Why do some people dislike film critics?

Hong Kong

On the shaky cell phone videos that appeared in my Twitter timeline in September 2019, you can see a black Lamborghini slowly pushing its way through the crowd during a nightly demonstration in Hong Kong. The protesters march through the streets with yellow safety vests and banners. In the background a Chinese dragon can be seen, which is carried through the crowd, brightly lit. Someone waves the red and white flag with the Bauhinia, the flag of Hong Kong.

At a demonstration elsewhere in the world, a wickedly expensive sports car might not get very far before being stopped or even damaged. But in Hong Kong the demonstrators make room, wave and take selfies with the vehicle. Because they recognized the driver: It is the popular singer and actor Aaron Kwok Fu-shing - allegedly on the road to buy diapers for his child, as the local press will later report. [1]

A movie star in Hong Kong still has a bonus, even if he obstructs a demonstration with his show-off cart. Along with Bombay, Hong Kong is Asia's most important film city. Even if the number of productions has declined in recent years and American blockbusters and Chinese influence are causing problems for the city's producers, Hong Kong remains a city of cinema, in which the 55 film theaters are always well attended and local productions have a special place have in the heart of the audience. Some film critics may have declared Hong Kong's cinema dead by now. [2] But the city still has a movie scene that many countries in the world envy.

Identity-creating reference point

In 2018, 53 films were produced in Hong Kong, which has a population of around 7.4 million. In comparison: In Germany there were 78 in the same year. Almost 17,000 people work in almost 3,000 film companies, whose productions make a not insignificant contribution to the city's gross national product. Hong Kong has a long film history that has spawned international stars like Bruce Lee and Maggie Cheung, Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat and Jet Li. Directors such as Wong Kar-Wei, Johnny To and John Woo are world-famous, and films such as "The Man with the Death Claw" (1973) or "In the Mood for Love" (2000) were international successes. For the citizens of Hong Kong, their film industry is not just a source of pride in their city, but a point of reference that creates their identity.

The American sociologist Benedict Anderson described such identification processes through media products in 1983 in the book "Imagined Communities". [3] According to Anderson, among other things, printing has helped keep residents growing imagined communities to weld together and thereby establish nation states. You will never get to know more than a tiny fraction of the inhabitants of your country personally - not least literature and other mass media shape our image of who "we" are as inhabitants of a particular country.

In film studies, Anderson's thesis was taken up and plausibly presented, which role cinema can play in establishing a sense of togetherness in nation states. [4] Genres such as the American western or the German Heimatfilm may have little to do with historical reality or the current reality of life. They don't even have to, as long as they manage to show a version of national identity that their audience can agree on. [5]

What does this mean for Hong Kong cinema? The former British crown colony and current Chinese Special Administrative Region was never a national, not even a city-state. Nevertheless, since the end of the Second World War at the latest, a unique urban culture has developed, and the cinema has played an active role in the creation and definition of this culture. Thus, Hong Kong cinema is a national cinema without a nation.

Globalized cinema

Hong Kong cinema is a legacy of pre-war Chinese national cinema. After the Second World War, Hong Kong cinema picked up on film traditions that had developed in the Shanghai film studios in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the directors who made films in Hong Kong after World War II began their careers in Shanghai. [6] While rumbling propaganda strips were filmed in communist China from the 1950s onwards, a dynamic and profit-oriented film industry developed in Hong Kong with studios that could not fear comparison with Hollywood. [7]

Film companies such as Shaw Brothers, Kong Ngee or Cathay pumped several films monthly into the city's cinemas from their own studio premises with permanent staff of technicians, directors and actors, where they were cheered by a fanatical audience, sometimes loudly in the performances. [8] Foreign productions, including those from Hollywood, had no chance in Hong Kong for decades - while the Hong Kong film companies successfully sold their productions to the surrounding countries of Southeast Asia.

For a long time in Europe and the United States, the productions from the Asian metropolis were dismissed as laughable films for train station cinemas in which kung fu fighters smash their heads in full evening. But at the latest since directors like the Wachowski siblings and Quentin Tarantino paid tribute to fighting scenes from Hong Kong films in films like "Matrix" (1999) and "Kill Bill - Volume 1" (2003), the picture began to change. The fantastic choreographies of violence in Hong Kong films that deny the laws of gravity have shaped international action cinema since the 1990s.

If you take a closer look at the popular martial arts films and thrillers, you will discover a fascinating mixture of the most varied, international influences, which have been put together by the filmmakers of the city to create confusing hybrids. Hong Kong cinema was globalized long before there was any talk of cultural globalization. At the same time, however, it was always a local cinema that told the story (s) of the city. [9] And these stories shaped and continue to shape the self-image of Hong Kongers to this day and played an important part in the creation of a imagined community at. It circulated songs that are still sung to this day, popularized social types and idioms that many Hong Kongers perceive as indigenous, and created figures of identification that one can relate to as a citizen of the city. [10]

Ten films in the city

At the moment, negotiating on the streets of Hong Kong, sometimes violently, is what kind of city Hong Kong should be and who has hegemony over the Asian metropolis: the citizens of the city, the majority of whom apparently want a democratically elected government and personal freedom - or the Chinese government , which is feared that they will undermine the rule of law in Hong Kong, restrict individual freedom and leave power to party-loyal oligarchs long before Hong Kong is absorbed into the People's Republic of China in 2047.

If you want to understand Hong Kong, its unique history and the current political situation better, you can do so with the help of the films that have been produced in the city. In addition to the internationally known kung fu and gangster films, melodramas and comedies, horror films and musicals have also been made in Hong Kong that are indebted to the specific character and history of the city.

In the following, ten films will be presented that show how Hong Kong has become what it is and what is currently being fought over in its streets and shopping malls. [11]

Rouge (Stanely Kwan, 1988)
Stanley Kwan's "Rouge" refers to a film of the same name by director Lai Pak-hoi from 1925. This is considered to be the first full-length feature film produced by a Hong Kong film company and is often referred to in literature as the beginning of Hong Kong cinema called. Like many films from the early days of Chinese cinema, the film by Lai Pak-hoi has been lost. Stanley Kwan plunged into the vacuum left by the absence of the possible founding film of Hong Kong cinema in 1988 with his film "Rouge", which is now one of the classics of Hong Kong auteur films. The early deaths of the two main actors, Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung, contributed to the legendary status of the film: Cheung committed suicide in 2003 and Anita Mui died of cancer in the same year.

Courtesan Fleur (Anita Mui) and playboy Chan Chen-pang (Leslie Cheung) meet and love each other in the opium dens of Hong Kong's decadent 1930s. Because his family refuses the liaison, the couple want to commit suicide together. They decide to swallow an overdose of opium to meet again in the afterlife. Fleur dies, Chen-pang backs down. Fifty years later, Fleur returns from the afterlife to search for her lost lover. Two journalists notice her and finally find Chen-pang as a seedy and drunk extras on the set of a kung-fu film.

When the courtesan Fleur wanders through the skyscraper canyons of the 1980s in silk slippers and traditional cheongsam dress in search of her faithless lover, she awakens buried memories of a lost, oriental Hong Kong, in which "men paid a lot of money for it, just once to be able to touch a neck, "as she relates. The bourgeois life of the protagonists in the capitalist Hong Kong of the present suddenly seems prosaic and empty.

To this day, Hong Kong suffers from phantom pain caused by the total renovation of the city center and the demolition of many iconic buildings. From the General Post Office (1976) to the downtown Kai Tak Airport (2004) to the Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier with the famous clock tower (2007): Anything that stood in the way of Hong Kong's development was mercilessly cleared away, regardless of its history. When Wong Kar-Wai was looking for authentic, historical locations for his films "In the Mood for Love" (2000) and "2046" (2004), which were set in the 1950s, he had to switch to Macau, Thailand and Shanghai, among others.

The sword of the yellow tigress (King Hu, 1966)
During the Ming Dynasty, gangsters, soldiers and spies meet in a tea house "In the middle of nowhere" who are fighting over the kidnapped son of a general. Films of this kind provided escapist entertainment in the 1950s and 1960s for a poor proletariat in Hong Kong, but also for the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia and the United States.

Kung fu movies have been one of the most popular genres since the beginning of Chinese cinema. But with this film, the director King Hu managed to bring the fighting style together with the acrobatic tradition of Chinese opera and cast it in the form of a movie. When his fighters run up walls, do somersaults, balance on banisters or fly through windows, all the stops are pulled: hidden trampolines and ropes, but also a virtuoso, lightning-fast film montage, because the film theorist David Bordwell compares King Hu with the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein .

When everyday objects such as chopsticks, coins or baskets become weapons in the fighting scenes, from today's perspective this also reminds of how the demonstrators in Hong Kong today use the simplest means to defend themselves: diving goggles against tear gas, laser pointers against surveillance cameras, umbrellas against rubber bullets, Leaf blowers against smoke bombs, cling film against Unimogs.

The Death Claw Strikes Again (Bruce Lee, 1972)
"Be water, my friend" is a motto of the demonstrators in Hong Kong, which is supposed to describe their tactics of the "leaderless insurrection". One wants to avoid direct confrontation with the police during actions. Instead, short, unannounced blockades and protests should attract attention before quickly disappearing into the bustle of the big city: anonymously, flexibly and spontaneously.

The phrase comes from Bruce Lee, Hong Kong's first international superstar. In the American television show "Longstreet", in which he had a supporting role, he explained his life maxim in 1971: "Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend. "

Bruce Lee is remembered today as an actor and kung fu fighter. But Lee was more: he studied philosophy at the University of Washington in Seattle, wrote poetry and developed his own self-defense technique Jeet Kune Do, which he taught in his own school. Here, too, the focus was on the principle of letting things take their course and reacting flexibly and without predetermined technology or dogma. This method is in the tradition of Taoism and the principle of Wu wei, action through inaction.

Born in San Francisco - the fact that his grandmother was German has never been refuted or proven to this day - he commuted back and forth between Hong Kong and the USA throughout his life. In Hong Kong he was a child star, in the United States he appeared in television series such as "Batman" and "The Green Hornet" in the 1960s, before making the four action films in Hong Kong that made him a world star. The international breakthrough came with "The Man with Death Claw" (1973), but the more interesting film is "The Death Claw Strikes Again" from 1972, for which he was also responsible for the script and direction.
Chuck Norris battles Bruce Lee in Death Claw Strikes Again. (& copy picture-alliance, Everett Collection)

Tang Lung (Bruce Lee), a young man from Hong Kong, travels to Rome to help a relative's restaurant there. The mafia tries to take over the restaurant, which Tang Lung can prevent through his martial arts. When the mafia boss calls in a Japanese judo master and a European boxer to help, Tang Lung's fighting technique proves to be superior. In the final fight, Bruce Lee competes against a young Chuck Norris in the Coliseum, whom he also defeats.

The film underlines the globalized nature of Hong Kong cinema: also directors like Wong-Kar Wai ("Happy Together", 1997) or films like "Meals on Wheels" (1984) or "Rumble in the Bronx" (1994) with Jackie Chan relocated the action to locations that are exotic from the Chinese perspective, such as Europe or America. But above all, film hero Tang Lung himself is ultimately a Chinese guest worker in a foreign country, which also reminds us that Hong Kong was only a stopover for many of its temporary residents and that many emigrated from there to the United States and Europe.

House of 72 Tenants (Choir Yuen, 1973)
Films set in the overcrowded tenements of the big city are a sub-genre of their own in Chinese film history. The surprise success, which attracted more viewers to the cinema when it was released in 1973 than Bruce Lee's "The Man with the Death Claw", is based on a theater play from Shanghai from 1945, but is set in Hong Kong in the early 1970s. Here as there, the vast majority of the population lives in poverty and poor housing conditions. It is exploited by corrupt officials, greedy landlords and merciless employers. In the film, a greedy landlady tries to drive the 72 residents of a run-down apartment block - factory workers, hawkers, beggars, prostitutes - from their homes in order to open a brothel.

In 1967 the social injustices in Hong Kong led to violent uprisings. From the early 1970s, the British colonial government began to fight corruption and mismanagement. The economic rise of Hong Kong began: a city of sweatshops, in which cheap toys and electronic products "Made in Hong Kong" were produced, advanced to a hub of international finance and a popular tourist destination.

If more sophisticated films were previously shot in Mandarin, Hong Kong Cantonese was spoken in this film. This marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Hong Kong cinema, which from then on focused more and more on the city's urban culture. The film is so popular to this day that various sequels and remakes followed.

Hong Kong Vice (Johnny Mak, 1984)
A group of former Red Guards with combat experience comes to Hong Kong from China to rob a jeweler. The break-in fails, and the gang tries other, extremely brutal ways to secure their share of the city's prosperity.

The film marks the beginning of the "Heroic Bloodshed" period of Hong Kong thrillers, which culminated in slow-motion ballet-like shootings by directors like John Woo. Beyond the violence, however, a closer look also expresses the uneasiness of the Hong Kong people at the economic opening of China under Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s. The poor neighbors from China are shown in great detail as uncultivated proletarians in Hong Kong, which has grown rich and tasted.

Dislikes towards mainland Chinese also play a role in the current events in Hong Kong. [12] In addition, the protests are fueled by the fact that Hong Kongers are facing an upper class of nouveau riche mainland Chinese who have a say in the politics of the city. Their prosperity is explained not least by connections to the realm of the Chinese mafia, the so-called triads.Triad thugs are also suspected behind the events at Yuen Long train station in July 2019, during which protesters critical of the government were attacked by armed men in white T-shirts and the police did not intervene.

The Lucky Guy (Lee Lik-chi, 1998)
A rent increase could mean the end of the "Lucky" coffee house that Mr. Lee has run for 40 years and whose egg tarts are well known all over town. The regular customers are trying to save their second home. The comedy starring the popular comedian Stephen Chow, who has meanwhile also gained international fame with films such as "Kung Fu Hustle" (2007), is about gentrification and property speculation in Hong Kong that threaten bourgeois urban culture. The latter is also being defended by the demonstrators in present-day Hong Kong. At the same time, the wonderfully silly comedy is an ode to the desire of Hong Kongers for their local specialties, which Chow made absurd in "The God of Cookery" (1996) through a cooking competition. A sign of the times is also that Chow has turned away from nonsense comedies, which thematize Hong Kong's urban culture and which were once his trademark, and now only produces elaborate, extremely successful blockbusters for the Chinese market.

Durian Durian (Fruit Chan, 2000)
Fruit Chan was one of the first directors who, thanks to digital technology, were able to make their own independent films on a low budget. His films are made beyond the big film studios and defy the conventions of commercial Hong Kong cinema. In the first part of "Durian Durian" we follow the prostitute Yan, whose depressing existence in the red light district of Portland Street in the Kowloon district is shown in bright colors and quick assemblies. The second part accompanies Yan on the journey back to her homeland in northern China and is characterized by long shots and muted colors. Even if "Durian Durian" addresses the negative consequences of the Chinese influence on Hong Kong in the form of poverty prostitution and crime, it also shows empathy for the immigrants, who are sensitively characterized.

Dream Home (Pang Ho-cheung, 2010)
The current protests in Hong Kong are also borne out by the frustration of the immeasurably high rents caused by property speculation and threatening the very existence of rents, which threaten to eradicate any developed urban culture. While the tenants in "House of 72 Tenants" are still banding together to prevent their letting, Cheng Lai-sheung (Josie Ho) wants to conquer an apartment in a skyscraper on his own in this pitch-black and quite brutal comedy - and be one of them Violence. Today in Hong Kong you apparently have to go over dead bodies to find a home.

A Simple Life (Ann Hui, 2012)
Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) worked in the Leung family home for over 60 years. Only one son of the Leung family, the film producer Roger, lives in Hong Kong. When Ah Tao can no longer work after a stroke, she moves into a nursing home. During the visits of Roger, played by the ageless, eternal Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau, conversations with his former maid not only illuminate the history of Hong Kong from a British colony to a globalized "gateway to the world", but also the costs of this development. When the touching film by arthouse director Ann Hui finds the history of the city in the supposedly unspectacular life of the housemaid, the cinema again plays an important role, as numerous guest appearances by Hong Kong stars like Sammo Hung or Tsui Hark underline.

Ten Years (Kwok Zune / Wong Fei-pang / Jevons Au / Chow Kwun-Wai / Ng Ka-leung, 2015)
This film is at the same time a consequence of the "umbrella protests" in Hong Kong in 2014 and a harbinger of the demonstrations of the past few months: five filmmakers shot a compilation film with practically no budget, which thinks about the Chinese influence on Hong Kong ten years into the future. In 2025, Cantonese language is banned in Hong Kong, and traders who still sell Hong Kong eggs are being terrorized by a sort of Red Guard of children. The only form of resistance to the Chinese dictatorship is self-immolation.
Children in Red Guard look terrorize shopkeepers in "Ten Years". (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

"Ten Years" was more successful than "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" when it was released in Hong Kong in 2015, but quickly disappeared from theaters under unclear circumstances. It was then shown for free in crowded demonstrations in public spaces and under city highways. The televised broadcast of the Hong Kong Film Awards, in which "Ten Years" was chosen as the best film, was not broadcast on Chinese state television. Netflix has since bought the international rights to the film. Since there is no Netflix in China, the film is still not shown there. The movie's makers say they haven't received any commissions in the Hong Kong film industry since their independent low budget production.


Most recently, film stars like Tony Leung Ka-fai and Daniel Chan have spoken out against the violence and vandalism of the demonstrators. Actress Denise Ho, on the other hand, supported the umbrella demonstrators with a speech at the United Nations. When Chinese actress Liu Yifei expressed her support for the Hong Kong police on social media, an immediate boycott of the Disney remake "Mulan," in which she starred.

Obviously, the cinema cannot stay out of the political controversy that is currently taking place in Hong Kong. However, the political or social commentary in the films from Hong Kong is often hidden in the subtext or has to be read between the lines - actually not that much of a difference to the films from mainland China, which are censored.