Pound for pound, Hong Kong cinema is probably the best in the world. Martin Scorsese has Infernal Affairs to thank for finally getting him a Best Director Oscar and Sofia Coppola was quick to name-drop Wong Kar-wai in her acceptance speech back when she won best original screenplay for Lost in Translation. Would the action scenes in The Matrix have wowed so many if the Wachowskis hadn’t been heavily into John Woo movies and recruited Yuen Woo-ping? What about Quentin Tarantino ripping off Ringo Lam’s City on Fire for Reservoir Dogs?
Ironically, dispute their international reputation, the kind of local movies which provided so much inspiration to the rest of the world were rarely box office kings here in Hong Kong. Frequently, that honour has fallen to Chinese New Year films.
Ask a foreign film fan if they know John Woo’s bullet riddled Hard Boiled and chances are they’ll likely have seen or heard of the 1992 action flick. Mention that same year’s Chinese New Year comedy All’s Well, End’s Well – one of the most successful local movies of all time, which grossed more than double what Hard Boiled managed at the box office – and all you’re likely to get are questions regarding Shakespeare.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Hong Kong’s CNY films are relatively unknown outside of the city. Even the definition of what constitutes a ‘Chinese New Year film’ can be hazy – poles apart, do the likes of God of Gamblers and Wong Kar-wai parody The Eagle Shooting Heroes, both released during Spring Festival, qualify? “I think it’s very tricky to talk about Chinese New Year films because it’s all about marketing and branding and how the film was labelled when first shown to the public,” says the University of Hong Kong’s Dr Fiona Law, whose PhD focused on the CNY movie genre.
Even if the boundaries of this genre are hazy, its history can be accurately traced back as far as the 1930s, to director Tang Xiaodan’s Bloom and Prosper. The film is sadly lost but surviving information explains that it was about about winning the lottery and was advertised specifically as a ‘Chinese New Year film’.
The themes of your typical Chinese New Year film have remained remarkably consistent ever since. The popular 1980s and 90s CNY series It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World is centred around winning the lottery in much the same way as Bloom and Prosper appears to have been 50 years earlier. Asked why money is so central to the genre, Dr Law posits: “Chinese New Year is a time for planning your future and Hongkongers are really money-minded. With money, you can do anything you want. It’s a hope or a fantasy about the future projected to audiences.”
Despite some repetitive themes, which include family bonding, couples finding love and consistently unsurprising happy endings, Chinese New Year movies are among the highest grossing films in Hong Kong box office history. Are they just bland blockbusters then, the Transfomers of local cinema? Definitely not – they have a serious side. In the years between 1984 – when Britain agreed to hand Hong Kong back to China – and 1997, ‘handover anxiety’ was a significant phenomenon. The increased popularity of Chinese New Year films can be seen as a reaction to Hongkongers’ apprehension. “People really had no idea what would happen after 1997,” says Dr Law. “And that uncertainty was turned into a certain hope. I think that explains why Stephen Chow was extremely popular – his jokes were a way to deal with that uncertainty.”
Despite their past popularity, the fad for CNY movies in Hong Kong seems to be fading. Ironically, the genre may be a victim of its own success. “Nowadays, these films are less successful because [previous ones] were too popular and too culturally significant,” explains Dr Law. “The original All’s Well, End’s Well – people really think it’s a classic, the kind which can’t be made nowadays. Those classics have become a kind of benchmark of a perfect past. Because of people’s nostalgia, it’s impossible to achieve that level of perfection again.”