Chinese New Wave

The 10 essential films from the Hong Kong New Wave

Chinese New Wave

I never studied film formally at school, but as a kid, I spent most of my time
in cinemas.” – Wong Kar-wai

Before the New Wave arrived in the late 1970s, the film industry in Hong Kong was propped up by a robust mass-production studio system which produced countless world-renowned kung-fu action flicks.

Global stars Bruce Lee had helped introduce the genre to international audiences but after Lee’s death in 1973, there was a significant decline in the quality of martial arts films that were being produced at the time.

This is where the Hong Kong New Wave filmmakers stepped in to challenge the status quo and to create a cinematic tradition that was separate from the mainstream works.

This movement is often divided into two distinct periods: the Hong Kong New Wave, which included eminent directors Ann Hui and Tsui Hark, and the Second New Wave that followed.

Un other famous film movements the French New Wave, Hong Kong’s burgeoning filmmakers did not share overtly similar styles or thematic obsessions.

They are grouped together because they injected their creative flair into a stagnant industry in their own ways, moving away from studio productions and using new technology, synchronous sound, new editing techniques and filming on location.

One of the leading figures of the Second New Wave, Stanley Kwan said, “I think that the Hong Kong cinema has always favoured the commercial aspect.

Until the late 1970s, before the arrival of the New Wave, all the films produced in Hong Kong focused on the market, aiming for a success at the box office.

Whether cape and sword, kung-fu, musical movies, popular comedies, or the erotic films of Li Han Hsiang: all were produced in order to earn money first.”

He added, “I wouldn’t even dare to speak about my artistic ambitions. It’s difficult to exist in the film industry in Hong Kong. As a filmmaker, I try to print a particular style to my movies.

Take people Ann Hui, Wong Kar-wai or myself: from our very beginning, we wanted to shoot with the greatest comedians, because we knew that their names on the bill will allow our films to be distributed properly, and perhaps to meet the success at the box office.

It was only after obtaining those actors consent that we can begin to try to impose our own style, our artistic point of view.”

We take a look at some of the definitive works from the Hong Kong New Wave in order to understand the unique artistic sensibilities of this important movement in the history of cinema.

Story of a Discharged Prisoner (Patrick Lung Kong – 1967)

This seminal 1967 black-and-white film has a formative influence on the crime genre and has partially inspired John Woo’s famous 1986 work A Better Tomorrow. It tells the story of a prison inmate and how he struggles to assimilate into normative society after being released from prison. It is a powerful investigation of people who solely believe in condemnation and not reformation.

“I entered the Cantonese movie business as an actor in the 1950s and became a director the following decade,” Patrick Lung Kong reflected. “At the time, the industry was mostly making Cantonese opera and cheap Kung Fu pictures, mass production without quality control, to the point of facing extinction.”

The film’s premiere generated massive controversy. Protestors littered the theatre with homemade bombs and called to say ‘Burn that film, burn it!’ At the time of its release, Hong Kong was in a volatile state and there were riots everywhere. The director recalled, “The audience just stepped over the bombs. Thank god, it broke all the records. That’s why I had a third film to make.”

The Arch (Tang Shu Shuen – 1968)

Set in an 18th-century village, this 1968 period drama is a proto-feminist masterpiece tells the story of a widow (Lisa Lu) who suppresses her love for a cavalry captain when she realises her daughter s him as well. She navigates the restrictive concepts of “honour” and the prevalent patriarchal systems of that time but doing so means to betray her own identity as a woman with autonomous desires.

Tang declared, “I am not interested in politics. If I make a film to talk about a modern Chinese person, I won’t put the emphasis on the social reality. I don’t social comment. That’s something very superficial, very shallow, very low. Society, country; those are all human creations.

“Throughout several thousand years – it (society) either exists in one form or another, and they are all so similar. Art should go beyond the social and the political to deal with the essential human condition.”

Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind (Tsui Hark – 1980)

One of the most notorious films of the Hong Kong New Wave, Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind was initially banned for its graphic depictions of violence but it generated so much interest in the work that the film became a Box Office success when the edited version was released. It features three young men who are manipulated by a sociopathic beauty after they run over and kill a pedestrian.

In a 2011 interview, Tsui Hark said, “I was a documentary filmmaker in New York City 30 years ago. Not exactly a filmmaker, I was actually assisting people make documentaries. And I envisioned myself as a filmmaker in the future. In later years I became a director in Hong Kong.

“Coming back to New York City again, I do wish that I could work on a documentary about Asian-American history, in order to leave a record of our ancestors, to relate what they’ve done for us so we can know how to connect history together. And so that people can learn from what was created for us in the past and that, maybe, we can do the same for those in the future.”

Father and Son (Allen Fong – 1981)

The winner of the Best Film and Best Director categories at the very first Hong Kong Film Awards, Father and Son is a humanistic masterpiece which tells the story of a man stuck in a low-income job who wants his son to become successful. However, his son dreams of having a career in comics and films and often rebels against his father’s wishes by getting in trouble at school. Father and Son is arguably Fong’s most personal work and a brilliant one at that.

“I started making films at the age of twelve (laughs),” Fong revealed. “Before that, I don’t know, I was not aware. Before I was even 12 in fact, maybe even around 8 or 10-years-old. In Father and Son, there is a fire scene because the child is experimenting. He tries to do some home entertainment. It comes from me. 

“There is also Charlie Chaplin, all his films that I love so much. I started doing things on my own very early on. And at the same time I was going to school, I finished my cinema studies at the university. I was pretty confident that I was going to make a career as a filmmaker.”

Boat People (Ann Hui – 1982)

One of the pioneers of the Hong Kong New Wave, Ann Hui paints a compelling portrait of the Vietnamese people after the communist takeover following the Fall of Saigon. Boat People is the last film in Hui’s “Vietnam trilogy” and it focuses on a Japanese photojournalist who tries to document Vietnam’s efforts to rebuild after the devastation of the Vietnam War.

“Even before Boat People, I got offers to make movies from companies that import films to Taiwan,” Hui said. “The companies said they could fix the import regulations. In any case, I could only make one film a year, so it didn’t matter. I’m not losing many offers. Anyway, it just sorted itself out after Boat People.

“When the film was supposed to be distributed in Taiwan, I wrote a letter to the Society of Freedom. The producer of Boat People said I could write anything, that I hadn’t gone to China for any political reasons, purely for the location. But the Society of Freedom [anti-communist organisation] weren’t satisfied.”

Homecoming (Yim Ho – 1984)

Yim Ho’s magnum opus Homecoming is the story of a gorgeous, modern woman Carol who travels to her ancestral home in China after 20 years to visit the grave of her recently deceased grandmother. The film is a China/Hong Kong co-production which is quite fitting because it tries to show how different yet similar the lives of the mainlanders are when compared to the young woman.

When she meets her old friend Pearl, she experiences the allure of the simple life she left behind but nothing is that simple. Carol realises that there is something missing in Pearl’s life as well. The film beautifully contrasts the dynamism of modernity with the tranquility of a primitive agrarian life.

An Autumn’s Tale (Mabel Cheung – 1987)

Set in New York, this 1987 romantic drama features a young and naive woman from Hong Kong who goes to the US to study.

She is shown around by her street-wise cabbie cousin as she tries to reunite with her boyfriend but unexpected developments take place.

The film combines visually stunning cinematography and an impeccable sound design, making An Autumn’s Tale one of the essential films of the Second New Wave.

Cheung spoke of her partnership with Alex Law, “We decide who will be the director first. And that’s how much we want to get involved. For example, Echoes Of A Rainbow was about Alex’s childhood, so of course he wanted to be director.

“And for An Autumn’s Tale, it’s more my version of our life in New York, so I wanted to be the director. Once that is decided the rest is easy, because we used to working in a team in film school, and we know that only one person can make the final decision.”

Rouge (Stanley Kwan – 1987)

An adaptation of a novel with the same title by Lilian Lee, Stanley Kwan manages to construct an atmospheric nostalgia for a lost history in this cinematic re-telling of a tragic story.

It questions the idea of “socially-acceptable” romance while transcending the biological limitations of life itself.

The film is also remembered for the tragic demise of two of its Hong Kong film legends 15 years after the film came out (Leslie Cheung committed suicide and Anita Mui died of cervical cancer, both in 2003).

“I was raised in a family and environment that had very conservative ideas about gender,” Kwan revealed. “But because my father died early and my mother was always busy trying to bring in an income, I became a sort of ‘mother’ role within my own family.

I washed clothes, prepared food and took care of my siblings.

When I first started to realise my sexuality, I think the confusion and repression I felt had nothing to do with being gay per se, but everything to do with the fact that I had been performing a traditionally ‘female’ role in my family.

“I felt silenced, because within that conventional dynamic, women often don’t have a voice. I have always been thankful for the fact that the film industry gave me the opportunity to create, express and reflect on my feelings and experiences, and storytelling has helped me in exploring a deeper and more diverse understanding of women and their gender roles.”

Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai – 1994)

Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express has become a cult-classic. It is an unconventional exploration of the concept of love, told in two subtly overlapping sequences involving two separate lovesick Hong Kong policemen mulling over their relationship problems.

Godard’s Breathless, Chungking Express is a portrait of lovers lost in the constructs of modernity that a big city has to offer. Wong Kar-wai uses unconventional editing techniques to make the story more immersive, an allegorical account of consumerism, violence and the impotence of being in love in the modern world.

“Every film [has] their luck,” the auteur revealed. “Certain films, the process is really difficult: the weather is not right, the cast is not right, the place is not right.

So, there is a lot happening during the production. But for Chungking Express, it was the opposite. I would say it was a very lucky film. Why? Well, we shot the film in six weeks.

Relatively, it was the shortest production time of all my films.”

Made in Hong Kong (Fruit Chan – 1997)

A brilliant film by another pioneer of the Second New Wave, Made in Hong Kong is a street-punk-drama which focuses on high-school dropout Autumn Moon.

He works as a debt collector with his slow-witted sidekick Sylvester and falls for a debtor’s daughter who has a fatal kidney disease.

Made on a very low budget of $80,000, Made in Hong Kong presents an unforgiving urban jungle with fleeting moments of genuine human connections.

The filmmaker said, “I do not want to go just one way, and deal with a love story, for example, with mainstream style. I have my style; maybe because I grew up in the mainstream industry when I am doing an independent or an arthouse movie, I do not want to bore myself.”

Adding, “Actually, I do not want to bore the audience, this is why I make movies that make me happy. Whenever the narrative is of one style or of a set style, I want to change it, this set style is not acceptable for me.”


Hong Kong New Wave: A Debate

Chinese New Wave
During the last few days, and on the occasion of our tribute to Hong Kong New Wave, there have been a number of discussions on regarding what is, and more intently, how long the particular wave lasted.

We asked a number of experts to share their opinion

During the last few days, and on the occasion of our tribute to Hong Kong New Wave, there have been a number of discussions on (link 1, link 2) regarding what is, and more intently, how long the particular wave lasted.

Our interpretation of the wave was Pak Tong Cheuk’s Hong Kong New Wave Cinema (1978-2000) , the definition Wikipedia gives, and two articles from (link 1, link 2). However, a number of experts disagree with this opinion. We asked a number of them to share their opinion.

Arnaud Lanuque

For me, the HK New Wave starts in 1978 with the Extra and ends up around 1984 (with most of the filmmakers from the movement being absorbed by big studios).

But, as you said yourself, it’s certainly open to debate and I know some have a more restrictive time frame of 1979/1982. To answer your question about the second wave, I would date it from 1984 (first films of Stanley Kwan and Mabel Cheung) to 1990.

But, once again, opened to debate and probably even more than for the New Wave, as the Second Wave is even looser in its definition

Kevin Ma

I would not agree with Cheuk Pak Tong’s assessment of how he dates the New Wave. Having been his student in film school, I also don’t remember him dating the New Wave up to the 2000s in his classes, either.

Most local film people here in Hong Kong would limit the Hong Kong New Wave to the 70’s and early 80’s, and specifically referring to a group of foreign-educated filmmakers who came back to Hong Kong and created films that looked dramatically different from other mainstream films. For example, Shaw Brothers productions at the time wouldn’t be considered part of the New Wave.

I know the English wiki page follows Cheuk’s assertion, but the Chinese wiki page is more accurate. The description of the Chinese version of Cheuk‘s book also dates it from 70s to early 80s. 

Earl Jackson

At the risk of sounding weaselly, I would to defer the question to Hong Kong cinema specialists since I am not one. However, what I can say is this: a movement and a genre are very different things.

Any debate over the extent of Hong Kong New Wave is more instructive than, for example, what films can be included in film noir and when did film noir definitely end. Moreover, the debate of Hong Kong new wave has more at stake than Japanese New Wave, by virtue of the fact we’re talking about Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has been excluded from history in so many ways, such debates are always going to be conditioned by that exclusion. I find Victor Fan’s suggestion that there are two new waves – an artistic and commercial – compelling.

I would only add that the achievements of the “commercial” side ultimately make the division between commercial and art moot – something that postmodern studies also did.

Along these lines -I urge people to read Fan’s “What is Hong Kong Cinema” in his book Extraterritoriality – because every aspect of questions of definition, lineage and cultural “identity” are in play in these questions – What is Hong Kong Cinema? What is Cantonese Cinema? etc. My other recommendation is to remember that these questions and explorations are taken in good faith and even disagreements -strong ones – should reflect that awareness. We get a lot farther in conversations when we wrestle with the questions instead of the questioners.

Victor Fan

I think that the debate on when the Hong Kong New Wave began and when it ended (or, according to Cheuk Pak Tong, it is still going on) is a moot point, precisely because it depends largely on what we mean by the ‘New Wave’. In “Extraterritoriality”, I deliberately leave the definition open.

This is because unless we have an agreement on what we mean by the New Wave, there is no way we can really define its starting or ending point. Moreover, if we regard history as a ‘process’, rather than a series of phases, we cannot really say where it formally started and where it came to an end.

From a purely industrial perspective, most filmmakers in Hong Kong would probably agree that the New Wave emerged on television in the mid-1970s. But then, we forget that the critical discourse that made the New Wave possible was already active in the Chinese Students Weekly in the 1960s.

Meanwhile, in the 1980s, while some New Wave filmmakers turned to mainstream industrial feature filmmaking, others turned to video art.

Personally, I do side with some critics around the 1980s, that after the release of Long Arm to the Law, it was difficult to justify that a wave persisted in the mainstream film industry.

This is not to say that other filmmakers who started their careers in the 1980s Fruit Chan and Wong Kar Wai did not propel the industrial towards a new moment, but they had no actual connection with the Chinese Students Weekly Group and the Phoenix Film Club.

They were also not part of the group of directors who flourished in television directing in the 1970s. They definitely represented a new generation of filmmakers already, even though they might have been inspired by the earlier generation. However, those filmmakers who became experimental filmmakers did go on with their experimentation in the 1990s.

Many people may disagree with me, but interestingly, in experimental film and video making, there is indeed a strong lineage from the New Wave. After all, Ying E Chi is still one of the most important producers and distributors of experimental films and documentaries today.

Man on the Brink

Freddie Wong

Hong Kong New Wave Cinema started around 1979, with young directors Ann Hui, Allen Fong, Tsui Hark, Yim Ho, Cheuk Pak-Tong, Lau Shing Hon, Dennis Yu, Peter Yung, Kirk Wong, Clifford Choi, Patrick Tam, Alex Cheung, Terry Tong,etc, all made their debut feature films circa 1979 – 1982. All of them, with few exceptions, studied filmmaking abroad ( especially in UK or USA ), returned to HK, gained experience in TV stations, making TV dramas, very often in 16mm film format.

I don’t think there was a second HK new wave at that time. People Stanley Kwan, Mabel Cheung, Alex Law, Wong Kar-wai, Mabel Cheung, Fruit Chan, were referred as Post-New Wave ( 後新浪潮)directors, but never “second new wave” directors, at least not in this part of the world.

It’s interesting to note that the second HK new wave, which I called Fresh New Wave in my recent article, started about 5 years ago, with very young film directors, most of them studied filmmaking in local universities, and were able to make some decent debut films, telling genuinely Hong Kong stories.

To quote a few : Ten Years, Weeds on Fire, Trivisa, Mad World, Still Human, My Prince Edward, Beyond the Dream, Time ( not yet released ) The Fresh New Wave of HK cinema is probably not as “high”and glamorous as the First New Wave, due to the unfavourable economic and political situations in Hong Kong in recent years, but it’s going to be a long long battle for this youngest generation of Hong Kong filmmakers.

Bastian Meiresonne

The term “New Wave” originated from the French cinematographic movement “Nouvelle Vague”, which lasted mainly from 1958 to 1962, sometimes said up until late 1960s by some critics.

Directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol or Jacques Rivette, born in late 1930s, wanted to go against the reliance on past forms (often adapted from traditional novelistic structures), explored new approaches to editing, visual style, and narrative, as well as engagement with the social and political upheavals of the era.

It influenced generation of directors worldwide – even if critics and researchers would nuance its real impact and place it within a universal tendency of a young generation going against traditional forms in a fast-changing world, and some filmmakers adapting same techniques without having directly being influenced by the French New Wave.

Ever since, any batch of new directors emerging in any country over the world are fast to be labeled “New Wave” – in some cases, it defines merely a handful of titles which come and go without any particular impact.

In the case of Hong Kong, would the term “New Wave” actually match France’s original movement or is just another “label” put quickly on something going on? A much-discussed matter right from the start among industrial and institutional players, but also among some of the particular directors, who, back at that time, even rejected the label more or less.

In short and in my very humble and personal perspective, it might apply to them: a batch of Hong Kong directors emerging at late 1970s / beginning of 1980s, rejecting Shaw Brothers’ hugely implanted studio system, going against traditional filmmaking conventions and repeating formulas, and exploring new approaches to editing, visual style, and narrative in a bright diversity of genres such as fantasy, martial arts, crime and horror movie. They would take the cameras out on the street, some filming in almost documentary guerilla-style, not hesitating as to include some social and political upheavals of the era. their French colleagues, most of them were “intellectuals”, very well educated (sometimes in foreign countries) and having had the advantage to be well trained during their work in television (which, finally, was the real “New Wave” turf during Hong Kong’s golden age of TV during the 1970s, where almost anything had been possible). And as diversified the genre movies and outcoming results, they all had in common the same bleak vision of (most of the time) contemporary Hong Kong.

However, opposite to their French colleagues, they didn’t share a common ideology. They were no group, they were barely connected with each other, and they did not push all together into one and the same direction. No, they were newcomers with a huge appetite to change things, bring their ideas ahead – and eventually looking for some sort of success.

And this means also a rather quick end to the so-called “New Wave” – or “First New Wave” as some critics and researches defined the first batch of directors.

After some daring and sparkling beginnings, most of them turned to more commercial projects, sometimes even working with some big commercial studios, new or old, reigning over theaters, box-office and general audiences back at that time.

Because real change does not occur overnight – especially in something as settled as big old pal “movie industry / business”. Just as a wave comes and fades away quite quickly in time (unless it is a “tsunami”), in my personal opinion HK (First) New Wave faded after only a few years, 1984 to give an exact date.

Some critics and researchers say the Wave lasted on with other directors entering Hong Kong’s movie scene during 1980s, such as Stanley Kwan, Wong Kar-wai, Mabel Cheung or Alex Law.

As much as I love their work and can say some of them had some impact on Hong Kong Cinema back in the 1980s, most are a few years younger (digging difference of life experience, history background and personal perspective), entered Hong Kong industry at a very different moment, at a time when their predecessors had already brought big changes, did not share the same vision of first batch and had really different approaches of the directors preceding them. And most didn’t experienced HK TV’s golden age the first batch lived through and mostly contributed to. This means by no way any devaluation of their work, just that I see them as “heirs” of the (first) New Wave, a “Second” Wave to say so…even if I think that term a less appropriate and almost more reducing word than to call them “heirs”.

Non-exhaustive list of personal most favorite so-called “New Wave” movies list

(Special mention to Patrick Lung Kong, whose STORY OF DISCHARGED PRISONER (1967), and even more his YESTERDAY, TODAY, TOMORROW (1970) and HIROSHIMA 28 (1974) was a “New Wave” all to himself in HK Cinema !!).

JUMPING ASH (Leong Poh-Chi, 1976)

THE EXTRAS (Yim Ho, 1978)

AFFAIRS (Stephen Chin, 1979)

THE SYSTEM (Peter Yung, 1979)

THE SECRET (Ann Hui, 1979)

THE HOUSE OF THE LUTE (Lau Shing-On, 1979)

COPS AND ROBBERS (Alex Cheung, 1979)


STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE (Hua Yi-hong, 1980)


THE SAVIOURS (Rony Yu, 1980)

MAN ON THE BRINK (Alex Cheung, 1981)

FATHER AND SON (Allen Fong, 1981)

NOMAD (Patrick Tam, 1982)

LONELY FIFTEEN (David Lai, 1982)

AH YING (Allen Fong, 1982)


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