At the Forum des images, in Paris, a look back at the excitement of Hong Kong cinema

We may one day look at Hong Kong cinema as a sort of Atlantis, the famous mythical island of Antiquity which Plato says was swallowed up by the raging ocean. In fact, one of the most creative and vibrant cinematographies, long considered the third in the world in terms of production volume after the behemoths Bollywood and Hollywood, has slowly died out before our eyes.

In the mid-1990s, world cinema was regulated to Hong Kong time: talents from the peninsula left by the wagonload to revitalize American action cinema, John Woo was allocated a huge budget for Mission: Impossible 2 (2000), choreographer Yuen Woo-ping directs the fights of the Matrix trilogy and those of the Kill Bill diptych. At the same time, other filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai ( In the Mood for Love , 2000) or Johnnie To ( Election , 2005) entered the competition of major international festivals.

However, the trompe-l’oeil recognition of cinema labeled “HK” marked its swan song. On July 1, 1997, the ax fell: Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to China, beginning the lasting depression of production until then sheltered by a liberal economy. A string of economic and health crises (SARS in 2003, Covid-19 in 2020) deepened the decline and opened the way to the “normalization” of relations with Beijing. Last stage of a long process, the national security law, which came into force in 2021, reinforcing political censorship on works, has completed the gagging of the sector. If films continue to be produced in Hong Kong, it is an entire scene having forged its rebellious and undisciplined identity which, in a few years, has been swept off the map.

The copious retrospective “Portrait of Hong Kong” in one hundred screenings and eighty films, some unpublished, others rarely screened, which the Forum des images, in Paris, is devoting, until July 7, to this cinematographic profusion, comes timely reminder of its turbulent heritage. Through the ages and styles, Hong Kong cinema has always been a formidable field of experience within popular production. From the martial arts fights and the heroic passes of arms of the wu xia pian (“chivalrous tradition”), to the twirling jumps of fantastic creatures, it is the same quest of furious impulses, a great skein of trajectories , which are invented from one film to another. This formidable mobility was in tune with the state of a supercharged city, whose cinema, once leaving the studio, never stopped crisscrossing the maze, launching its characters to attack the streets, passages, interstices of tangled buildings sometimes hiding the light of day.

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