What's on First
Three different titles had been considered, by different sources, as the inaugural project of the New Wave. Each is the debut feature of its director – directors, in the case of one – and each has its significance to the movement that kick-started a new era of Hong Kong film.
Jumping Ash, co-directed by an ethnic Chinese from England and a former teen goddess of Cantonese cinema, embodies many of the New Wave attributes, yet it was released in 1976, over two years ahead of the late 1970s phenomenon. The Extras was made during the nascent months of the New Wave by a crucial figure of the movement but is very much a commercial project, without much of the characteristic New Wave impulses. Released a few months later, The Butterfly Murders, directed by another key New Wave filmmaker, is marked by many of the movement's defining traits.
Which is the New Wave's first film?
The wuxia genre was a staple of Hong Kong mainstream cinema and it's no surprise that two of the New Wave's early key works, Tsui Hark's The Butterfly Murders (1979) and Patrick Tam's The Sword are reactions against it, formally and content-wise. The former is even a much-quoted exemplar.
Violence, let's face it, is cinematic. Formally and thematically. Hong Kong in the late 1970s and early 1980s was starting to experience the disillusion and disorientation that often came with prosperity. Violence became a choice vehicle to deliver those sentiments.
The Fire that Burns
Desire and jealousy are essential human qualities that lend themselves to powerful storytelling. Sexual desire, in particular, had been a forbidden fruit for much of cinema's first decades and thus a favourite topic for rebellious filmmakers. No wonder some early New Wave works are informed by these qualities.
The Spectral Dimension
Horror films address our fears, lend themselves to atmospheric stylisations and can be made with modest budgets. For Hong Kong filmmakers of the 1980s, the genre offered also a forum to explore the strain between Chinese tradition and Western modernity. The New Wave's success with the supernatural paved the way for Hong Kong cinema's genre-blending horror renaissance later in the decade.
Cops, Robbers and Sometimes Businessmen
Crime films were favoured by New Wavers not just for their box-office appeal but also for their capacity for formal exercises and explorations of social-moral issues in contemporary urban settings. Add to the formula collusions with corrupt businessmen and we have the making of a major genre that would come to define Hong Kong cinema in a big way.
Jade Girls No More
Young maidens were once endearing symbols of purity in our cinema. Dotingly labeled Jade Girls, they were popular in the 1960s, when a youth culture inspired by the West was taking shape. But by the 1980s, the lustre of the jade was much tarnished, by social problems of sweeping vintages. This gave rise to films about the trauma of growing pain, about teen girls whose stories often take on metaphoric meanings. The response was dramatic in both commercial and moral terms, as some of the films became huge hits, in turn generating harsh criticism from disapproving citizens.
Families are important to the Chinese and the family has always been a major setting for Chinese stories. Hong Kong cinema is no exception and the way New Wave films address the issue is a telling illustration of the movement.
The Second Wave
Jump Cut: Wong Yee-shun
Catching the tide of the Hong Kong New Wave, Wong Yee-shun unleashed his cinematographic talents at its peak. Still a 17-year-old, Wong was instantly hooked when introduced to editing at Shaw Brothers. Under the wing of Yeung Pak-wing, he grew into a full-fledged film editor, the youngest in Hong Kong when he was merely 24 back in 1971. Among his collaborators were avantgarde directors Sun Po-ling, Patrick Lung Kong and Tang Shu-shuen. Participating in the production of Teddy Girls (1969), Lost (1970), the Cannes-shortlisted experimental short, and China Behind (completed in 1974; released in 1987), he acquainted himself with diverse styles, genres and aesthetics of filmmaking.
A much sought-after editor, he lent his editing expertise to many a directorial debut: Leong Po-chih's Jumping Ash (1976), Alex Cheung's Cops and Robbers (1979) and Peter Yung's The System (1979), playing a pivotal role in imprinting the visual style of the early New Wave. When he joined Radio Television Hong Kong in 1979, he continued to moonlight under the pseudonym of Kin Kin in the films of Ann Hui and Yim Ho. This selection of the indelible editing marks Wong left on Hong Kong cinema harks back to the best of the New Wave in the 1970s and 1980s.
Mary Stephen, Cinéaste
Mary Stephen was a contemporary of the New Wave generation. She immigrated at age 15 to Canada with her family, then followed her heart to study film in Paris, where she fortuitously took classes taught by director Éric Rohmer. She impressed the French New Wave auteur so much that she was asked to work with him, eventually becoming his editor.
Stephen's storybook life had its fair share of sharp turns, extending into the new millennium, as she became a truly international filmmaker, directing, producing and editing films all over the world. While the Hong Kong New Wave brought a strong sense of global modernity to our cinema, Stephen channelled her Hong Kong sensibilities into post-New Wave European filmmaking and, later, onto a global stage.
Hong Kong is now part of her internationality, having edited and produced several local films in the past few years.
Mary Stephen, at once very Hong Kong and not very Hong Kong.
The contents of the programme do not represent the views of the presenter.
The presenter reserves the right to change the programme should unavoidable circumstances make it necessary.