to inject new creative energy into mainland Chinese projects, resulting in record-breaking box office profits. Looking towards the future, the integration of China’s and Hong Kong’s cinematic traditions is inevitable and irreversible.