There is no debating that television was one of the most significant factors regarding the inception of the Hong Kong new wave. During the 1970s almost all of the filmmakers associated with the movement kick-started their careers working on various TV series or specials. There were two primary stations to thank for this – Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) and Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK). Although both of these companies were responsible for nurturing possibly the most pioneering generation in Hong Kong cinema history, I will argue that retrospectively speaking RTHK was the more ideologically relevant.
Before I can properly make my case a bit of background information on both the company and the Hong Kong New Wave is necessary.
RTHK was launched as a radio channel in 1928 by the Hong Kong Government under the name GOW; after various name changes and the addition of a television platform in the 1970s, it officially became the nation’s authorised TV broadcast channel. The organisation did not rely on commercial gain or licence fees because it was funded as an official department of government. Almost a complete dichotomy of TVB, a company formed in 1967 as a subsidiary to Shaw Bothers with solely commercial interests. Both companies have been heavily criticised in different ways. RTHK came under attack when it was discovered that they were projecting government propaganda and withholding from its agreed political impartiality. TVB was criticised for the unethical monopolisation of national celebrities, tying them down to contracts that prevented them from working with other stations.
Despite this, RTHK developed several programmes in the 1970s that aimed to investigate various issues affecting vulnerable people in Hong Kong at the time. This included several public affairs programmes and their influential drama series Below the Lion Rock (1972–). It was in these series that up and coming directors, a fair number coming from foreign film education, explored working class subject matters that were largely overlooked by the local entertainment outlets. This era has since been branded ‘The Golden Age of Hong Kong Television’.
It was the filmmakers attached to this golden age that would ignite the infamous Hong Kong new wave of the late-1970s to mid-1980s. What is interesting about this generation is there are so many similarities between the filmmakers associated. From their foreign film educations, participation in Hong Kong’s most celebrated era of television, wild experimentation of cinematic techniques, and focus on themes that were relevant to their local identity.
Allen Fong (Ah Ying, 1983), Ann Hui (Boat People, 1982) and Yim Ho (Homecoming, 1984) were three primary examples of filmmakers that came from RTHK in the 70s and pioneered the new wave throughout the 80s. Admittedly, the majority of the movement’s talent like Patrick Tam, Tsui Hark, Johnny To and Lau Shing-Hon did in fact emerge from TVB and, to their credit, were responsible for the more commercially successful films of the era. So many may feel I’m backing the wrong horse on this one. Nevertheless, apart from a few histrionic attempts by Patrick Tam and Lau Shing-Hon, the filmmakers that came from RTHK brought a more critical realist characteristic to their work. Yes, Ann Hui is renowned for her melodramatic sensibilities and Yim Ho can occasionally stumble into sensationalism, especially his hyper violent teen thriller The Happening (1986). Even Allen Fong’s neo-realist approach is ever so slightly peppered with melodrama. But it is in their desire to modestly focus on more socially conscious stories that truly paved the way for great filmmakers of the next generation. Clara Law, Stanley Kwan, Fruit Chan and even Peter Chan all went on to produce work that continued to develop from this ethos.
So to summaries my opinion on this, it would go something like this – the TVB new wave directors generally influenced a resonance in commercial cinema, but the RTHK rat pack forced its national film culture to truly reflect on Hong Kong’s contemporary identity and its unique existential burdens. There were several ways RTHK helped to influence this.
The Below the Lion Rock series encouraged up and coming filmmakers to draw their attentions towards projects that depicted current issues specific to Hong Kong, many to which were not given sufficient exposure before hand. This philosophy clearly stayed with the new wave filmmakers that worked on the series, as their work would go onto channel realistic topics intrinsic to Hong Kong society and its complex relationship with the mainland.
In addition to this, fellow new waver Clifford Choi directed episodes of RTHK’s Hong Kong Connection in the late 1970s, a topical series that also dedicated itself to local concerns. Choi also worked for TVB on marital arts programmes like Wong Fai Hong and the Water Margin. However, considering his later films were usually more socially conscious dramas, it is obvious that his time with RTHK had more of an affect on his cinematic direction. Especially his iconic 1983 film Hong Kong Hong Kong, which exposed the ramifications of Hong Kong’s immigration laws; particularly its affect on mainland refugees.
When we think about the new wave retrospectively, we often assign two ‘Proto-new-wave’ filmmakers who forged the foundation of the movement. These were Patrick Lung Kong and Tang Shu Shuen. The RTHK rat pack adopted the traits of these filmmakers in a far purer sense than their TVB peers. Kong’s passionate social criticism of modern Hong Kong and Shuen’s subtle European influenced experimentalism, was almost the ideological basis for directors like Hui, Fong and Ho.
It may seem to some that I could be over crediting these directors slightly. For example; their use of restrained realism was nowhere near as rigorous as the filmmakers from the Taiwanese new cinema, who completely avoiding melodrama and sentimentality altogether. This was unfortunately due to the ‘compromise culture’ within the Hong Kong production companies at the time. Even Patrick Lung Kong was notorious for having to use sensationalism and sentimentality as a negotiation to make the type of films he wanted. If someone as influential in the industry like Kong had to meet half way in the 1970s, then it’s no surprise that the new wavers had to play ball as well. Many have said this is one of the reasons Allen Fong made so few films during his career.
There are exceptions of course. Yim Ho’s Homecoming managed to avoid almost any of these settlements. Centring on a cosmopolitan woman from Hong Kong who travels back to her home village on the mainland, where she reconnects with her childhood friend. The film resembles the tone and pace of what we now expect from a 5th or 6th generation Chinese film. It’s quiet and reserved approach results in it being uncharacteristically understated for a film emerging from Hong Kong’s first wave. Even the more dramatic moments are delivered with gentle underhandedness, an attribute second wavers like Wong Kar-wai and Clara Law would adopt in the 1990s.
It is safe to say that Ho, Hui and Fong specifically, were two of the most significant new wave leaders and the primary reason for this was their grounded aesthetics and pursuit in capturing relevant social-cultural stories. So despite RTHK being a far from perfect organisation, it is certainly not unreasonable to assume its encouragement of ‘real life’ storytelling was one of the most significant factors regarding the inception of the Hong Kong new wave and its cinematic ethos.
‘Riding the Waves’ — A DC Chinese Film Festival Retrospective of the New Wave Chinese Cinema of the 80’s and 90’s runs from September 21-24.
This piece has been cross-posted at the Medium blog of the DC Chinese Film Festival.