What is the Hong Kong New Wave?

By the time the 1980s rolled around., Hong Kong cinema was popular the world over for its martial arts flicks or wuxia. Most Asian families during that time couldn’t afford a TV so the film industry had a huge local following. 

Capitalizing on this fame to spread the Hong Kong style in other genres of film, the Hong Kong New Wave of 1978s sought to show the world its unique way of making films.

What defines Hong Kong New Wave?

Hong Kong New Wave is a Chinese-language cinema movement where filmmakers strived to make authentic films. These movies touched on drama, romance, and many other themes, unconventional to what the world had come to expect from the typically action-packed Hong Kong film industry.

Some important names of the HK new wave include Yim Ho, Patrick Tam, Alex Cheung, Allen Fong, and Tsui Hark, among others. The budding filmmakers were right out of school by the late 1970s and are credited with playing considerable roles in the movement. 

All young and open to change, these creative minds understood the expression of film as an art rather than only as a means of revenue. They were willing to take risks and experiment with a combination of European styles of filming, which they learned from foreign film schools, and local finesse.

Intertwining ideas from both the East and the West, New Wave directors aimed to tear up the rule book. While mainland China had created a thriving cinema, which was at the time widely considered second only to Hollywood, these directors felt that the industry had become formulaic. Every film seemed to favor the wuxia genre.

The Hong Kong New Wave began by questioning the standards and metrics of local cinema, venturing into new possibilities away from what had become popular.

Some say that the HK New Wave faded somewhere in the early 2000s but another group believes we’re still in it. All in all, the movement is thought to have had two waves, one which dominated between 1970 and 1980 and the other that carried the flag henceforth. 

There are talks of a third wave but all signs point to nothing cooking in the kitchen. However, many of the HK New Wave directors are still practicing to date, creating films that have gone on to win prestigious awards. 

Elements of the Hong Kong New Wave 

Sharing of actors often sought from the music industry 

Hong Kong New Wave directors had a habit of using the same set of actors for various films and roles. For example, Maggie Cheung and Leslie Cheung were popular choices of the cast for director Wong Kar-Wai. 

Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express:

Leslie Cheung and Chow Yun Fat, on the other hand, were the go-to for John Woo during most of his productions. 

This sharing of actors stemmed from a closeness of filmmakers, who thrived in a tight-knit community where they extended a helping hand to each other. New wave directors weren’t that many during the early chapters of the revolution so everyone basically knew everyone else in the local scene. 

Hence cast recommendations would feature the same names, with a school of thought that only this group of talent could bring what these New Wave directors were looking for onto the big screen.

Most of these actors were huge names in Cantopop (Cantonese pop music) and brought their massive followings to the films they starred in. These directors would also collaborate to make films and share resources across different productions. 

Consequently, you’d have cases where a film and its parody would be released at the same time, with the same familiar faces. This was a first for not only Hong Kong but also the world at large. The movement laid its foundation upon shared actors, who were widely viewed as the personification of the revolution and all that it stood for.

A focus on Hong Kong culture and its challenges 

The new wave films were far from homogenous. While young directors would partner for productions, ideas would differ wildly from one movie to the next. Films varied greatly in terms of style and genre, only united by a common willingness to push the boundaries of normalcy at the time. Across the board though, there was an increased focus on the city’s culture and the British rule that shackled it. 

Many New Wave films deviated from mainland Chinese cinema, throwing out contemporary thematic yardsticks in favor of highly localized depictions of the country’s traditions. Most of the old movies till then had concentrated on the image of a happy and modern Hong Kong, turning a blind eye to the challenges of colonial society. 

These new movies went against the grain, opting for the less-traveled road that they believed captured the true essence of the city and the colonial problems at the time.

Delving back to the roots of contemporary society, New Wave films had an appreciation for an often-overlooked side of the culture as well. Local superstitions would influence plot blueprints immensely, with the storyline also featuring other nods to the heritage including festivals, altar rituals, and much more. 

Consequently, special effects and other creative cinematographic techniques became commonplace in a society that took great pride in its supernatural beliefs. 

Improvisational style of filmmaking and synchronous sound 

Some HK New wave directors would often shoot across random locations if they felt certain places or on-scene props would fit in with their ideas for the movie. Shooting permits were not as big a deal at the time as they are now, which favored this improvisational approach to location scouting. The fact that some New Wave films were shot outside of studios also added to this minimalist style of production. 

The improv extended beyond that though, with storylines often written in a haphazard manner. Plots jumped back and forth within complex story structures (often voiced by several characters) deviating from a linear order of things.

New Wave movies were also among the first to feature synchronous sound in Hong Kong Cinema. That refers to sound sources that characters, as well as the audience, can hear. The source of sound or music is explained by a device in the fictional world. Additionally, editing techniques were quite radical and there was a newfound love for slow-motion effects.

Notable Directors of the Hong Kong New Wave 

Stephen Chow 

Stephen Chow was born in 1962 as Stephen Chiau Sing Chi, a name he has since professionally changed in favor of his current one. He was influenced into film by another of the industry’s big names at the time, Bruce Lee, inspired by the latter’s Kung Fu masterpiece, The Big Boss. He studied acting at Hong Kong’s TVB and went on to host television shows before starring in upwards of 40 movies. 

Chow took his career to the next level with a directorial debut in 1993 when the Hong Kong New Wave was kicking into second gear. The Chinese consider him a phenomenon and his contributions to the movement most notably include the 2001 sports satire Shaolin Soccer.

The movie is in keeping with the vision of the New Wave which encouraged upcoming directors to experiment with new ideas and be themselves. Shaolin Soccer mixes a couple of Hong Kong’s cultural superstitions, combining supernatural martial arts to elevate the game of soccer into superhuman realms. 

The Shaolin monks are a revered part of the local culture, traversing 1500 years of history. Shaolin Soccer explores a religion so close to the heart of Hong Kongers and the Chinese in general, tapping into exaggerated cinematography to illustrate how powerful the people believe the Shaolin to be.

It is considered by many standards as one of the most successful New Wave films from the city of skyscrapers.

58-yeard old Stephen Chow has had a sterling career and is still active in the global and local film scene. He has kept in touch with his lighthearted side, with comedy and its variations remaining his preferred niche of directing.

Chow’s recent success came in the way of 2016’s sensational romantic comedy The Mermaid. The movie won many accolades and shattered several box office records on its way there. It is the highest-earning Chinese film, with the Mandarin-language comedy appealing to the city’s 7.5 million population in a country with more than a 1.3 billion citizens. 

Wong Kar-Wai 

Deviating sharply with his themes, Wong Kar-Wai built a name upon the pillars of the Hong Kong New Wave with his exploration of love and tragedy. He is a director best described by his fondness of bold, saturated hues that trademark his movies. 

Beyond the vivid cinematography, Wong’s works are also known for their atmospheric music and nonlinear narratives. He grew a fondness for jumbled-up storylines, which gave the audience a more active role in the experience. His unconventional approaches to filmmaking were inspired by the New Wave, propelling him to stardom within and without the country’s borders.

Wong Kar-Wai was born to a Chinese family in Shanghai and his early days in film involved soap opera screenwriting. His family moved to British-governed Hong Kong to escape the cultural revolution in mainland China. A media production training program was his entry into the industry with the talented director never having learned filmmaking formally in school. He majored in graphic design but loved watching movies as a kid, and they stirred the passion to create within him. 

As Tears Go By, released in 1988, was Wong’s first directorial film. It came at the height of the New Wave revolution and was a culmination of years of knocking at the door. New directors were making their way into the industry, and Wong’s connections in the sector saw a couple of opportunities open up for him.

Crime dramas were popular at the time and Wong Kar-Wai decided to try his hand in the niche but had a little more freedom to inject fresh ideas. He brought his own unique style and vision, crafting a new direction of gangster films that concentrated on the younger generation.

As Tears Go By features a conflicted and young protagonist torn between the triad and his cousin. The director’s casting involved Hong Kong’s young idols at the time, recruiting pop singers that brought a youthful vibe and appeal to the characters.

The film was his only foray into crime drama, and he began making more personal movies from then on. Days of Being Wild, his second film, kickstarted this new direction. The 62-year-old remains an active force in the film industry and has won many awards for his contribution to the local and international scene. 

Tsui Hark 

Tsui Hark was an influential Hong Kong New Wave personality, helping to produce and direct many films from both waves of the cinema movement. He is widely considered as the Chinese Steven Spielberg, standing out for his technical accomplishments and artistic mind. 

His characters were never outrightly defined by good or bad but were rather a mirror of flawed human beings who struggle to live up to everyday expectations. 

Like many HK New Wave directors, Tsui Hark learned filming abroad in the States before returning home in 1977. Before his return, he worked on an American documentary about the perception of the country and the US’s Chinatown. Tsui Hark started his Hong Kong career in television, working his way up to directing his first movie, The Butterfly Murders.

Constricted by a low budget and a cinema market hooked on wuxia, Hark was forced to get creative with his filming. The unconventional 1979 sci-fi about murderous insects was an emblem of the New Wave cinema, with the director heeding the call to think outside the box and not to be afraid to try the new. His venture into feature filmmaking would see him branded as one of the new-age directors destined to take the industry to new heights and directions. His first film borrowed a leaf from wuxia but repackaged it into a murder mystery with great technical accents.

72-year-old Tsui built a reputation in the horror and science fiction niche, exploring less tried niches in Hong Kong cinema. He followed up The Butterfly Murders with We’re Going to Eat You but it was his third film that generated the most buzz. 

Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind was riddled with political undertones and met with skepticism by the British colonial government. It was consequently heavily censored and another version entirely was released in 1981, downplaying the critical subtexts of the first. The movie is considered one of the breakthroughs of the Hong Kong New Wave, highlighting the plight of citizens when most filmmakers were afraid to.

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