Monday, May 4, 2009

Collectors and Film History

The history of Hong Kong film will never really be written although many have tried and others continue to try. duriandave, whose well researched and increasingly addictive blog is here is a great introduction to movies and popular culture generally in the Crown Colony and other parts of the Chinese diaspora. Another source is Silver Light:A Pictorial History of Hong Kong Cinema 1920-1970 by Paul Fonoroff whose reviews from a couple of decades after this book are discussed in a post below.

Foronoff makes it heartbreakingly clear that when it comes of the history of film in Hong Kong, it just isn't there. There are prints of four of the over 500 feature films produced in the pre-World War II era. In some cases the same problems that plagued some Hollywood classics prevailed--the prints themselves and the movies on them weren't considered important enough to store properly, so heat and humidity did its damage. There simply wasn't enough room in Hong Kong to warehouse films--Hong Kong has long been one of the most croweded and hemmed in places on earth. Without enough room to house its people there wasn't much outcry to find space for old movies. It wasn't until 1993 that the Hong Kong Film Archive was established. A problem not faced in other movie capitals occurred during the Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1945 when any movies that could be found were melted for their silver content.

Fonoroff discovered that the only way to write a history of the movie industry he loved was to acquire the source materials himself. In searches through old theaters in Hong Kong, Macao, Shanghai, Singapore and Malaysia he found the posters, lobby cards, handbills and magazines that he used for illustrations in Silver Light.

We are spoiled now. Everything is digital, its all indestructible strings of zeroes and ones that don't get thrown out, burned up or simply left behind when a cinema closes like so much of the this history already has. The difficulty for the fan, of course, is that the more movies you watch the more you want to see; the more you learn the more you realize you don't know. It can be frustrating to look at advertising material for films that no longer exist--and who wouldn't want to see a martial arts western from the 1940s, "Double Pistol Heroine", for example--but among the serious collectors, I imagine, there will always be one more place to look to uncover one more bit of Hong Kong fim history.


  1. Thanks for the link and the kind words, Ed!

    I've recently been reading from start to finish the first volume of the Hong Kong Filmography series published by the HFKA. It covers the years 1913-1941. Talk about eye-opening! I never would have imagined there were Hong Kong films such as the following few examples:

    Who's to Blame? (1937), a biopic about legendary silent film star Ruan Lingyu, who had just committed suicide 2 years earlier, starring her real-life ex-husband playing himself in the movie.

    It's a Women's World (1939), the first HK film to feature an all-female cast.

    The Cannibal Woman (1939), based on a real incident. Is this the first Category III film? ;)

    The Adventures of the Chinese Tarzan (1939). Why not?!

    Chaos in the Universe (1941), a gender-bending satire exposing the dark underside of the film industry.

    Finally, there are all the many national defense films urging Chinese audiences to support the war effort against Japan.

    Fascinating stuff! And like you mention in your post, only a handful of these films survive. :(

  2. Hi Duriandave --

    "Finally, there are all the many national defense films urging Chinese audiences to support the war effort against Japan..."

    I saw one at the HK Film Archive -- and "Roar of the People" (1941) is indeed the oldest Hong Kong film I've seen to date.

    Re the HK Film Archive: thank goodness for them... though, latterly, I've noticed that they seem to be eschewing English subtitles and translations of books. A most ominous trend as far as I'm concerned. :S