In 1978, the Hong Kong International Film Festival organised a retrospective entitled 'Cantonese Cinema Retrospective (1950-1959)' and published the first more or less comprehensive filmography of Cantonese films produced in the 1950s in Hong Kong. The following year, the Festival published a filmography of Mandarin films from 1946-77. In 1987, it published a revised filmography of Cantonese films from 1946-59. These three publications provided a framework with which to study the Hong Kong cinema in the 1950s.
Film critic Sek Kei/Shi Qi addressed the issue of dialect cinema as early as 19741. Dialect films constitute a unique part of Chinese cinema, one that is rarely found in other film industries around the world. Putting aside the genre of opera films, Hong Kong film industry has produced Chaozhou-dialect films and Amoy-dialect films. The Taiwanese film industry had also produced a significant number of Taiwanese-dialect films, but these dialect cinemas could not rival the longevity of the Cantonese-dialect cinema of Hong Kong. Even today, Hong Kong films are primarily spoken in Cantonese.
In 1937, the Nationalist government's Central Film Censorship Committee announced its decision to ban the production of Cantonese films, and the importation of Cantonese films into the mainland on the ground of unifying the Chinese languages which took effect on 1 July that year2. However, even as its market was restricted, Cantonese-dialect films dominated the pre-war Hong Kong film industry. When the anti-Japanese war erupted, many filmmakers relocated to Hong Kong from the occupied Shanghai. These wartime migrants exerted a huge impact on the development of the film industry. Hong Kong benefited from the influx of capital and human talent, which allowed the film industry to break through its local barriers. Before the war, the development of Mandarin cinema in Hong Kong was rather restricted; but after the war, Jiang Boying's Great China Film Company and Li Zuyong's Yung Hwa Motion Picture Industries Limited, both companies of grandeur scale, established the foundations for Hong Kong to reinvent itself as a prosperous Mandarin cinema outside Shanghai. In the 1950s, Hong Kong was the home base for both the Mandarin and Cantonese cinemas, on the one hand, inheriting the legacy of the Shanghai cinema, and on the other hand, developing filmic images and culture unique to Hong Kong. As such, the Hong Kong cinema provided an invaluable space for the development of a multi-faceted Chinese cinema.
1) To speak of Mandarin cinema in the early and mid-1950s, one cannot fail to mention the names of Zhang Shankun and Yuen Yang-an/Yuan Yang'an. Zhang assisted Li Zuyong to set up Yung Hwa in 1947. Two years later, after a falling out with Li, Zhang co-founded with Yuen Great Wall Pictures Corporation. The momentum for developing a Mandarin film industry was established but Zhang and Yuen departed company when the finances and administration of Great Wall became influenced by events happening in China. Yuen stayed in the restructured Great Wall Movie Enterprises Ltd, which became identified with left-wing tendencies. The company employed directors such as Yue Feng, Li Pingqian, Cheng Bugao, and cultivated acting talents such as Hsia Moon/Xia Meng, Shek Hwei/Shi Hui, and Fu Che/Fu Qi. Zhang went on to create his own production company, Hsin Hwa Motion Picture Company, fostering exchanges with Japan and learning the art of colour photography. In 1956, Hsin Hwa's Songs of the Peach Blossom River/Taohua Jiang reinvigorated the trend of Mandarin musicals and introduced a new star, Chung Ching/Zhong Qing, nicknamed 'Little Wild Cat'.
Another major contributor to Hong Kong cinema in the 1950s was director Zhu Shilin. He came to Hong Kong after the war, joining Great China and then Yung Hwa. In 1948, he directed Sorrows of the Forbidden City/Qinggong Mishi. In 1950, he co-founded Dragon-Horse (Loon-Ma) Films with director Fei Mu. After Fei Mu's death, Zhu founded Feng Huang Motion Picture Co, where he made his masterpieces Festival Moon/Zhongqiu Yue (1953), Between Fire and Water/Shui Huo Zhi Jian (1955), The Eternal Love/Tong Ming Yuanyang (1960) and Garden of Repose/Guyan Chunmeng (1964). All these films demonstrated that Zhu's career was going from strength to strength. In making them, Zhu was also at the same time fostering new directing and acting talent. 1952 was an important year in the Hong Kong film world. That year, the Hong Kong government deported ten members of the left-wing film industry back to China. The same year, China announced that its market would be closed to Hong Kong films. This was a huge blow to the Mandarin film industry though not to the Cantonese cinema. Great Wall, Feng Huang and the Cantonese left-wing affiliate Sun Luen Film Company began to form a united front to become the hub of the left-wing film industry.
The following year, Asia Pictures was established with funding from American sources. Its managing director was Zhang Guoxing. Asia's most important films included Tang Huang's Tradition/Chuantong (1955), Bu Wancang's The Long Lane/Chang Xiang (1956), and Tu Guangqi's Halfway Down/Ban Xialiu Shehui. In October 1953, a group of Mandarin film personalities including Wang Yuen-lung/Wang Yuanlong, Zhang Shankun, Hu Jinking and Yan Youxiang, organised a troupe to entertain the troops in Taiwan. This marked the first time that the Nationalist government had received a film team from overseas since it went into exile in Formosa3. Three years later, the Hong Kong and Kowloon Filmmakers Free General Association Limited was established (renamed Hong Kong and Kowloon Cinema & Theatrical Enterprise Free General Association Limited the following year, this name was changed in 1997 to Hong Kong Cinema & Theatrical Association Limited). The Hong Kong film world was since then divided into two segregated left and right camps.
2) In 1955, the Malaysian tycoon Loke Wan-tho/Lu Yuntao took over Yung Hwa Motion Picture Studios. The next year, Loke established Motion Picture & General Investment Co Ltd (MP & GI) to manage his film production activities in Hong Kong based on the Hollywood model. The studio employed Western-educated artistes and intellectuals, including Stephen Soong/Song Qi, Robert Chung/Zhong Qiwen, Evan Yang /Yi-Wen, Doe Ching/Tao Qin, Eileen Chang/Zhang Ailing, and Nellie Chin Yu/Qin Yu. Its acting talent included Linda Lin Dai, Grace Chang/Ge Lan, Lucilla You Min, Jeanette Lin Tsui/Lin Cui, Julie Yeh Feng/Ye Feng, Helen Li Mei, Kelly Lai Chen/Lei Zhen, Peter Chen Ho/Chen Hou, Roy Chiao/Qiao Hong, etc. Its productions The Battle of Love/Qingchang Ru Zhanchang (1957), Mambo Girl/Manbo Nülang (1957), Our Sister Hedy/Si Qianjin (1957), Her Tender Heart/Yunü Siqing (1959), Calendar Girl/Longxiang Fengwu (1959), Our Dream Car/Xiangju Meiren (1959), exuding modernity and youth, inherited the tradition of urban comedy and melodrama that budded in the Shanghai cinema, exemplified by films such as Long Live the Wife/Taitai Wansui (1947), The Barber Takes a Wife-Jiafeng Xuhuang (1947) and Sorrow and Joys of a Middle-Aged Man/Aile Zhongnian (1948). Unfortunately for MP & GI, Loke Wan-tho, his wife, and other high level executives of the company (including Wang Zhibo, Zhou Hailong), were killed in an air disaster in 1964.
Back in 1957, Run Run Shaw/Shao Yifu came to Hong Kong to manage the restructured Shaw Brothers, and the construction of the gigantic Shaw studio was underway. Run Run Shaw hired a huge corps of multi-faceted talent to make varied kinds of genre films, including the period costume films and the huangmei diao operetta films. In subject matter and tendency, these pictures recalled the folktale period films that Unique Film Productions (aka Tianyi) was making in Shanghai in the 1920s. At the end of the 1950s, Shaw and MP & GI dominated the Mandarin film world. Apart from the left-wing companies such as Great Wall and Feng Huang, which could still maintain production, many small companies had to close down. In 1959 alone, out of the 79 Mandarin films released, MP & GI was responsible for 18 and Shaw 16 - nearly half the total output. Great Wall and Feng Huang together released 17 films. The records show that Shaw Bros' The Kingdom and the Beauty/Jiangshan Meiren (1959), directed by Li Han-hsiang/Li Hanxiang and starring Linda Lin Dai, grossed $406,000, putting it at the top of the box office chart for both Chinese and Western films. Doe Ching's Calendar Girl took the number two position but its earnings were only half of The Kingdom and the Beauty's.4 It was evident that Shaw emerged as the winner in the competition between the two Mandarin majors.
1) In comparison with Mandarin films, the market for Cantonese films was a relatively limited one. This explains why the loss of China as a market was a much more serious below to Mandarin cinema than to Cantonese cinema. In Hong Kong, the Cantonese cinema had an in-built advantage of geography. In 1950, the theatre circuits showing Cantonese films increased from two to three. This was maintained throughout the decade, entailing the steady supply of Cantonese films to the theatres. The audience for Cantonese cinema was composed mainly of the popular masses. Inferior and mediocre martial arts and opera genre films flooded the market. In 1952, the actor Ng Cho-fan/Wu Chufan led a movement in the film industry agitating for the division of opera and screen actors. This brought about the establishment of The Union Film Enterprise Ltd, which had a profound influence on the development of the Cantonese cinema.
The spirit of The Union could be traced as far back as 1949, the year when a 'clean-up movement' was in progress and the South China Film Industry Workers Union was established. This signalled the unity of screen actors and their aspirations for creativity in view of the challenge posed by the primacy of opera actors who were hired to appear as screen actors. The Union, the Union affiliates, and Sun Luen which shared fraternal links and the same creative spirit as The Union, produced many outstanding films, such as the Ba Jin's trilogy, Family/Jia (1953, written and directed by Ng Wui/Wu Hui), Spring/Chun (1953, written and directed by Lee Sun-fung/Li Chenfeng), and Autumn/Qiu (1954, directed by Chun Kim/Qin Jian); also literary adaptations such as Madam Wan/Yun Niang (1954, directed by Ng Wui) and It Was a Cold Winter Night/Han Ye (1955, written directed by Lee Sun-fung), as well social melodramas like In the Face of Demolition/Weilou Chunxiao (1953, directed by Lee Tit/Li Tie), Mutual Understanding/Jiajia Huhu (1954, directed by Chun Kim), Parents' Hearts/Fumu Xin (1955, directed by Chun Kim), and Eternal Love/Tianchang Dijiu (1955, directed by Lee Tit).Lee Sun-fung, Lee Tit, and Nu Wui were the Cantonese cinema's most accomplished directors of the period, while Chun Kim represented the rise of the first young generation of the postwar Cantonese cinema. The works of these directors reflected the realist tradition of Chinese cinema, focusing on the human relationships in society. The films also made stars out of Pak Yin/Bai Yan, Ng Cho-fan, Tsi Lo-lin/Zi Luolian, Mui Yee/Mei Qi, Cheung Ying/Zhang Ying, Wong Man-lei/Huang Manli, Ma Si-tsang/Ma Shizeng, Hung Sin Nui/Hong Xian Nü, Siu Yin Fei/Xiao Yan Fei, Cheung Wood-yau/Zhang Huoyou, etc. This period could be summed up as a 'golden era' of Cantonese cinema.
2) In 1955, Chun Kim established the Kong Ngee Company with funding from Singaporean-Malaysian businessman Ho Kai-wing/He Qirong. In an interview published in the 1960s, Chun Kim divided Cantonese cinema into three periods:1/ pre-Union period, 2/ post-Union period, 3/ post-Kong Ngee period.5 Although it may be too much of a generalisation, the rationale behind such a schematic division of Cantonese cinema may be grasped if one is to put it in the context of the 1950s. Kong Ngee represented a new life force then. The company's first production was The Rouge Tigress/Yanzhi Hu (1955), which starred the up-and coming actors Patrick Tse Yin/Xie Xian, Patsy Kar Ling/Jia Ling, Nam Hung/Nan Hong, Wu Fung/Hu Feng, and Kong Suet/Jiang Xue. In the conservative Cantonese film industry, the use of new, young actors was quite a revolution. In addition, Chun introduced a modern, middle-class aura to the traditional melodrama genre. Kong Ngee also cultivated its rank of new writing and directorial talent, as represented by Chor Yuen/Chu Yuan, who worked as Chun's assistant director on Autumn Comes to Crape Myrtle Garden/ Ziwei Yuan De Qiutian (1958), and made his debut as director-cum-screenwriter with The Natural Son/Hupan Cao (1959), Chor Yuen went on to a distinguished career in the 1960s and 1970s, working in both Cantonese and Mandarin films.
Though MP & GI and Shaw were eyeing on the Mandarin cinema market, they were equally keen on carving out a niche in Cantonese films. As a matter of fact, the first film produced by International Films Distributing Agency (later restructured as MP & GI ) was a Cantonese film My Wife, My Wife/Yu Zhi Qi (1955) directed by Tso Kea/Zhuo Ji. Tso directed the studio's most outstanding Cantonese films Love Lingers On/Hun Gui Lihentian (1957), The Sorrowful Lute/Pipa Yuan (1957) and Memories of Love/Meiren Chunmeng (1958), all displaying Tso's authentic style of an auteur. Shaw established its Cantonese film division in 1957, overseen by Chow Sze-luk/Zhou Shilu. Its stable of Cantonese actors included Patricia Lam Fung/Lin Feng, Pearl Au Ka-wai/Ou Jiahui, Cheung Ying-choi/Zhang Yingcai, and Lung Kong/Long Gang. These young talents befitted the subject matter of westernised youth dramas and the films were market -oriented.
3) In the 1950s, the Cantonese cinema produced a great number of melodramas, but apart from these, the most popular films belonged to the genres of martial arts, comedy, and Cantonese opera.
In the early 1950s, the Cantonese cinema went through a brief martial arts craze, remaking many of the 1920s and 1930s classics such as Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery/Huoshao Honglian Si (1950 and Fong Kong Heroine/Huangjiang Nüxia (1950). The craze subsided in around 1953 and 1954. It was reported that in 1954, about 40 martial arts films were shelved. In contrast, the 'Wong Fei-hung series' directed by Wu Pang/Hu Peng and starring Kwan Tak-hing/Guan Dxing enjoyed enormous popularity. In the 1950s, over 60 Wong Fei-hung films were made. In 1956 alone, 25 Wong Fei-hung films were released. The popularity of the series paved the way for the rise of the kung fu genre. In 1958, Emei Film Company produced Story of the Vulture Conqueror/Shediao Yingxiong Zhuan (1958), Sword of Blood and Valour/Bixue Jian (1958), and Story of White-Haired Demon Girl/Baifa Monü Zhuan (1959), all adapted from the new school martial arts novels. This spearheaded the new school martial arts genre in Hong Kong cinema, which climaxed in the 1960s.
The tradition of the Cantonese comedy is an evergreen one. Apart from relatively meticulously crafted comedies such as Ah Chiu Is Getting Married/Achao Jiehun (1958), Money/Qian(1959), Feast of a Rich Family/Haomen Yeyan (1959), and The Chair/Jinshan Dashao (1959), the vast majority of Cantonese comedies are populist farces and slapstick with somewhat slipshod production standards. However, because of their populism, these films are closer to the pulse of the masses, forming a strong contrast to the more sophisticated, middle-class Mandarin comedies. Some examples of Cantonese farces attuned to the lower depths are the 'Broker Lai series' released in 1950, A Comet of Laughter Lands on Earth/Xiaoxing Jiang Diqiu (1952), Crossroads/Shizi Jietou (1955), My Kingdom for a Husband/Xuangong Yanshi (1957), Two Fools in Paradise/Liangsha You Tiantang (1958), and the 'Mr Wong series' (1959). The Cantonese comedies rely heavily on a host of brilliant comedians: Leung Sing-po/Liang Xingbo, Sun Ma Si-tsang/Xin Ma Shizeng, Yee Chau-shui/Yin Qiushui, Tang Kei-chen/Deng Jichen, Tam Lan-hing/Tan Lanqing, Tang Bik-wan/Deng Biyun, etc. Interestingly, many of these actors came from a Cantonese opera background but are now remembered as the mainstays of Cantonese screen comedy. This betrays the close relationship between opera and cinema, a unique association that is found only in Cantonese cinema. The division between opera and screen stars alluded to earlier on was not at all lasting. In 1953, Ma Si-tsang and Hung Sin Nui, both opera stars, joined the ranks of The Union. In 1956, when the Cantonese cinema world joined forces to make Backyard Adventures of which the proceeds went to the late Yee Chau-shui's family, The Union invited opera stars to participate.
The Cantonese musical and opera genre was one of the most popular and important film genres in the 1950s and 1960s. On a rough estimate, more than 500 opera films were produced in the 1950s, equivalent to one third of the total output. The musical genre emerged in the early 1950s, comprising both modern-dress and period-costume films. Many were musical comedies, such as A Bachelor's Love Affair/Guanggun Yinyuan (1953), starring Leung Sing-po and Leung Mo-sheung/Liang Wuxiang, and A Ton of Gold/Huangjin Wanliang (1954), starring Sun Ma Si-tsang and Tam Lan-hing. There were also adaptations of folk legends and muyu (or wooden clapper) books. Films directly adapted from Cantonese operas were relatively rare in this period, and it was not until the mid-1950s that the genre of Cantonese opera films approximating the theatrical opera style started to become popular. Examples are Love in a Dangerous City/Weicheng Jiandie (1955), starring Chan Fei-nung/Chen Feinong and Mak Bing-wing/Mai Bingrong; and Kwan-ti, God of War/Guan Gong Yuexia Shi Diao Chan (1956), starring Kwan Tak-hing and Tang Bik-wan. The opera film genre really took off in the late 1950s, with some of the most distinguished opera stars featured in timeless Cantonese opera films: Fong Yim-fun/Fang Yanfen in Snow in June/Liuyue Xue (1959) and The Story of Wong Bo-chuen/Wang Baochuan (1959), Yam Kim-fai/Ren Jianhui and Pak Suet-sin/Bai Xuexian in The Legend of Purple Hairpin/Zichai Ji (1959) and Princess Cheung Ping/Dinü Hua (1959), Yu Lai-zhen/Yu Lizhen in The Story of Muk Kwai-ying/Shandong Zajiao Mu Guiying (in two parts, 1959)
Apart from the Cantonese and Mandarin cinemas, the Hong Kong cinema was also the home base for the Amoy-dialect and Chaozhou-dialect film industries. Amoy films were particularly significant as their output in 1958-59 was almost on a par with the Mandarin film output. The Amoy cinema's most important director was But Fu/Bi Hu. Interestingly, the industry also employed directors such as Ma Xu Weibang who was an important filmmaker in the 30s and 40s, as well as Wang Tianlin before he joined MP & GI. The actors included Lu Hong, Lu Fen, Huang Ying, Bai Yun, Jiang Fa, Wang Qinghe and Xiao Juan (aka Ivy Ling Bo, who later became a sensation in both Hong Kong and Taiwan in the 1960s). It was when working on this filmography volume that I came to recognise the importance of the Amoy-dialect films, though the vast majority of these films were exported to Southeast Asian countries. In the late 1960s, Cantonese, Amoy and Chaozhou dialect films were on the wane-another sign of the complexity of the Hong Kong film industry and its continuing saga, which will be told in the next two volumes of the Hong Kong Filmography covering the 1960s.
On the domestic front, Cantonese films have always dominated the market. In 1957 and 1958, statistics showed that in the theatrical business, Cantonese films offered the most stable and outstanding business.6 However, in cultural terms, Mandarin films clearly had the edge. This was evident in the tendency to exclude Cantonese films from selection in the Southeast Asia Film Festival (renamed the Asian Film Festival from 1957). Only Mandarin films were deemed suitable to represent Hong Kong cinema. In 1956, Ng Cho-fan condemned the rejection of Cantonese films for participation in the Festival.7 The transformation of Hong Kong cinema through language aptly reflects the social and cultural psyches of Hong Kong.
When the 1950s films of Hong Kong cinema unroll before our eyes, their images bear witness to the attempts of Hong Kong people to adjust to the rhythm of life after experiencing great turbulence. The great majority of the images are in black and white, but it was also the beginning of colour photography. Until 1957, making colour films was a difficult proposition. Part of the problem was the backwardness of the studio set-up but even when colour films were produced, there were no processing laboratories in Hong Kong. The exposed colour negative had to be dispatched to Japan, England or West Germany for processing, adding to the expense of production. In 1959, two most successful films at the box office were The Kingdom and the Beauty and Calendar Girl, both films made in colour. The end of the black and white era was nearing. Hong Kong society was rapidly changing, and so was the Hong Kong cinema. Looking back at this cinema today, we can see the complex and multi-faceted nature of Hong Kong Society and its film industry . The special characteristics of Hong Kong culture today can be sourced to the cinema of the 1950s.
1. See Sek Kei, 'The Unusual History of Cantonese Cinema' ('Yueyupin De Qite Lishi'), Nanbei Ji, Hong Kong, No 47, 16 April 1974.
2. Yu Mo-wan, Anecdotes of Hong Kong Cinema (Xianggang Tianying Shihua), Vol 2, 1930-1939, Hong Kong: Sub-Culture Ltd, 1997, p 159.
3. Tso Kuei-fang and Yao Liqun (eds), Tong Yuejuan: Memories, Pictures and Accompanying Essays (Tong Yuejuan: Huiyilu Ji Tuwen Zhiliao Huibian), Taipei; Council for Cultural Affairs of the Executive Yuan, and Chinese Taipei Film Archive, 2001, p 103.
4. See Kei Shang-tong, 'My MP and GI Days', The Cathay Story, Hong Kong : Hong Kong Film Archive, 2002, and 'Hong Kong's Mandarin Films - a Half-Year Summary' ('Gang Zhi Guoyupian Bannian Jie'), in New Life Evening Post, 20 September 1959.
5. 'Interview with Chun Kim: Sidelights' ('Qin Jian Fangwen Ze Ji'), The Chinese Student Weekly, Hong Kong, 29 April 1966.
6. See 'The Changes and Development in the Film Market' ('Yingpian Shichang De Bianhua Yu Fazhan'), in Ta Kung Pao, 3 March 1958, and 'The Hong Kong Film Market, 1958' ('Yi Jiu Wu Ba Xianggang Dianying Shichang'), in The New Evening Post, 19 March 1959.
7. Ng Cho-fan took exception to the fact that Cantonese films were rejected without any reason: 'I will strongly deny the view that the quality of Cantonese films is below par if that is the reason for their rejection. There are good Cantonese films, such as It Was a Cold Winter Night, Spring, Autumn, and the recent The Lone Swan that was rejected. I can boldly say that in terms of production standards, directing, acting, and box office performance, Cantonese films are not worse than the films that have been selected from various countries in the film festival. 'See 'Cantonese Film Personality Condemns Rejection of Cantonese Films in Film Festival' ('Yingzhan Ju Yueyupian Canjia, Yueyu Yingren Shen Biao Fenkai'), in Sing Sian Yit Pao, Thailand, 22 June 1959.