Hong Kong New Wave Cinema (1978-2000)

Pak Tong Cheuk,
Hong Kong New Wave Cinema (1978-2000).
Bristol: Intellect Books, 2008
ISBN: 9 781841501 48 2
UK£19.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Intellect Books

From the perspective of Anglophone cinema studies, we often share the assumption that Hong Kong cinema is fundamentally “mass-produced” and industry-driven.[1] With this presupposition in mind, however, what does it mean to study the Hong Kong New Wave (usually understood as a historical period between 1978 and the early 1980s), a label that usually conveys the idea of a conscious breach between certain stylistic decisions made by individual filmmakers and the imagined industrial norm? This question is posed by Pak Tong Cheuk in his book, Hong Kong New Wave Cinema (1978-2000), a long-awaited English translation of his study published in the Chinese language in 2003.[2]

In this translation, unfortunately, this thesis has been editorially erased. In addition, the scholarly language of Cheuk is transposed into a vernacular one, thus demanding the English-language readers to “reconstruct” the critical framework and logical coherence that lies behind the volume, one that has been reduced to a series of historical surveys, biographical references, and film synopses. In the end, perhaps this act of textual erasure reveals to us an epistemological difference between the ways Anglo-American and Hong Kong scholars imagine what Hong Kong cinema is.

In the Chinese edition, Cheuk argues that the New Wave can be identified by two historical shifts: a generic one, i.e. the re-emergence of the social realist film that has its roots in Shanghai-Hong Kong cinema in the 1930s (pp. 9-12); second, a turn to auteurist criticism, among journalists of the time, who identified the emergence of visionary directors who were trained, and as a result, aesthetically and generically informed, first by Anglo-American film schools, then by the local television industry (pp. 21-21; 29-49). In the English edition, however, we are left with Cheuk’s historical account without his argument.

This historical account, nonetheless, is arguably one of the most comprehensive ones about the emergence of the New Wave, written often with an insider’s perspective (Cheuk himself directed two “New Wave” films, Bao che [The Security], 1981, and Bin mei [Marianna], 1982). For him, the re-emergence of social realist films was the result of a heightened tension between the ruling authority and spectators who increasingly identified themselves as “ordinary citizens” under it, the emergence of college-educated spectators, directors, and producers, the polarisation between the middle classes and the working class during this early period of economic boom, and a tension between “national” (Chinese) and “regional” (Hong Kong) identities (pp. 14-22). In addition, the competitiveness between five television stations (who struggled for domination over a market of no more than 5 million viewers at the time) created a demand for creative programming and talents, who had the ambition to “reform,” and eventually become part of, the mass-produced film industry at large (pp. 15-16; 46-49).

In the rest of his book, Cheuk offers an “auteurist” account of each director’s work and creative trajectory. Within his “erased” theoretical framework, these “auteurist” studies are best understood not as discreet accounts of stylistic signatures, but as dialogues that allow us to understand how these “auteurs” have been negotiating with the industries, and how their signatures have largely entered the bloodstream of mass-produced cinema. In other words, for Cheuk, the New Wave is not so much a self-contained historical movement, but part and parcel of what we now identify as “Hong Kong cinema” from the 1980s to the present.[3] In this light, when studying the New Wave, one has to acknowledge the co-dependence and mutual interference between individual “auteurs,” who in turn must work within the generic and stylistic confines of the industry (pp. 232-33).

Even with the loss of Cheuk’s critical subtlety, this English translation still retains his historical insights. For example, his account of Ann Hui’s creative trajectory interweaves textual evidence from her films and his unique observations. For example, he suggests that Hui’s personal negotiation between a Japanese mother and a Chinese father, and her experiences of living in the Mainland, colonial Macau, Hong Kong, and later on, Japan, may have contributed to her penchant for defamiliarising what the cinematic spectators would have taken for granted as elements of “indigenous culture” (pp. 53-82). Such analysis gives nuances to our understanding of the New Wave as a form of colonial/postcolonial discourse as a personalised negotiation of conflicting political loyalties and identities. Similarly, Cheuk’s insider position allows him to closely analyse the inter-relationship between Tsui Hark’s personal frustration, colonial censorship, and conflicting political loyalties during the production of Diyi leixing weixian (Dangerous Encounter of the First Kind, 1980) (pp. 89-91). These analyses have the potential to help us rethink how we may position Hong Kong cinema within the larger historical fabric of Chinese and Sinophone cinemas, by taking into account their political ambivalence.

With the general assumption that Hong Kong cinema is “fundamentally commercial,” many of us still regard the Hong Kong New Wave as a historical anomie. What Cheuk proposes in his book is the idea that a meaningful study of Hong Kong cinema cannot be conducted unless we first challenge the implicit divide between the industrial norm and its anomie, and acknowledge that their boundaries, ever since the 1930s, have been in constant negotiations. Perhaps the conscious erasure of Cheuk’s theoretical framework, in this long-awaited but disappointing translation, is symptomatic of precisely our trouble with breaking down this imagined divide.

Victor Fan,
Yale University, USA


[1] This assumption is shared by David Bordwell and Stephen Teo, in their seminal works on Hong Kong cinema. See, for example, Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 2; see also, Teo, Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions(London: BFI, 1997).
[2] Pak Tong Cheuk, Xianggang xinlangchao dianying (Films from the Hong Kong New Wave) (Hong Kong: Cosmos Books, 2003).
[3] It is important to note that Cheuk ends his Chinese edition with discussions of films up to 2003 (the year of the book’s publication), whereas the English edition terminates in 2000, without sufficient theoretical or historical justification.

Created on: Tuesday, 1 December 2009

About the Author

Victor Fan

About the Author

Victor Fan

Victor Fan is a PhD candidate at Yale University, Film Studies and Comparative Literature, specialising in Chinese and British Cinemas, Contemporary Hollywood, New Media, and Film Theory. He is also a working filmmaker (with an MFA at USC) and composer (with a BM at Eastman). His works were published at Screen and CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, and his dissertation (completed) is titled “Football and Opium: Political Violence and the (Re)-Inventions of Cinema.”View all posts by Victor Fan →