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Game of Death
Bruce Lee in Game of Death

The last 50 years of Hong Kong cinema

Hong Kong cinema is arguably our city’s greatest cultural export. We look back at 50 years of local filmmaking

Written by
Douglas Parkes
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No other aspect of Hong Kong culture has had as much global impact as the city’s film industry. Its stars like Bruce Lee and Wong Kar-wai are revered around the world and its movies have been pivotal influences on everything from The Matrix to MoonlightIn case you’re not up on your cinematic history, here’s an introduction to the last 50 years of Hong Kong cinema and the industry’s glory days.

RECOMMENDED: Want to know more about local cinema? Hear the individual stories of a Hong Kong film editor, gaffer, sound designer and storyboard artist.

50 years of Hong Kong cinema

The 1970s

The 1970s

Hong Kong cinema started to come of age in the 1970s. The decade began with Bruce Lee and his fists of fury exploding onto the big screen in 1971 in The Big Boss. Sadly, just two years and three films later, he had passed away. Iconic as Lee was, it was actually 1973’s The House of 72 Tenants (pictured) which was to prove the most defining film of the era. Throughout the preceding decade, production of Cantonese films had plummeted from 211 releases in 1961 to just one in 1971 as Mandarin productions, perceived as more sophisticated, dominated. A riotous Canto comedy, 72 Tenants set new box office records – breaking those recently set by Lee – and confirmed the language of ordinary Hongkongers as the language of the city’s cinema.

The 1980s

The 1980s

The golden age of Hong Kong cinema, the 1980s saw local filmmakers move away from cheap Bruce Lee-inspired chopsocky flicks towards producing more creative and meaningful productions. The ‘new wave’, which had commenced in 1979 with the release of directorial debuts by future award-winners Tsui Hark and Ann Hui, rolled on. Chow Yun-fat rose to superstardom in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, his use of twin handguns and lighting a cigarette with a US$100 bill becoming symbols of the age. Elsewhere, local studios churned out hit after hit, whether centred on the life-threatening stunts of Jackie Chan and his stunt team or the massive crossover appeal of Cantopop icons like Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui, who starred opposite each other in Rogue (pictured).

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The 1990s

The 1990s

Anxiety surrounding what would happen when Hong Kong’s sovereignty passed from Great Britain to China on July 1 1997 had a tremendous influence on the local film industry. Stephen Chow (pictured) would emerge as the most popular actor and director of the decade, releasing a torrent of hit comedies like the Fight Back to School series that helped distract Hongkongers from ‘handover syndrome’ and their unease. Towards the end of the decade, the local film industry would begin to contract due to piracy, the 1997 Asian financial crisis and overexpansion, but director Wong Kar-wai, who won international acclaim with the breezy neon-lit Chungking Express, offered hope that Hong Kong cinema wouldn’t fade into irrelevancy.

The 2000s

The 2000s

The first years of the new century were among the best of times and the worst of times for Hong Kong cinema. In 2003, the Sars epidemic crippled production of films and was soon followed by Leslie Cheung’s devastating suicide in April and the equally untimely passing of Anita Mui in December. Still, the film industry was not down and out. The Infernal Affairs trilogy was a shot in the arm and the third in the series opened on 111 screens in December 2003 – the largest number ever allotted to one film in Hong Kong. Wong Kar-wai also delivered on his earlier promise with In the Mood for Love, a sumptuous romance quickly considered one of the best Hong Kong films ever made.

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The 2010s

The 2010s

Hong Kong now produces barely a fifth of the number of films compared to those released in the local film industry’s early 90s heyday. To support itself, local filmmaking has become increasingly entwined with the Mainland. That’s where the audiences are and that’s where the funding is, too. Although there is disquiet in certain circles over such close ties to China, this hasn’t stopped a new generation of provocative and talented filmmakers from emerging. The dystopian anthology 10 Years (pictured) might have been banned on the Mainland but that merely fuelled its popularity in Hong Kong and didn’t stop it winning Best Film at the 35th Hong Kong Film Awards. Veteran director Johnnie To shows no signs of slowing down either. A consistently quality filmmaker, To’s latest effort, Three, is as good as almost anything in his nearly 40-year career.

See the very best Hong Kong movies

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