Hong Kong Film, Hollywood and the New Global Cinema: No Film is an Island

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Hong Kong Film, Hollywood and the New Global Cinema: No Film is an Island

Martial artist and movie star Bruce Lee’s sculpture


Hong Kong Film, Hollywood and the New Global Cinema: No Film is an Island

Wenqi Guo, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University



Movies play a significant role in people’s leisure life even with the rapid development of Internet. No industry could succeed without a long period of development. The book, Hong Kong Film, Hollywood and the New Global Cinema: No Film is an Island, discusses the development of Hong Kong film industry in the last few decades. Taking advantage of global information that the colonial history has brought, Hong Kong film industry has experienced a long but fruitful process to grow and established itself as a filmmaking hub for the Chinese-speaking world. All of these would not have been realized without the tremendous contribution of filmmaking elites such as Tsui Hark and John Woo’s during the challenging time. The Hong Kong styled Kong-fu movies as well as horror movies, however, are also an indispensable element to carry the industry through and make a fine figure in the world. This book examines the Hong Kong film industry from different professional perspectives, giving readers a critical view of Hong Kong film industry.

Keywords: Genres of film, history, Hong Kong film, Hollywood production


Hong Kong Film, Hollywood and the New Global Cinema: No Film is an Island. Edited by Gina Marchetti and Tan See Kam. London: Routledge. 2007. ISBN: 9780415380683. 304 pp.


Hong Kong film has played an important role in the development of Hong Kong. Scrutinizing the film history of Hong Kong could help one develop a better understanding of the history of Hong Kong. Hong Kong Film, Hollywood and the New Global Cinema is a book written by more than one writer, most of whom are professors of film and cinema from famous universities, such as the University of Hong Kong and Griffith University. They all have their professional ideas and understandings of the history of Hong Kong cinema.

This book is different from an ordinary history book which just has some important events and some important people. It really covers a wide range of characteristics of Hong Kong cinema, and discusses what an important role it has played in changing global film markets. As the introduction of this book states:

It explores Hong Kong cinema’s inextricable links with China, Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, Australia, the United States, and the Chinese diaspora. It considers Hong Kong’s connection with Hollywood, which involves ties that bring together art cinema and popular transnational genres, and demonstrates how Hong Kong film, throughout its history, has challenged, redefined, expanded, and exceeded its borders. (Marchetti & Tan, 2007, p. 1)

So this book not only keeps an eye on the development of Hong Kong cinema, but also discusses Hong Kong film in the context of globally interconnected filmmaking practices and film scholarship.

There is a large difference in the style of writing between this book and other historical books, though it also covers the history of Hong Kong cinema from the late colonial era of 1980s to now. Instead of using time sequence, the editors divide it into three parts to provide a clearer analysis of the industry from different angles. These are ‘Hongkongers’ abroad’, ‘To-ing and fro-ing: transnational genres’ and ‘International players and a global niche’. There are fifteen chapters in total written by different writers.

In the first two chapters of part one, Professor Tan (the writer of chapter one) mainly uses the movie Shanghai Blues (Shanghai Zhi Ye; dir. Tsui Hark [Xu Ke], 1984) as an example to explain what New Hong Kong cinema is elaborating mainly with John Woo and Hong Kong’s kung fu films. What the two articles have in common is that they both focus on the background and the contribution the directors have made to the development of Hong Kong’s film industry. There are a great deal of sources to help readers better understand the development of Hong Kong cinema and the important role of Hong Kong films in the new global cinema.

Tsui Hark, a director of international stature with a transnational following, is regarded as Hong Kong’s Steven Spielberg and pioneer of Hong Kong Cinema. When Hong Kong’s film industry has just started to develop, however, there were many groundless allegations that Hong Kong films had plagiarised from Hollywood to some extent, just like Bordwell’s (2000) words here:

From the start Hong Kong film was indebted to America … Today Hollywood remains the reference point [for Hong Kong cinema]… As Hong Kong became part of world film culture [since the 1980s], America filmmakers returned the compliment of plagiarism…signal[ing] the Hongkongfication of American cinema. (pp. 139-41)

It is a mistake just “taking the Planet Hollywood tree for the forest of Hong Kong cinema” (Marchetti & Tan, 2007, p. 16), which indicates that Hong Kong and Hollywood cinemas both intersect and diverge in part, and we can see both similarity and differences between them. It is what Professor Tan stresses in the words ‘no film is an island’.

John Woo is the third Chinese star who went to Hollywood for further development right after Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. He had changed Chang Cheh’s signature ‘yanggang (staunch masculinity)’ approach to cinematic action and heroics, and focused on the friendship of brotherhood. He also obtained a hefty profit by consistently directing action films and also made a complete contribution to Hong Kong heroic bloodshed films. This is what the writer of this chapter says in the conclusion of this chapter: “The Pacific Passage is not a one-way street” (Marchetti & Tan, 2007, p. 49).

However, as a book to tell readers the history of Hong Kong cinema, the two chapters discussed above are special as they describe in detail the story of the movies mentioned in the articles. For example in the first chapter, Professor Tan uses almost four pages to describe the story of Shanghai Blues in chapter two. There are also many descriptions about John Woo’s six American films. On the one hand it makes people feel that it may not be necessary to do so in a book which focuses on the history of Hong Kong cinema. On the other hand, these descriptions do help readers have a close look at Hong Kong people’s lives in the past. So these descriptions are necessary.

In the other chapters of part one, we can see how Hong Kong films begin to develop globally. They were introduced to a great number of countries such as America, Thailand and Australia. In these chapters, writers do not focus on a certain movie or a director but more on cultures and histories of different countries instead. In addition, there is a special chapter that discusses Hong Kong television in Chinatown by Amy Lee, who has studied at the University of Hong Kong and Cornell University and her research interests include Asian film and TV. She treats Hong Kong TV as ‘a kind of chronotope’, which indicates that when discussing the history of Hong Kong cinema, it is also necessary to examine how television develops in Chinatown.

The second part of this book discusses the transnational genres of Hong Kong cinema. There are three chapters discussing horror films which relate to woman-warrior and the Noir East films, while there is another chapter just focusing on the scenes of ‘in-action’ and noir characteristics in the films of Johnnie To (Kei-Fung).

When discussing horror films, the writer firstly focuses on Hollywood’s horror films because a number of Hong Kong films could only be called Hollywood’s Asian remakes: “implicitly, each new genre film ingests every previous film” (Altman, 1999, p. 26). Though many Hong Kong horror films were produced by remaking Hollywood’s previous films, they contributed a lot to the deracinating genre cinemas:

We see in Hollywood’s furious remaking of Asian horror films two moments: a first moment of triumph for local Asian film industries whose inexpensive genre films outdo high dollar Hollywood productions domestically; and a second, bleaker moment, when Hollywood remakes these modes of resistance into global profits, outperforming domestic productions once again by retooling the Asian horror film as a cultural key to the enticing Asian market. (Marchetti & Tan, 2007, p. 112)

So the Hollywood’s remakes of Asian horror films could be regarded as an important part of Hong Kong cinema, which opened the door to Asian market.

Like Hong Kong horror films, another genre, the Noir East film, also started by copying from Hollywood. Firstly, there is a kind of film in Hollywood called film noir. As there is rich panoply of film noir, Hong Kong filmmakers could make good use of it to make more new films and help promote the development of Hong Kong cinema. In the chapter about this, the writer introduces, in detail, film noir in Hollywood and the Noir East films and uses a great deal of examples to explain what film noir and the Noir East films are before comparing the two genres, which could help readers obtain a clear idea about the two film genres. Actually there are discrepancies between the Asian noirs and their American predecessors:

Noir East films, in their themes and stories, may indeed reflect the crisis of identity facing the Hong Kong people; but in their assured mastery of cinematic expression, their makers leave no doubt about their identity as filmmakers. (Marchetti & Tan, 2007, p. 158)

In this chapter, it is more necessary to use a considerable number of examples to help readers understand the concept much easier. This is different from the situation of the previous chapters discussing the films of Tsui Hark and John Woo, because most readers may not have a clear understanding of the film noir and the Noir East films. From the perspective of development, the Hong Kong horror films and the noir east films help vary the Hong Kong cinema by remaking and copying.

Nonetheless, not all genres are developed in this way. The development of woman warrior figures is different. Actually the Hong Kong action cinema has long created a great number of woman warriors who fight men as equals, which provided a model for many Hollywood blockbusters, such as the Matrix trilogy (1999,2003), X-man (2000), Kill Bill Vol.1 and 2 (2003, 2004). The development of the woman-warriors in Hong Kong cinema is due to the success of Hong Kong action movies. Female fighters burst onto the scene after the period that a great deal of muscular male stars came to dominate the Hong Kong action film market, and they are actually alongside many famous male stars such as Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. This phenomenon also shows the change of people’s view of gender in their daily life:

The physique of onscreen women warriors not only demonstrates their ability to beat up and kill enemies of either sex, they are also there to reaffirm the traditional, pre-modern notion of femininity that requires them to be sexually desirable and to exhibit a certain emotional vulnerability in order to mask the emptiness/void of the postmodern subject. (Marchetti & Tan, 2007, p. 136)

The woman warrior film is not only a genre of Hong Kong cinema, but also a glimpse at gender identity in Hong Kong history.

In the last chapter of the second part of this book, the writer mainly discusses the films of Johnnie To (Kei-Fung). To was best known as a director of comedies at first, then he found his style with the film Lifeline, in which comedy and romance tended to lighten up his oeuvre. The film industry then facing serious hardships in a time of economic downturn, To wanted to make more optimistic films, so his films became coherent examples of Hong Kong Noir in that period. This means that the situation of the period has made some influence on the development of the film industry. As one of the finest genre directors working around the world during the period under question here (1997-2003), To’s films tended to be close to the film noir characteristics of Hollywood films of the late 1940s: “Clearly, with features such as these being reworked and modified, To was becoming a significant, highly original filmmaker to rank among the world’s greatest film auteurs” (Marchetti & Tan, 2007, p. 163).

After discussing the transnational genres of Hong Kong cinema, the last part of this book discusses the international players and a global niche of the Hong Kong cinema. After a few-year’s development, Hong Kong cinema has become a great success and plays an important role in the global cinema. There is a chapter named ‘Hong Kong goes international: the case of Golden Harvest’ in this part. Some previous chapters in the first part discussed the globalised development of Hong Kong film actually, but it is different in this part. This chapter mainly focuses on the success of Hong Kong cinema. Firstly the writer uses the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo Hu Cang Long, dir. Ang Lee, 2000) as an example to show the international success of Hong Kong cinema:

The international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the crossover prominence of its stars and directors in Hollywood has recently led the Hong Kong industry to speculate on the possibilities for higher budget production aimed at global markets. (Klein, 2004, pp. 360-384)

Then it discusses the Golden Harvest of Hong Kong film industry. Though the Golden Harvest is not as successful as its name implies, it is still an attempt at global production, which has contributed a lot to the Hong Kong film industry.

The other chapters of this part discuss the film festival, the chromatics of the urban fix, tourism that the film industry brings to Hong Kong and the niche of Hong Kong cinema. This part of the book helps readers get a fuller picture of why Hong Kong cinema could be such a great success, and the Hong Kong film industry is not only a major player of the new global cinema, but also plays an important role in Hong Kong history. Looking through this book, it is not difficult to find that almost every chapter mentions the Hong Kong cinema and the Hollywood: remaking, borrowing, and even plagiarising. Maybe it is something negative in a way, because originality and creativity are quite important, and it may lead to some problems regarding intellectual property. However it is a rare situation in the film industry all over the world.

Of course, there is nothing new in Hong Kong filmmakers looking towards Hollywood for inspiration. Hong Kong filmmakers have never shied away from borrowing or copying from American films and film trends – just as Hollywood has never shied away from borrowing or copying from any and all other cinematic communities, including that of Hong Kong (Marchetti & Tan, 2007). Just as professor Tan states in chapter one: ‘no film is an island’, which could be the main idea of the whole book. Although different writers of the book discuss different aspects of Hong Kong cinema, their focus is similar. They all place Hong Kong cinema together with Hollywood or other film industries, because the film industry is globally interconnected. This is why ‘no film is an island’ is part of the title of this book.

Today the long-historical Hong Kong cinema is a major player in the new global cinema. It is similar to the history of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is regarded as an international financial centre, which is prosperous and glamorous, and it takes a long and hard time to develop after many years’ colonial history. Through Hong Kong films, we could have a close look at Hong Kong people’s lives and what Hong Kong was like in the past. The film industry of Hong Kong is not only a kind of industry, it is also a kind of culture which has its own history and could help one to know more about Hong Kong.



Altman, R. (1999). Film/ Genre. London: British Film Institute.

Bordwell, D. (2000). Planet Hong Kong: Popular cinema and the art of entertainment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Klein, C. (2004). Martial arts and the globalization of US and Asian film industries. Comparative American Studies 2(3), 360-384.

Marchetti, G., & Tan, S. K. (2007). Introduction: Hong Kong cinema and global change. In G. Marchetti and S. K. Tan (Eds.), Hong Kong Film, Hollywood and the new global cinema: No film is an island. London: Routledge.



This article is part of a course assignment requiring students to review a book related to the history of Hong Kong and to write a summary for it. It is expected that students will be able to develop understanding of Hong Kong in the past as well as become more critical towards their reading material.



Wenqi Guo is an undergraduate studying for a degree in Hotel Management in the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. She values academic achievement as well as practical knowledge. She is on the way to equip herself with more professional experience and intercultural skills through industrial training and various international programmes.