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The Hong Kong - Guangdong Film Connection

Preface

Watching Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle (2004), I cried out loud when Yuen Qiu, a toothbrush dangling from her foaming lips, pushes open the window and shouts: 'Who stopped the water downstairs?' Her Landlady is nothing less than the reincarnation of the landlady, played by Tan Yuzhen, in Those 72 Tenants (1963). I was compelled to borrow a line from the girlfriend of McDull, Prince de la Bun: cool! Here I don't mean the 1973 Shaw Brothers film The House of 72 Tenants, directed by Chor Yuen, but the original one directed by Wang Weiyi in 1963 for Pearl River Film Studio. Originally a burlesque on the Shanghai stage, it was adapted for the screen with leftwing money and a studio under the banner of socialist ideology. The setting was changed to 1940s Guangzhou. In the 1970s, Shaw Brothers repackaged it, and the film resuscitated Cantonese cinema. More than three decades later, Stephen Chow went to Shanghai with American money to make Kung Fu Hustle and set up Pig Sty Alley in the former metropolis on the banks of the Yangtze. When the Axe Gang have the head of the Crocodile Gang (Feng Xiaogang) cornered, its boss remarks, 'While you were in the police station beating up the cops, your men had gone to learn Cantonese.' Typical Stephen Chow black humour, it reminds me of Hong Kong cinema in its early days.

In the 1920s and 30s, there were no 'Hong Kong films', only 'Chinese films'. But when Sit Kok-sin made the first Cantonese film Platinum Dragon (1933) for Unique Film Company of Shanghai and took Hong Kong, Macau, Southeast Asia and even the America market by storm, Cantonese was here to stay on the screen. Even the controversial attempt to ban Cantonese filmmaking in the 1930s failed to stifle it. It was once reported that Ruan Lingyu was going to part with United Photoplay Service and join Unique to star in a film recorded with the Movietone system (Guangzhou Ling Sing, No 31, 13th April 1932). The authenticity of the news cannot be confirmed, and Yuan had stayed in United Photoplay till the very end. If it had taken place, we could have heard her on the screen. She was Cantonese, and Unique would likely ask her to make Cantonese films. If we look carefully, film advertisements of early talkies of the 1930s were splattered with words like 'Cantonese' or 'Cantonese theatrical sector', and the term 'Hong Kong' was rarely seen, indicating the close relationship between Hong Kong and Guangdong. On the civilian level, the two places were almost one and the same. The 'Hong Kong identity' we frequently talk about today had yet to be born.

The close link between Guangzhou and Hong Kong cinemas is given a concise description in Zhou Chengren's 'The Interplay Between Guangzhou and Hong Kong Cinemas'. Lee Pui-tak, Stephanie Chung Po-yin and Han Yanli, on the other hand, explore early Cantonese cinema through the political, economic and cultural aspects of the relationships between Shanghai and Hong Kong, Mandarin and Cantonese, nationalism and language unification. They invariably mention the ban on Cantonese cinema in the 1930s, a controversial campaign with tangled strands of intrigues and complexities behind it. Many early filmmakers hailed from Guangdong and the Lai brothers Man-wai and Buk-hoi played a pivotal role in the development of both Chinese and Hong Kong cinemas. Many studies had been done on Lai Man-wai and this time we took the opportunity to interview his descendents on his education background and social life, which would be of interest to researchers. As for Lai Buk-hoi, his role in the reconstruction of Hong Kong cinema after the Great Guangzhou-Hong Kong Strike was acknowledged by Li Yizhuang, filling in a blank in the history of local cinema. Lo Ming-yau, who co-founded United Photography with the Lai brothers, was also a Cantonese. Born in Hong Kong, his film career took off in Beijing and reached its peak in Shanghai. However, it was largely their Guangzhou-Hong Kong connection that made United Photography possible, and Lo, in the end, also returned to his birthplace Hong Kong. Poshek Fu tries to rewrite Lo Ming-yau's career and Zhou Chengren examines the structure of United Photoplay, in the process investigating Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Shanghai on the larger map of Chinese cinema.

Located at the southern tip of the province, Hong Kong is a part of the Guangdong family. Even in the early years of the colonial era, there was hardly any difference in the way of life between Hong Kong and Guangdong. More coverage and more prominent space were given to Guangdong news than local happenings in Hong Kong newspapers of the 1920s and 30s. From their advertisements, we can see Cantonese opera stars and their troupes shuttling between Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou. Cantonese opera played a pivotal role in the development of Hong Kong cinema, its influence seen in subject matters, genres, as well as cast and crew. The Sit [Kok-sin]–Ma [Si-tsang] Rivalry went from stage to cinema, from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, and both returned to China after 1949. Unlike his rival Ma Si-tsang, Sit Kok-sin left too few films for study. From Ma's classic The Judge Goes to Pieces (1948), we are certain of his influence on Stephen Chow. His other classic The Encounter Between the Prince of Thieves and the Lovelorn Monk (aka Bumbling Father-in-law) put us of the Film Archive in stitches. He and Lau Hark-suen play an odd couple, the latter in a gender-bending turn. Perhaps only actors of their generation, with opera clown training in their background, can do comedy with such skilled abandon. Koo Siu-sun gives a detail analysis on how Ma Si-tsang enriched local cinema with his operatic art. Law Kar also sets his eyes on a colourful figure, Yam Wu-fa. 1930s Guangzhou, Yam was a journalist, pulp-fiction author and filmmaker. Landing in Hong Kong, he continued his discipline-crossing way as tabloid publisher, pop novelist, film critic and filmmaker, a truly multi-talented wizard of popular culture. Airwave novelist Li Ngaw was born in Guangzhou and educated in Hong Kong. He suffered during the war but took Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou by storm with his radio plays after the war. His own life story was stranger than the tales he told and conducting an oral history interview with him was like being treated to a reality show. Linda Lai compares the films adapted from his novels to his interview, and it makes interesting reading. Wang Weiyi was one of the southbound literati from Shanghai, and with the support of leftist filmmaker Cai Chosang, he made Tears of the Pearl River (1950), a classic of Hong Kong cinema. Later he went back to the mainland and took part in the establishment of Pearl River Film Studio. He was one of the key figures in South China cinema. Donna Chu visited him in Guangzhou and filled in a part of our missing memory with valuable first-hand sources.

Memory is like water, shaped by its holder. Our Guangzhou impressions are the present in the films of the 1940s, just like yesterday in 1950s films and begin to get murky in 1960s works. Further down the decades and it would take a dose of imagination. Such is the way with Guangzhou the city; such is also the way for Guangdong legends. In the rooftop amusement parks of the 1930s and 40s, the beauty of Songs of the Peach Blossom River and the heroine Mu Guiying co-existed peacefully. Chan Mung-kat, in his many reincarnations, had long ago found his way from Guangzhou into our collective consciousness, but recently, draped in fashionable mo lay tau, he had again found himself back in his former stomping ground, the mainland. Wong Fei-hung started out with a touch of thug-in-the-hood, but quickly assumed the sternness of a master. Given a new lease on life in the 1970s, he had gone global of late. Cinephiles Grace Ng, Sam Ho and Po Fung lead the charge to rummage through the fictional world of cinema to unearth things we had long forgotten. With Hong Kong geographically part of the South China region often referred to as Lingnan, Reeve Wong, who has gone to work in Beijing for years, minces no word in declaring: there is zero distance between our cinema and Lingnan culture, a controversial proposition bound to draw responses from all sides. Ching May-bo, on the other hand, talks about language, not cinema. She has not submitted her study to the wrong volume, for what made Hong Kong cinema stands out in the history of Chinese cinema was the marginalisation, openness and ever-changing colourfulness of its tongue.

In past studies of Hong Kong cinema, we only focused on the influence of Shanghai and overlooked the close ties we had with our very own Guangzhou. Thanks to Law Kar for coming up with the programme Pearl River Delta: Movie. Culture. Life, jumpstarting the study in this area. Our work has been immensely helped by research done on the early filmmakers by Yu Mo-wan for the Film Archive last year. First hand reminiscences of cinema predecessors are the most valuable material for researchers. I had no training in history researches and I learned much from talks with the historians involved in this project. I am especially grateful for their participation, despite their full schedules. It is always fun talking and writing about films with fellow film lovers. Last but not the least, my thanks to my colleagues, full time and part time, for their total commitment and frequent reminders of what I missed or overlooked. Thank you.


Wong Ain-ling
9th March 2005

 

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