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Monographs of Hong Kong Film Veterans 2
An Age of Idealism: Great Wall & Feng Huang Days


Preface

Since 1996, the Hong Kong Film Archive has conducted over 200 oral history interviews. Last year we published Hong Kong Here I Come, the first title of our Monographs of Hong Kong Film Veterans series. From the remembrances of those filmmakers, we can see the countless ties between the cinemas of Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong cinema has always been as integral part of Chinese cinema, but, because of political and ideological reasons, Chinese film historians had often neglected Hong Kong. Such indifference enjoyed a reversal in recent years, when a new interest in Hong Kong films was found, with quite a number of books published on various aspects. Conversely, Hong Kong film critics had also been resistant to establishing ties to the grand historical traditions of China, working hard to formulate an independent local indigenous perspective. The retrospective section of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, though, had done a lot of work in this area throughout the years, such as Hong Kong Cinema Survey 1946-1968 (1979), A Comparative Study of Post-War Mandarin and Cantonese Cinema (1983), The China Factor in Hong Kong Cinema (1990) and Cinema of Two Cities: Hong Kong - Shanghai (1994).

An Age of Idealism, the second title of the series, continues the direction of the first. Through interviews with nine filmmakers, a portrait of the relationship between the two cinemas emerges. They are Lu Yuanliang, a pioneer in early sound films; Shu Shi, who was deported by the Hong Kong Government in the early 50s under dubious circumstances; Wei Wei, the graceful heroine hailed from the classic Spring in a Small Town (1948); actor, director and scriptwriter Bao Fong; Hisa Moon, dubbed as the 'Big Princess' of Great Wall Movie Enterprises Ltd; the renowned comedy actor-cum-director Hu Siao-fung; scriptwriter Chu Hak, who endured an up-and-down career; famed cinematographer Lo Kwan-hung; and Chu Hung, the hottest startlet of Feng Huang (Phoenix) Motion Picture Co. Each, for different reasons, joined the left-wing companies Great Wall and Feng Huang in the 50s and was thus labelled 'left-wing filmmakers'. Many in Hong Kong cringe at the mention of the word 'left'. But during the turbulent time, leftist beliefs represented hope for this group of filmmakers - for the future of China and of humankind. What does 'left' entail? How did these filmmakers realise the spirit of their times? How did they find their place between idealism and reality? After all the twists and turns, how do they regard their past? In their remembrances, abstract concepts become concrete. 'Leftist filmmakers' are in fact not fearsome political animals but regular people with ordinary emotions.

Of the three major left-wing companies, we are only dealing with Great Wall and Feng Huang in this volume. Because of space limitations, Sun Luen Film Company, which produced Cantonese films, had to wait. Efforts to conduct interviews with several important Great Wall and Feng Huang personalities such as Shek Hwei and her husband Fu Che fell through. The couple was jailed without trail by the Hong Kong Government in 1967 for their anti-British political activism. Zhu Shilin was the soul of Feng Huang, a figure frequently mentioned in other interviews. He passed away in 1967 but fortunately his daughter and son, Zhu Feng and Zhu Yan, published Zhu Shilin and Cinema in 1999, providing a lot of precious information that fills the void.1 Yuen Yang-an is a key figure of Great Wall's early years but left the company in 1957 to form Sun Sun Film Enterprises, Ltd. His role is nonetheless often neglected by literature on this period of history.2 Despite interviewing his wife Su Yansheng, daughter Mao Mei and eldest son-in-law George Shen, we find Shen's column, 'Filmdom Anecdotes', serialised in the Hong Kong Economic Journal in 1997, more informative and have thus decided to include the article in this volume.

From Yung Hwa to Great Wall

After World War II, the situation in China remained unstable. Shanghai filmmakers started pouring into Hong Kong. In 1947, Li Zuyong established Yung Hwa Motion Picture Industries Limited in Hong Kong with the help of veteran producer Zhang Shankun. The company's debut, The Soul of China (Bu Wancang, 1948), is an epic with a budget of over HK$1 million. It was followed by Sorrows of the Forbidden City (Zhu Shilin, 1948), another large-scale production that exemplifies Yung Hwa's lofty goals. At the same time, a group of left-wing filmmakers who came to Hong Kong for various reasons - historical, political or otherwise - split to form several companies with progressive intentions. These outfits worked closely with each other towards a shared ideal and they included Daguangming, Nanqun, Nanguo, Dajiang, and Minsheng.

By 1949, clashes of opinions between Li and Zhang resulted in Zhang going off on his own to establish Great Wall Pictures Corporation. As in his Yung Hwa days, Zhang ran things from behind the scene. Lu Yuanliang, who served as General Manager of the Clearwater Bay Studio in the 60s and had worked with Zhang in Shanghai and with Li and Zhang at Yung Hwa, offers a frank evaluation of both men in this interview here.3 Within a year and a half, Great Wall released a number of widely noticed films, including A Forgotten Woman (1949), Blood Will Tell (1949), The Haunted House (1949), Fury in Their Heart (1950), and A Strange Woman (1950). But by then, the situation in the Mainland had changed drastically. Market niche once claimed by Great Wall, now besieged by poor finances and personnel differences, suffered. The company also went through changes. Zhang left in 1950 and the company was reorganised as Great Wall Movie Enterprises Ltd. On this matter, Zhang's widow Tong Yuejuan and Yuen's family have very different views. Tong maintains that Zhang was kicked out because of political reasons, while the Yuens suggest that Zhang and Yuen went their separate ways because of money matters.4 The Chin Chin Screen, published in Shanghai in the 50s, has extensive coverage of Great Wall's reorganisation.5 According to the magazine, the restructured Great Wall, with financial support from shipping magnate Lü Jiankang, was headed by Yuen, who recruited Sima Wensen as his script adviser and was assisted by Ta Kung Pao manager Fei Yimin. The left-wing background of the new Great Wall was clearly established.

The Birth of Feng Huang

Over at Yung Hwa, with Zhang's departure, the company had lost its soul. It was further plagued by budgetary problems and a labour dispute. Some filmmakers, looking for a way out and driven by their progressive beliefs, formed 50th Year Motion Pictures, Inc. Shu Shi, in his interview, shares his memories with us regarding this development. 50th Year is different from Daguangming, Nanqun and Nanguo in that it was a co-operative enterprise, with its labour force serving as capital.6 In one year of existence, the company made two films, The Fiery Phoenix (scr: Sima Wensen; dir: Wang Weiyi, 1951) and Witch, Devil, Man (Gu Eryi, Bai Chen, Shu Shi, 1952), and the success it enjoyed likely provided inspiration for future co-operative ventures like Feng Huang and The Union Film Enterprise Ltd. However, like other small companies with progressive designs, 50th Year didn't last very long. Within a few years after the founding of the People's Republic of China, many filmmakers headed back north; many of those who stayed, like Cheng Bugao, Liu Qiong, Shu Shi, Li Lihua, Han Xiongfei, Hu Siao-fung, Bai Chen, Han Fei, joined the reorganised Great Wall or the newly formed Feng Huang.

The backbone of Feng Huang came mostly from Dragon-Horse (Loon-Ma) Films and 50th Year. Dragon-Horse was financed by businessman Wu Xingzai and run by director Fei Mu. Wu was an art lover and Peking opera enthusiast and his film involvement started in 1924, when he established Lily Film Company in Shanghai. He got along well with Fei Mu and supported the director in the opera films Murder in the Oratory (1937) and Remorse at Death (1948), the latter in colour and stars famed Peking opera performer Mei Lanfang. In 1947, he formed Wenhua Film Company, which produced several outstanding films, including Fei's Spring in a Small Town (1948). Wu came to Hong Kong in 1948 and formed Dragon-Horse in 1950. According to Wei Wei, the company was so named because Wu was born in the Year of the Dragon while Fei was born in the Year of the Horse.7 Fei died in 1951 of a heart attack and Wu left the company the next year, under circumstances yet to be revealed. Zhu Shilin stepped in, rallying existing Dragon-Horse employees to take over while preparing to form Feng Huang, which debuted in 1953 with Festival Moon. Unlike Great Wall, which was financed by a businessman, Feng Huang was a co-operative company that also received support from the Chinese Government.8

Influence of 30s Left-Wing Cinema

To understand the special position of left-wing cinema in Hong Kong, we have to travel back in time to the Shanghai of the 30s.

In 1930, an alliance of some 50 left-wing writers, including Lu Xun and Guo Moruo, was formed in Shanghai. Later, a film group was set up in the Communist Party, headed by Xia Yan. Scripts with progressive themes were offered to film companies and workers associated with left-wing theatre groups were introduced to the industry. Members also wrote in the print media to promote films with progressive intent. In the development of Chinese cinema, left-wing influence may warrant a more thorough evaluation than established wisdom, but its impact is indeed lasting, felt in Hong Kong even after the war.

Starting in 1933, with the entrance of left-wing writers into Mingxing Film Company, the practice of script committee was introduced. This process of working on scripts collectively was also adopted by 50th Year, Great Wall and Feng Huang. At Great Wall, a scriptwriter-director committee was established after the 1950 reorganisation. Committee members Ma Kwok-leung, Yue Feng, Li Pingqian, Liu Qiong, Gu Eryi and Tao Qin met to discuss scripts and casting.9 The names in this roster suggest that creative decisions were still in the hands of filmmakers, while organised political forces stayed behind the scene. It is exemplified by the fact that Sima Wensen, a bona fide leftist scriptwriter, was not on the list. The newly established Feng Huang also had an artistic committee, presided over by Zhu Shilin and many scripts were produced through collective efforts. Chu Hak, once scriptwriter at Great Wall, remembered fondly in his interview that 'in left-wing companies, scriptwriters enjoyed a supreme status.... When we visited the Mainland, we received royal treatment as "the people's playwright".' But at the same time, they had to go through the process known as '9 drafts and 13 treatments', a laborious and time-consuming practice.10 The collective method also received mixed remarks from another Great Wall writer, Cha Liangjing, who concluded that repeated discussions gave the films a certain guarantee of quality and provided good training for budding writers/directors. The drawback was the sacrifice of individuality in the name of collectivism.11

Left-wing companies indeed had a way of nurturing talents. Hu Siao-fung, Bao Fong and Lo Kwan-hung, whose interviews are collected in this volume, were all trained from within the company. Others, like Chen Jingbo, Fu Che, Chang Tseng and Cheung Yam-yim, went from actors or editors to become directors. Women like Ren Yizhi and Zhu Feng were also given chances to direct. Even a top star like Shek Hwei had served as assistant director. Such opportunities were extremely rare in other major companies like Shaw Brothers or MP & GI. Great Wall's finances came from the business sector and it was able to recruit established filmmakers like Yue Feng, Li Pingqian, Cheng Bugao and Huang Yu. Over at Feng Huang, the situation was less promising, with Zhu Shilin the only proven talent. Many of its films had Zhu credited as director-in-chief, though real work was executed by co-directing newcomers. After a few outings, those neophytes were experienced enough to run things on their own. This is one reason why in our interviews, none of the filmmakers - from directors to actors - failed to acknowledge Zhu's contributions. However, such a tradition was also limiting, cutting off the company from outside impetus. This, of course, had a lot to do with the severe political segregation that defined the time.

Segregated Camps

After the change of governments in China, the Hong Kong Government was very sensitive to left-wing influence. In 1952, ten left-wing filmmakers were deported on two occasions.12 Years later, Shu Shi, who now lives in Shanghai, can talk about it with humour in his interview. In 1956, Wang Yuanlong, Hu Jinkang, Zhang Shankun and others formed the Hong Kong and Kowloon Filmmakers Free General Association Limited, which was changed to Hong Kong and Kowloon Cinema & Theatrical Enterprise Free General Association Limited the following year. All films distributed in Taiwan must first register with the Free Association. Before the Cultural Revolution, films from Great Wall, Feng Huang and Sun Luen could be shown in the Mainland and, according to friends who lived in China during that time, were quite popular, sometimes even more so than Mainland productions. Although the economic intricacies of distribution were largely unknown to outsiders, it is safe to say that the Mainland market provided a boost to the companies' finances. This market was however closed to non left-wing companies, making the Taiwan market all the more important.13 It became imperative for these companies to join the Free Association, even for major outfits such as Shaw Brothers and MP & GI/Cathay. As such, even if left-wing companies wanted to recruit from outside, those not in the 'left' ranks were reluctant to answer the call. Besides, salaries offered by left-wing companies were a mere fraction of those of others, forcing Great wall, Feng Huang and Sun Luen to concentrate on nurturing their own talents.

Yet they were not entirely isolated. If anything, the maintained business ties with other companies. During the 50s and 60s, especially the early and mid-50s. Shaw Brothers and MP & GI had not started their production operations, but they had extensive theatre networks in Southeast Asia that required large number of films to fill their bills. The films of Great Wall, Feng Huang and Sun Luen, with their dedicated production attitude and star attractions, fit the bill perfectly. While MP & GI bought mostly Great Wall films, Shaw Brothers concentrated on Feng Huang products and Kong Ngee Co acquired the Cantonese films of Sun Luen. Judging from the left-wing films of the 50s and 60s, Communist China was not intent on staging ideological activities in Hong Kong, aiming instead to maintain a point of contact with the outside.

Watching the films, it's noticeable in some, especially those of the early 50s, a reflection of the post-war society and an expression of idealism. But such sentiments were exercised as satirical comments on the hypocrisy of capitalistic society (such as Awful Truth, 1950 and Map of 100 Treasures, 1953), veiled pleas to return to the homeland (The Show Must Go On, 1952 and The Dividing Wall, 1952), or wishful calls for education of the masses (Parents' Love, 1953 and Joyce and Deli, 1954). More films were charged with the concerns and sentimentality of the petit bourgeoisie (The Three Loves, 1956, Love's Miracle, 1958 and Those Bewitching Eyes, 1958, for example). In portraying predicaments faced by women (It So Happens to a Woman, 1955, A Widow's Tears, 1956 and The Foolish Heart, 1956), the films at once express a longing for the liberation of individuality but remain quite reluctant to challenge the conservative attitudes of the time. By the late 50s and early 60s, Mandarin films reached its blossoming age, when Shaw Brothers, MP & GI, Great Wall and Feng Huang were all enjoying success. Left-wing companies' products became even more diversified. They ranged from Shanghai Shaoxing opera adaptations featuring Hsia Moon (Bride Hunter, 1961, The Princess Falls in Love, 1962 and My Darling Princess, 1964), to new-style martial-arts flicks directed by Fu Che and Cheung Yam-yim (The Jade Bow, 1966), from literary adaptations (Garden of Repose, 1964) to a martial art feature that ventured all the way to Mongolia (The Golden Eagle, 1964), and from satirical comedies (A Gentleman Who Steals, 1963) to tender love stories (That Certain Age, 1966). The path Great Wall and Feng Huang trotted was a far cry from that dictated by Mao Zedong in his famous Yan'an Speech.

Politics and Film

After enjoying a period of relative stability, Great Wall and Feng Huang were unwittingly dragged into the political turmoil that unfolded in the Mainland. When Yuen Yang-an's adaptation of Lu Xun's The True Story of Ah Q (1958) did not receive the support of China, he left Great Wall in 1957 before the film was completed and formed Sun Sun, which eventually distributed the film.14 Scriptwriter Chu Hak says in his interview, 'The Party started sending people to Great Wall in 1954 and Yuen Yang-an had to leave.' The year he quotes may not be accurate, for it involves events half a century ago. Chu himself was dismissed by Great Wall in 1958, a time when the anti-right campaign was launched in China. That these happenings occurred during the same period could either be a mere coincidence or an illustration of the effect China had on the Hong Kong left-wing cinema.

But it is beyond doubt that the Cultural Revolution had exacted irreparable damage on this group, a sentiment shared by every filmmaker interviewed. During those turbulent years, some filmmakers were passionately caught up. Qiu Ping, for example, admits in an interview that she was aggressively involved.15 Shek Hwei and her husband Fu Che also took active part in the anti-British movement and were arrested on July 15, 1967 and jailed for over a year.16 But not everyone agreed with the Cultural Revolution. Hsia Moon was pregnant at the time and excused herself from taking park in the movement. Then, in September 1967, she quietly left for Canada. It wasn't until two years later that she returned, after which she kept a distance from the film industry. She waited ten years before re-embracing film, forming Bluebird Movie Enterprises Ltd to produce The Boat People (Ann Hui, 1982), Young Heroes (Mou Dunfei, 1983) and Homecoming (Yim Ho, 1984).

In this grand political movement, perhaps most were troubled with questions but were unable to stay out of it. Bao Fong was one such filmmaker. In his interview, he admits that, at the time, he made some films that are very 'left', like The Battle of Sha Chia Bund (1968) and Collegiate (1970). After that, the show could no longer go on. Chu Yuan, made in 1974, was not released until 1977, after the Gang of Four was defeated. But Great Wall, Feng Huang and Sun Luen were never able to reclaim the glories of the 50s and 60s. In 1982, the companies were merged to form Sil-Metropole Organisation Ltd, and is to remain so up to this day.

Concluding Remarks

Local studies of Hong Kong's left-wing cinema are few and far between. Hong Kong Cinema Survey (1946-1968), the retrospective catalogue of the 1979 Hong Kong International Film Festival, provides a preliminary study of post-war progressive cinema. The 1983 catalogue, A Comparative Study of Post-War Mandarin and Cantonese Cinema: the Films of Zhu Shulin, Qin Jian and other Directors, takes the effort of a step further, especially Sek Kei's article 'Left-wing Cinema of the 60s and Its Petit Bourgeois Quality', a rare article that directly discusses left-wing cinema. In 1985, the Film Festival had a special programme on Li Pingqian, offering an introductory look into the director's work. The China Factor in Hong Kong Cinema, the Film Festival's 1990 installment, includes several essays on the topic, such as Law Kar's 'The Shadow of Tradition and the Left-Right Struggle' and Tony Rayns' 'The Redirected Embrace'. The 1994 retrospective programme, Cinema of Two Cities: Hong Kong - Shanghai, examines the development of left-wing filmmakers in Hong Kong, introducing several films produced by Li Pingqian during his tenure in Hong Kong.

In addition to the trail blazing work by the Film Festival, a few isolated studies are also available. A chapter in Development of Hong Kong Cinema - the First Draft, edited by Shen Xicheng, offers an account of Great Wall's development, shedding lights onto the transition period during the company's reorganisation.17 A rare description of Yuen Yang-an's role is also included. In the 90s, the development of left-wing cinema was considered in three articles, though Yuen's involvement was, for some reasons, neglected. They are Liu Yat-yuen, Feng Lingxiao, Zhou Luoxia and Wu Cun's 'The Development of Hong Kong Patriotic Cinema and Its Influence';18 Chan Man and Xue Hou's 'A Brief Introduction to Early Hong Kong Cantonese Flms';19 and Zhou Luoxia, Feng Lingxiao and Yu Lun's 'The Establishment of Sil-Metropole and Several of Its Influential Films'.20

We hope that this volume would arouse interest on this page of neglected history and contribute to the discarding of prejudices, leading to more fruitful studies. We would also like to express our sincere gratitude to all the filmmakers who had granted interviews to the Hong Kong Film Archive's Oral History Project. Their remembrances had given life to a piece of our collective memory that had long been buried, like applying vibrant colours to a drab piece of dry wood.


Wong Ain-ling
Research Officer
Hong Kong Film Archive
September 7, 2001


Notes:

1. Zhu Feng and Zhu Yan (ed), Zhu Shilin and Cinema, Hong Kong: Cosmos Books Ltd, 1999 (in Chinese).

2. See Liu Yat-yuen, Feng Lingxiao, Zhou Luoxia and Wu Cun, 'The Development of Hong Kong Patriotic Cinema and Its Influence' in Cai Hongsheng, Song Jialing, Liu Guiqing (eds), Eighty Years of Hong Kong Cinema, Beijing Broadcast Academy, 2000 (in Chinese).

3. See the chapter of Lu Yuanliang.

4. See Wong Ain-ling, 'Tong Yuejuan: The Best of Times in Hsin Hwa' in Kwok Ching-ling (ed), Hong Kong Here I Come, Monographs of Hong Kong Film Veterans I, Hong Kong Film Archive, 2000; and George Shen's 'Filmdom Anecdotes' in this volume.

5. The Chin Chin Screen, Shanghai, No 5 to 11, March 1 to May 15, 1950 (in Chinese).

6. Yu Mo-wan, Anecdotes of Hong Kong Cinema, Vol 4, Hong Kong: Subculture, 2000, pp 21-23 (in Chinese).

7. Wong Ain-ling (ed), Fei Mu, Poet Director, Hong Kong Film Critics Society, 1998, p 204 (in Chinese).

8. See article by Liu and Feng in note 2. See also the chapter on Wei Wei.

9. The Chin Chin Screen, Shanghai: No 11, May 15, 1950 (in Chinese).

10. See the chapter on Chu Hak.

11. Taken from an interview with Cha Liangjing, HKFA Oral History Project, April 1, 1997.

12. On January 10, 1952, government agents arrested and then deported eight filmmakers, including Sima Wensen, Liu Qiong, Shu Shi, Qi Wenshao, Yang Hua, Ma Kwok-leung, Shen Ji and Di Fan. Two days later, Bai Chen and Jiang Wei met the same fate.

13. As early as 1950, the Chinese Government was already regulating films with an iron fist. Over 80 films were banned that year, including: The Sins of Our Fathers, Blood Will Tell, Waste Not Our Youth, The Soul of China. See The Chin Chin Screen, No 5, March 1, 1950 (in Chinese).

14. See 'Filmdom Anecdotes' by George Shen in this volume.

15. Taken from an interview with Qiu Ping, HKFA Oral History Project, May 29, 1998.

16. For details, see 'Features on the 1967 Riot', in The Economic Times, November 28 and December 5, 2000 (in Chinese).

17. Sheng Xicheng, 'Development of Hong Kong Cinema' (the First Draft), Xin Guancha, Hong Kong: No 7, 1978 (in Chinese).

18. See note 2.

19. Published in Xue Hou, The Golden Age of Hong Kong Cinema, Hong Kong, Holdery Publishing Enterprises Ltd, 2000 (in Chinese).

20. Paper presented to the Conference on Hong Kong Cinemas, organised by the Chinese Association of Taiwan-Hong Kong Cinema Studies, held in Guangzhou, 1996 (in Chinese).

 

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