Hong Kong Filography Vol. 1: 1913-1941

The Hong Kong Film Archive has compiled and published four books so far under the title Hong Kong Filmography being an attempt to list systematically and chronologically the complete film output of Hong Kong. So far, the series has reached the end of the fifties, but the first volume only covers up until 1941, the pre-war years. It is a fascinating, but frustrating, book to read.

Hong Kong Filmography Volume 1 lists an amazing 600 feature films and documentaries produced in the pre-war years. Tragically, only a paltry five have survived: four feature films and a documentary. Only fifty film stills have been preserved. So in essence the book is only a fragmentary assemblage of information, pulled from secondary sources, about movies we will never see.

The first movie listed is CHUANG ZHU TESTS HIS WIFE (1913), a silent film written by Li Minwei and directed by Li Beihai, the fathers of Hong Kong cinema. The story itself concerns Chuang Tzu, a man who decides to test his wife's vow not to marry again after his death. He fakes his death. After mourning, she finds herself falling in love with a young man, who turns out to be Tzu in disguise. When he reveals himself (no doubt with an "A-ha!" and much finger pointing), she hangs herself in shame. The movie wasn't even released theatrically in Hong Kong, it was released in Los Angeles. The first theatrical Hong Kong release doesn't appear until 1924's THE CALAMITY OF MONEY, a film about which nothing much besides the title is really known. The first feature length fiction film appeared the following year, ROUGE, about a murder and an embroidered shoe. Hong Kong's first picture with sound was THE IDIOT'S WEDDING NIGHT, a slapstick comedy released in 1933.

It was not until 1934 that Hong Kong began to show life as the filmmaking center it is recognized as today. Between 1913-1933, a mere 20 movies were released. 1934 nearly doubled that amount, and each year after the amount of films released increased rapidly, until 1939, which saw 125 new releases. Unfortunately, the book is silent about what was happening over in China's other great filmmaking center, Shanghai. However, it can be assumed that, as more filmmakers and actors fled Shanghai to temporary refuge in Hong Kong during the sino-Japanese war, the one industry declined while the other prospered.

Some genres of the period are unfamiliar to modern viewers. There were the National Defense pictures, which called on viewers to do their patriotic duty and support the Chinese war effort. Director Kwan Man-ching shot a legendary trilogy of films, beginning with the rather straightforward RESIST! (1936). 1937's BLOOD AND TEARS AT THE BORDER drew a hard line in its story of two brothers, one an officer, the other a traitor, selling food to the enemy. The officer does his duty for his country and over the pleas of his family kills his brother. The third film, PUBLIC ENEMY (1938), dramatized the plight of the common people during wartime, and pretty much all the principals end up dying defending the homeland. Other National Defense features tried to inspire people in all walks of life. LIFELINE (1935) told the story of a poor man, unable to pay for his mother's funeral and causing hardship to his pregnant wife, who is nonetheless able to work proudly on China's railway system, "for the country's defense and progress." NATIONAL HEROINE (1937) motivated women, and was also the first Hong Kong film ever directed by a woman, one Ng Kam-ha. In 1938, the Hong Kong film industry rallied together to make AT THIS CRUCIAL JUNCTURE to raise funds for disaster relief as a result of the war. In it, a group of students manage to inspire everyone in the community to unite to fight the Japanese. According to the synopsis, the film is considered to be one of the top 100 Chinese films ever made.

There were also didactic films, designed to instruct their audiences. These films cautioned viewers to not spend too freely, or go out with too many women or men. Those that did ended up ruining their lives. Rich men become rickshaw drivers; adultery lead to suicide and imprisonment. Take FALLEN ANGEL (1938), the story of a country girl who becomes a famous star. She becomes a rich man's wife, and "burns a $500 note to light her cigarette." Naturally, "from there, she soon falls to the gutter, becoming a criminal, a beggar, a drifter, and a prostitute." As if that isn't enough for one movie, she eventually redeems herself and returns to the countryside and "marries a cowherd, advocating conservation and promoting agricultural production."!!

Other genres look, well, pretty much the same. Comedies of the period tended to rely heavily on slapstick, with interchangeable idiots, fops, bumbling detectives, and country bumpkins who have a series of misadventures while trying without much success to negotiate life in the sophisticated big city. The Little Rascals would have felt right at home. There were erotic films as well, complete with lead actresses who disclaim their involvement afterwards. Snakes and she-demons were then, as now, popular topics.

Early horror films look quite enticing, and reading about them makes me all the more sad that the films most likely no longer exist. Take HOUSE NUMBER 36 (1936), a true-crime docudrama about a jealous wife who kills her husband's mistress, cuts her into pieces, stuffs the remains in a sack, and tosses it in a pond. Anthony Wong could have gotten some tips for his Bunman performance if only he could have seen CANNIBALIC WOMAN (1939), about the wife of an army officer who has discovered a taste for human flesh. And then there are the more traditional horror films. MIDNIGHT VAMPIRE (1936) involves two brothers, one of whom kills the other over an inheritance. Then, in proper Tales from the Crypt fashion, the dead brother returns for vengeance. Even more sinister was THE EVIL SCIENTIST (1936), who "creates freaks, such as a giant of sixty feet and a dwarf of six inches." THE WALKING CORPSE appears in 1939, along with female vampires who roam the streets of Hong Kong (VAMPIRES OF THE HAUNTED MANSION), and hiding out in its own underground kingdom, THE THREE THOUSAND YEAR OLD VAMPIRE.

And what about kung fu? A modern genre, I once thought, but again the book surprises. The first Hong Kong film to feature martial arts directors appeared in 1938: THE ADVENTURES OF FANG SHIYU, a film popular enough to spawn a sequel the following year. Even the fighting swordswoman has made her appearance by 1939 in LADY IN RED.

There are many more surprising discoveries than the sample I've listed. HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY VOL. 1 is a large, heavy volume filled with information. But it is information about movies we will never see, so it is about equal parts fascinating and depressing. Additionally, the book provides no context for the films, no overview of the studios at the time, no information about the major stars, nothing about the war. It is a list of films, each detailed with what information was on hand, nothing more, nothing less. A difficult book to recommend, but the right reader may lose hours in its pages.

HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY, VOL 1: 1913-1941 is published by the Hong Kong Film Archive for $235 HKD. Visit their site to find purchasing information.

This article was originally published on December 8, 2003 at the Hong Kong Move Database.

Posted by Peter Nepstad on June 15, 2004.

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