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The Cinema of Lee Sun-fung


Why Lee Sun-fung? Because...
Director Lee Sun-fung made his mark in the 1950s and 60s, alongside eminent filmmakers of the wenyi genre such as Ng Wui, Lee Tit, Tso Kea and Chun Kim. As early as 1994, the Film Archive's planning office, then located in Tsimshatsui East, organised a tribute to Ng Wui, Lee Sun-fung and Lee Tit in a retrospective entitled Time for Tears. As a contribution to this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), our programme section will be presenting the retrospective 'Novel¡EDrama¡EMelodrama', putting on display archival Cantonese and Mandarin treasures from the 1950s and 60s in a series of film screenings and an exhibition during the festival. At the same time, we learned that Lingnan University will publish a manuscript on Hong Kong film and literature, including a detailed filmography. We have therefore chosen to focus our research and studies on a prolific director of the genre - Lee Sun-fung. Skilled in translating literary works to screen, Lee's adaptations encompassed works Chinese and Western, traditional and contemporary, highbrow and popular, and his achievements were widely acknowledged by fellow filmmakers. His three Ba Jin adaptations Spring (1953), It Was a Cold Winter Night (1955) and Human Relationships (1959), served well as starting points for examining the relationship between film and literature.

This book is made up of four sections: Essays, Director's Notes, Interviews and Filmography.

Cut to a wide shot of the historical era. Lee Sun-fung was born in 1909, on the eve of the founding of the Chinese Republic, in a country embroiled in political turmoil and social upheaval. The rough filmmaking journey Lee and his war-weary companions had to take was depicted in Stephanie Chung Po-yin's 'Reconfigurating the Southern Tradition - Lee Sun-fung and His Times' and Law Kar's 'Tracking Lee Sun-fung's Artistic Development'. Written in 1986 by Li Cheuk-to, 'A Preliminary Study of Lee Sun-fung' is one of the earliest studies of Lee's works published in Hong Kong. Eighteen years later it's still a solid piece to read and we are very glad that Li has updated the article for this publication. Professor Leo Lee Ou-fan swaps his scholarly gaze for a fan's peer at three of Lee works: The Lone Swan (1955), A Tale of Laughter and Tears (1957) and Rainbow (1960). Shu Kei probes into the adaptation of Ba Jin's Family and Spring by Lee and Ng Wui under the auspices of the legendary company Union and illustrates how words were transformed into images. Mary Wong traces the many splendoured adaptations of Zhang Henshui's Fate in Tears and Laughter in Hong Kong, where the romantic exploits of 'mandarin ducks and butterflies' found expressions in our very own concrete jungle. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango: Grace Ng's 'Unconventional Women' and Wong Sui-kei's essay on the L'homme sans qualitˆm complement each other like the way the celebrated screen couple Pak Yin and Ng Cho-fan match themselves in Lee Sun-fung's cinema. Grace re-discovers Blood-stained Azaleas on late night TV from the comfort of her couch, while Wong tracks down Lee's distant relatives in Western cinema, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman. Michael Lam enters Lee's costume-drama world under full license - distant childhood memories intertwined with present day viewing experience - and salvages long forgotten cinema classics from the musty closet. Sam Ho and I extend an invitation to the readers to a journey through Lee's long and colourful career. Lee's characters are often unfortunate souls who suffer their turbulent times, did his own films fare any better?.

When I first joined the Film Archive, I was informed by programmer Winnie Fu of the late director's collection preserved in the Archive, including photos and scrapbooks, donated by his son Sil-hong in 1999. Going through Lee's archive, I was most amused by the interviews in which the director talked about his self-invented film study tool - using a mini Leica camera to record film sequences shot-by-shot - in the time when videotapes and DVDs were unavailable to film enthusiasts. An old album of Lee's displays an array of stamp-sized black-and-white photos, neatly arranged by the related handbills. A family album unfolded snapshots of Lee and wife Lee Yuet-ching, actor Ng Cho-fan and actress Tsi Lo-lin taken during the location shooting of The Lone Swan in Japan. Wearing kimonos on a movie set, these are dedicated film professionals, but in everyday clothes, they are little more than a bunch of curious tourists. Recently, we had a chance to talk to Lee Sil-hong, who recounted to us amusing anecdotes during the shooting of Malaya Love Affair (1955): satay, a local delicacy, was a regular feature on the film's dining tables, but they often disappeared before scenes were completed - into the stomach of star Tsi Lo-lin! Lee's albums caught glimpses of the screen goddess, in her glamorous woollen overcoat, fur muffler and high heels, gleefully snacking at Japanese roadside food stalls like a spoiled child on the loose.

Among the artefacts we collected were tiny notebooks scribbled with Lee's notes, most of them penned in the early and mid-1950s, discussing drama, dˆmcoupage, and most interestingly, the director's reviews of his own works - an eye-opening read for any film researcher. His language is plain, honest, and perhaps unpolished, but his writings mirror the thoughts of the director and his generation of filmmakers on their quest to carve out a creative space in a conservative environment. Because the notes were not written for public eyes, we have taken the liberty to excerpt them and included them here in the section 'Lee Sun-fung on Lee Sun-fung'.

In 1982, Lee Sun-fung did an interview for Law Kar and Ku Siu-fung three years before his death. Their conversations centred on Ba Jin's literature (in particular, issues regarding adapting Wintry Night for the screen). The interview was subsequently reprinted in Big Thumb Bimonthly, China & Overseas Movie News, and the 16th Hong Kong International Film Festival Catalogue. To supplement information on Lee's early filmmaking years, we have extracted the article 'Getting to Know Veteran Hong Kong Director Lee Sun-fung', originally printed in Close-up Magazine. Furthermore, we have especially interviewed three close collaborators of the director - Tam Ning, Lee Sil-hong and Chow Chung. Tam Ning was only fifteen when she worked as Lee's continuity person in 1952. When their partnership terminated in 1960, she became a screenwriter in her own right and Lee's daughter-in-law. Lee Sil-hong, Lee's third son, started writing screenplays for his father since the late 1950s and later became a frequent collaborator. Chow Chung was Lee's favourite actor in his later period and formed the Modern Film Company with the father and son in the early 1970s. Their independent production The Loner (1972) was an important work in the last years of Lee's film career. Through the descriptions of Tam, Lee and Chow, we are blessed with a portrait of a gentle, easy-going person who happened to be a dedicated filmmaker.

The poster of this year's HKIFF features a stack of colourful snails. I have always taken my time when tackling tasks, and colleagues at the Film Archive had seized the moment to affectionately crown me as The Snail Queen. For this, I must thank illustrator Alice Mak for creating the snail image and not one of an electric-powered rabbit. I must also thank my colleagues for walking with me in my leisurely pace to put this publication together.

Wong Ain-ling
11 March 2004



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