In the mid-20th century, Hong Kong was an international hotspot for cinema. The city produced some of the world’s most influential movies and filmmakers. But by the late ’60s, filmmaking had slowed there.
The New Wave movement, which began in the late-1970s, redefined Hong Kong film and helped to bring about a new era of cinema for the city.
Hong Kong New Wave refers to a group of films produced in Hong Kong from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.
Films of this period are noted for their critical social commentary and political content, as well as their focus on character development and complex narratives.
This genre has been seen by some as a renaissance of Cantonese cinema after a series of commercially-oriented films which culminated in an industry crisis in 1983.
The movement was fueled by a group of young filmmakers including John Woo, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, and Wong Kar-wai.
Hong Kong New Wave Cinema
What Is Hong Kong New Wave Cinema?
The term Hong Kong New Wave refers to a period of films made in the late 1970s onwards, in which filmmakers pushed against mainstream commercial cinema. Many of these films were independently produced and funded by private sources, out of reach from the state-owned film studios.
This movement was spearheaded by three major directors: John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark.
These directors focused on creating a new style of film that was uniquely Hong Kong and that would tell stories relevant to the city’s inhabitants. The majority of these films were action movies with an emphasis on martial arts and gunplay.
Hong Kong cinema is often referred to as the “Hollywood of the East” because of its prolific output and diverse range of films. However, in the late 1970s, a new movement was born — one that would redefine Hong Kong’s cinematic identity: the Hong Kong New Wave.
What Is Hong Kong New Wave Cinema?
In the 1980s, a new wave of Hong Kong artists and filmmakers took aim at Hong Kong’s greatest asset: its deep well of cinematic talent.
It was the early 1980s, and Hong Kong was about to become an independent nation — but not without some major political tension.
In 1997, the British crown colony would be handed over to China. But for more than a decade prior to this, Chinese citizens had been flooding over the border into Hong Kong in hopes of starting a new life there.
That influx caused an explosion in Hong Kong’s film industry.
The first wave of Hong Kong cinema was in the 1960s, when filmgoers became enamored with the martial arts genre.
Actors like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan became international superstars, and their movies dominated the box office.
But by the ’80s, tastes were changing. The audience wanted something different — something bolder and more artistic.
So they turned to a group of young filmmakers who would come to be known as the “Hong Kong New Wave” (aka “New Cinema” or “Hong Kong New Cinema”).
Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) is widely credited with inspiring the movement. Its innovative action sequences featured sophisticated wirework, which impressed younger directors and spurred them to try something new.
The film’s success was also due to its lavish budget, which was unheard of at the time. With its success, many aspiring filmmakers tried to imitate Hark’s style.
These directors were called “Zu hua pai” (the Zu faction). They named themselves this because they felt that they were destined to make films and that they were talented enough to do so.
The trend soon became evident as many young directors emerged making unique genre movies.
The New Wave brought many talented actors and filmmakers into the spotlight who are still working today.
Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung, Jet Li, and Tony Leung are just a few stars who got their start in this new movement of cinema.
It has left behind such a rich legacy that many people still enjoy watching movies from this time period today
How The Hong Kong New Wave Began
The beginnings of the Hong Kong New Wave can be traced back to a meeting of filmmakers in 1981 at the Hong Kong Arts Center.
In attendance were Tsui Hark, Ann Hui, and Chang Cheh, among others, who began to discuss ways to modernize Chinese cinema.
They agreed that contemporary social issues should be one area of focus and that their films should have a strong national identity.
The term “Hong Kong New Wave” first appeared in an article by the head of the Film Division of the Hong Kong Arts Center.
The movement began with directors who had worked on television and in other aspects of film before becoming directors in their own right, such as Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, Wong Kar-Wai, John Woo, Ringo Lam and Zhang Yimou.
Their films were mostly all shot on 16 mm film and featured similar techniques such as long takes, being edited for speed rather than continuity, and having sudden jump cuts between scenes.
With this new style of filmmaking came new themes: the concerns of ordinary people. These themes were reflected in the work of the New Wave directors themselves who, along with their contemporaries, were part of a generation that grew up under martial law but were still young enough to enjoy life.
A History Of Hong Kong’s New Wave Cinema
The New Wave began in the early eighties and was an era that produced some of the most interesting films to come out of Hong Kong. Here’s a look at some of the movies that launched it, and how they impacted the territory’s film industry.
When we talk about Hong Kong cinema, it usually refers to the output of one company: Golden Harvest. The company was founded by Sir Run Run Shaw in 1959 and dominated the industry for many years.
However, in the late 70’s and early 80’s Shaw began to lose interest in film production and left much of it up to his son-in-law, Raymond Chow. Chow had already begun to make changes at Golden Harvest when he inherited it from Shaw.
Though still very successful, Golden Harvest’s age was beginning to show as audiences began steering away from traditional Cantonese cinema toward more modern fare. In 1976 Chow decided to use Golden Harvest as a home for a new wave of young talent that he felt could help bring Hong Kong cinema into the next generation.
The New Wave officially began in 1982 with John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow which would go on to become a classic of Hong Kong cinema.
Hong Kong New Wave Films
If you love Hong Kong films and haven’t seen any of the “New Wave” films, then you owe it to yourself to give them a try. I even went as far as creating a top ten list for our readers that showcases some of the best New Wave films.
Chungking Express (1994) is one of my all-time favorite films from the “New Wave” era of Hong Kong cinema. It’s directed by Wong Kar Wai and stars Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, and Faye Wong.
This movie is full of great visuals and a fantastic soundtrack. I could sit here all day long describing how great this film is, but it’s best that you watch it for yourself to understand why it made our list.
Fallen Angels (1995) features five short stories about different women with the only thing tying them together being their love for the same man named “Chang.” The film won Best Picture at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards and was nominated for Best Picture at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
It’s directed by Wong Kar Wai and stars Leon Lai, Carina Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Karen Mok.
Dangerous Encounters Of The First Kind (Tsui Hark –1980)
Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind (1980) is a martial arts movie directed by Tsui Hark. It is also the first movie in his “Dangerous Series”.
This movie is known for its many action sequences, and some of the most intense fighting scenes ever filmed. One of these scenes involves a fight on top of a moving train, shot with a single long take that lasts for almost four minutes.
The scene was shot in one take because Tsui Hark believed that multiple takes would not be able to capture the same intensity as one long take. This film is also known for its famous theme song, which was written by James Wong and performed by Andy Lau.
The song has been covered by several other artists and is still popular today. The film tells the story of two young men who have become separated from their parents during a war.
Their goal is to find each other while fighting to survive in an environment where they are constantly attacked by enemies hiding in every corner.
Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai – 1994)
Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express tells the story of two lonely people who meet for a brief moment in Hong Kong and then again sometime later.
The film is filled with its own brand of romantic melancholy, which permeates through all the characters and makes it hard not to fall in love with them.
Struggling with the aftermath of a failed relationship, Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is a police officer who spends his nights alone eating instant noodles at a local diner.
His only source of entertainment is to go there every day and stare at Faye (Faye Wong), the beautiful waitress who works there.
Faye, on the other hand, doesn’t see him at all. She has her own problems to worry about; namely, that she’d been dating another cop named Tony before he dumped her for the new girl in town, Jane (Valerie Chow).
Made In Hong Kong (Fruit Chan – 1997)
Fruit Chan’s 1997 film is a darkly comedic crime drama with a heavy dose of social commentary.
The story focuses on three friends who are about to graduate from high school in Hong Kong, and the trials and tribulations they face over the course of their final year before heading out into the world.
Teddy (Andy Hui), the film’s protagonist, is a top student who is accepted into medical school.
He seems destined for success until he catches his girlfriend cheating on him with another man and becomes disillusioned with his future.
Teddy’s two friends, Casper (Law Kar-Ying) and Fai (Lam Suet), have their own problems to deal with.
Casper has an extremely demanding mother who expects him to go to college, while Fai is a member of a street gang whose leader wants him to carry out some dirty work for him.
Despite its seemingly lighthearted teenage drama storyline, Made In Hong Kong is a serious examination of several issues confronting Hong Kong society in the mid-1990s, most notably the ever-growing gap between the middle and lower classes.
Teddy represents those born into privilege; he comes from an upper class family and has his life mapped out for him by his parents, but he feels trapped.
What Defines Hong Kong New Wave?
Hong Kong New Wave cinema (aka “HK New Wave”) is a term coined by critics in the late 1980s to describe a new wave of young filmmakers who were making low-budget, independent films that defied conventions and challenged traditional filmmaking styles.
The films featured a younger generation of directors as well as actors (often using stage names) who rejected traditional roles in favor of more modern, independent storylines.
These films also had much lower production values than Hong Kong films from the 1970s and 1980s, which catered to an older audience.
In some cases, narratives were simplified and dialogue was even dubbed or re-recorded to make them more accessible to general audiences.
Critics typically date the beginning of Hong Kong New Wave cinema to 1986 with Tsui Hark’s A Better Tomorrow and its box office success after breaking away from the dominance of Shaw Brothers Studio’s martial arts movies.
Although there are some similarities between Hong Kong New Wave and the French New Wave, it is more comparable with the American independent film movement during the same period.
Many Hong Kong New Wave filmmakers studied film at the University of Southern California; this connection led to an influx of American influence on Hong Kong cinema as well as vice versa (Cannon Films, for example, was owned by Warner Bros.).
Elements Of The Hong Kong New Wave
The Hong Kong New Wave is a term used to describe the new generation of successful Hong Kong filmmakers who emerged after the liberalization of the film market in the late 1980s.
The term was nearly always used in reference to directors, screenwriters, and actors in their twenties and thirties who came of age in the early 1990s, which is to say roughly around the time when directors like Johnnie To, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, and Wong Kar-wai made their debuts.
The “New Wave” label has always been a problematic one: too broad for a movement that was largely stylistic and technical; too narrow for a generation whose members were not all on such good terms.
But at its heart, it was really just a marketing tag.
‘New’ is not entirely accurate: some of these directors were already working in the industry for years before their breakthrough films — Stanley Kwan, for example, had been making movies since he was nine years old — but once the term became popularized it stuck with people anyway.
The name easily lent itself to sound bites and newspaper headlines, but it doesn’t really have many notable throughlines as other film movements do.
Notable Directors Of The Hong Kong New Wave
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hong Kong cinema entered a new phase, both in style and themes.
A group of young filmmakers started making experimental films with minimalist dialogue and restrained acting, which became known as the “Hong Kong New Wave”.
This movement spawned a lot of talented directors, among them John Woo and Wong Kar-wai.
The first notable director of the Hong Kong New Wave was Tsui Hark. His film The Butterfly Murders (1979) became the first Category III film to be produced legally in Hong Kong.
His debut film was released after the industry had been officially closed down by the government due to concerns about graphic violence. He is often credited as being the pioneer of the “Hong Kong New Wave” although his work is not easily placed within this movement.
Among more clearly identifiable works by directors associated with this movement are Chungking Express (1994), Ashes of Time (1994), and In the Mood for Love (2000).
These three movies have been described as ‘wuxia’ classics, as they share certain visual characteristics with wuxia films, such as highly choreographed action scenes filmed in slow motion.
They also share several cast members including Tony Leung Chiu Wai, and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk.
Importance Of Hong Kong New Wave Cinema
Hong Kong New Wave Cinema is a blanket term used to describe the work of a loose group of filmmakers who came to prominence in Hong Kong in the 1980s.
Many of them had been involved in the Hong Kong New Wave movement, which is said to have begun in 1979 and ended around 1985.
The term “New Wave” was coined by critic Andrew Sarris, who compared it to the French New Wave movement of the late 1950s through the early 1970s. The “Hong Kong New Wave” is sometimes considered the second phase of the Hong Kong New Wave, which lasted from 1979 through 1985 and was spearheaded by directors like John Woo and Tsui Hark.
The second phase differed from the first as it was more heavily influenced by traditional Chinese culture and wuxia films, with a larger number of martial arts films produced.
Films from this period are also notable for their strong artistic quality and technical innovation, thanks to directors such as Wong Kar-wai and Tsui Hark.
The cultural phenomenon known as Hong Kong New Wave had a major impact on the evolution of modern Asian cinema.
The movement spawned a radical new cinematic language that drew inspiration from Western art houses, Japanese anime, and Hollywood action movies.
Hong Kong New Wave Cinema – Wrapping Up
Hong Kong New Wave cinema was a movement in the Hong Kong cinema that emerged in the late 1970s and lasted until the mid-1990s.
It is sometimes also referred to as the Third Wave, since it came after Second Wave (1950s–60s) and before Fourth Wave (mid-1990s–2000) of Chinese-language cinema.
A film made during the movement would often be low budget, shot on videotape rather than film, feature non-professional actors, have a gritty and realistic feel, and would often focus on the lives of working-class people.
However, new wave films were diverse in style and themes; some were still highly stylized while others were experimental.
Some directors now considered part of the New Wave include Johnny To, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, and Ann Hui.
The era also saw continuing innovations in Hong Kong genre cinema, with John Woo’s influential action films (such as A Better Tomorrow and The Killer) setting the trend for Hong Kong action cinema that endures to this day.