During the mid-1980s, there was a subtle handover between the first and second Hong Kong new cinemas. After the first wavers spent the late 1970s and beyond reshaping the landscape of their national cinema, the second wavers would go onto refine this tradition well into the 1990s.
There were numerous characteristics that the second wave filmmakers shared, but one in particular was an apparent, though disjointed, affinity with the 1960s. To keep this piece short however, I’ll be using just four examples. Firstly, John Woo’s reinterpretation of the concept behind Lung Kong’s classic Story of a Discharged Prisoner (1967) to produce his pioneering crime thriller A Better Tomorrow (1986). Secondly, Peter Chan’s beloved second wave romance Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996) makes numerous references to The World of Suzie Wong (1960), which was one of the first western films to properly portray Hong Kong on the big screen. Thirdly, Derek Yee’s 1993 remake of the Shaw Brothers’ hit tearjerker Love Without End (1961), a film that helped define the era cinematically. Finally, Wong Kai Wai’s celebrated 1960s trilogy (or ‘Love Trilogy’) seduced an entire generation of international audiences to Hong Kong cinema throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
The majority of directors and writers that emerged from the second wave spent their preadolescent years growing up in 1960s, so it follows logically that this should be the primary explanation for the fascination. But this just begs more questions. Why didn’t we see this level of nostalgic lure from other generations of filmmakers? They all had childhoods, too. So could there have been something in particular about Hong Kong in the 1960s that left this timely impression on its future film practitioners?
Historically the decade marked some important moments for the region, most notably economic growth prospered to a level where it became one of the “Four Asian Tigers”. This was a term coined to categorise the top four technological and industrial powerhouses of Asia from the 1960s to 1990s. As a result of this living standards improved drastically and job opportunities increased due to more factories and foreign companies being registered.
The decade also saw political turbulence, which caused a series of notorious riots. In 1967 particularly, where pro-Communists rallied against Britain’s colonial rule and boasted support for Chairman Mao. This was clearly a symptom of Hong Kong’s prolonged identity crisis bubbling to the surface.
This marked an important phase for Hong Kong cinema too. Shaw Brothers produced some of its most iconic work during this era. Films like The Love Eterne (1963) broke records at the time and solidified a commercial golden age regarding its domestic appeal. The intense rivalry between Shaw and Singapore’s Cathay organisation peaked during the 1960s, eventually seeing them get the upper hand by the 1970s. The fact that a Hong Kong based company was able to overpower a commanding foreign influence like Cathay was in itself a national victory.
This was not the only conflict during this period. Cantonese language films were at odds with the big studio Mandarin productions as well. This clash arouse during the Chinese civil war when exiled filmmakers from the mainland fled to Hong Kong and attempted to replicate the themes and aesthetics of the Shanghai golden age in their new environment. This inevitably led to a representational saturation of Hong Kong’s distinctive stories, characters and culture. The primary mode of resistance against this “Mandarin takeover” was the pushing of local dialects in the form of Cantonese operas, domestic melodramas and martial arts serials.
With Hong Kong and the mainland’s relationship becoming notably more complicated, both in film and general politics, it’s easy to see why artists growing up during this time would look back on the 60s as a significant period culturally.
If we refer back to the four examples I mentioned earlier, we can see specifically how these various historical factors influenced second wave filmmakers.
John Woo and Tsui Hark have both spoken about the affect Patrick Lung Kong had on them growing up, especially their early conversations where they analysed Story of a Discharged Prisoner, applying its story and approach to A Better Tomorrow. Filmmakers like Lung and Tang Shu Shuen (The Arch, 1968) are often recognised as foundational influencers of the new wave. Their contributions to both experimental innovation and social criticism were so vital to Hong Kong cinema it was inevitable that their work would leave an imprint of some kind.
Shaw’s Love Without End, though largely overlooked in the West, was along with The Enchanting Shadow (1960), Dream of the Red Chamber (1962) and Come Drink with Me (1966), one of the many iconic films that helped establish this golden era. For somebody like Derek Yee, this film would have most likely been an important part of his early cinematic memories.
Love Without End was also remade in 1970, which was more of a studio obligation, taking a popular film and updating it with colour and other up-to-date technologies. Yee’s version, C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri, was still an update, but in the sense of making it applicable to a contemporary Hong Kong. By taking a scenario dear to a whole generation and making it relatable to a new one, could almost be seen as a type of cinematic national service. It was still a commercial endeavour, but as Yee both wrote and directed it, there was clearly something personal driving him to make the story relevant again.
Despite The World of Suzie Wong being an incredibly condescending western rendering of Hong Kong, it was still one of the earliest exhibitions of the region on an international scale. So it’s not hard to imagine the impact it would have left on both director Peter Chan and writer Ivy Ho when developing their cryptic homage Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996).
However, no filmmaker from the second wave expressed this nostalgia more explicitly than Wong Kar Wai. From 1990 to 2004 Wong channelled a personal and aesthetically idiosyncratic vision of the Hong Kong from his childhood in the 1960s. He has been fairly outspoken however, in clarifying that his fascination was not about personal stories but as he puts it, “a certain period in our life, a certain lifestyle or manner that is lost already”. Wong’s family moved to Hong Kong from Shanghai in the early 1960’s, which gave him more of an outsider’s perspective. Even choosing to end In the Mood for Love (2000) in the milestone year of 1966 was to draw on a significant cultural moment. “That was a critical moment in Hong Kong history. There was the Cultural Revolution in China, and in Hong Kong we had the anti-colonial riots. Those people who had moved from China to Hong Kong since 1949 had to realise that the place is easily influenced by the changes in China.”
This is evidently a subject that needs more investigation, nevertheless one that is undeniably intriguing for those with an appreciation for Hong Kong cinema and its history.
 Romney, Jonathan, “Mood music,” The Guardian, 23 October 2000. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2000/oct/23/artsfeatures.
‘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.