Hong Kong cinema timeline

From 'Duck' to Lee to Chan


  • First two films, both shorts derived from opera, are produced: “Stealing a Roast Duck” and “Right a Wrong With Earthenware Dish,” helmed by legit director Leung Siu-po and produced by Russian-American entrepreneur Benjamin



  • First wholly Chinese-owned production company set up, China Sun (aka Minxin). Relocated to China in 1924 after government hassles over building a studio.


  • First feature released: drama “Rouge,” directed by Lai Bak-hoi, brother of early film pioneer Lai Man-wai.


  • Grandview, Nanyue, Tianyi, Universal studios set up. Production focuses on martial arts films (banned by the KMT government in China) and Cantonese-dialect dramas.


  • With the fall of Shanghai to the Japanese and the start of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), H.K. becomes a haven for producers and talent.


  • Film production effectively stops after the fall of H.K. to the Japanese in December.


  • With civil war breaking out in China again (between the Communists and Nationalists), a second exodus of talent and capital revives production in H.K.


  • With the Communist victory in China, a third exodus of talent and capital begins, lasting until the early 1950s.


  • H.K. becomes the major center for Chinese-speaking cinema, producing films in both the local Cantonese dialect and the lingua franca Mandarin dialect plus several lesser dialects. Shaw Brothers and MP&GI (later renamed Cathay) become the dominant studios.


  • Following an edict by the British authorities that all films are to be subtitled in English, local producers start subtitling in both English and Chinese, increasing their international market reach. From the mid-1960s, Shaw Brothers dominates (and professionalizes) local production with a studio system modeled on the Golden Age of Hollywood.


  • With the success of Shaw Brothers’ “Come Drink With Me” (dir. King Hu), martial arts movies, mostly made in Mandarin, become the craze, ensuring exportability.


  • Shaw Brothers exec Raymond Chow leaves to launch rival studio Golden Harvest, signing up Bruce Lee (then unknown in H.K.) among others. A bitter war develops between GH and Shaw.

  • Of the 118 films released in 1970, 70% are in Mandarin and only 30% in Cantonese. (By 1971, the percentage in Cantonese dropped to 1% and by 1972 to zero.)


  • The “kung-fu” craze starts to hit the West, initiated by Shaw Brothers’ “King Boxer” (aka “5 Fingers of Death”) and followed by pics like Bruce Lee starrer “The Big Boss” (aka “Fists of Fury”).


  • Bruce Lee dies on July 20, age 32, after starring in only four movies.


  • Following the success of the sole Cantonese feature released in 1973 (“The House of 72 Tenants”), Cantonese cinema fights back, appealing to a younger, H.K.-born, non-Mandarin-speaking generation. Trigger is the success of the Hui Brothers’ madcap comedy “Games Gamblers Play.” By 1974, 21% of releases are in Cantonese, starting the slow decline of Mandarin movies in H.K. to effective extinction by the early 1980s.


  • The first Hong Kong Film Festival unspools, in June, supported by the Urban Council.


  • One-time stuntman Jackie Chan takes over the late Bruce Lee’s mantle with his own style of comic action in “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow” and “Drunken Master.”


  • The H.K. New Wave begins, led by filmmakers who’ve studied abroad (often in the U.K.) and started in TV: Ann Hui, Tsui Hark, Yim Ho, etc. Their movies start hitting film fests.


  • With Shaw Brothers’ dominance weakened, mini-studios begin making an impact, starting with Cinema City, set up by comedians Raymond Wong, Karl Maka and Dean Shek and specializing in contempo action and comedy. A whole raft of new stars is born, mostly from TV (Chow Yun-fat, Stephen Chow).


  • D&B Films, co-founded by luxury goods retailer Dickson Poon, specializes in films aimed at H.K.’s new yuppie generation.


  • Shaw Brothers ceases production.


  • The H.K. government introduces a ratings system that includes a “Category III” for explicit sex and violence. By the early ’90s, Category III films have become a genre of their own, with cult classics like “Naked Killer” (1992) and “The Untold Story” (aka “Bun Man,” 1993).


  • Wong Kar Wai’s “As Tears Go By” is shown at the Toronto fest, headlining a so-called Second Generation of young filmmakers including names like Stanley Kwan, Mabel Yeung and Clara Law.


  • A record 178 local productions are released as jitters over the planned 1997 handover to China fuel a panic boom.


  • Director Johnnie To and scripter Wai Ka-fai set up Milkyway Image, pioneering a new style of film-noir movies halfway between mainstream and art films.


  • In the year of H.K.’s handover to China, local releases drop to below 100 for the first time since the 1980s.


  • The government introduces the Film Guarantee Fund to encourage local banks to support the industry. Local releases are now down to 64.


  • Local releases have now stabilized at around 50 or so a year, not including multiple co-prods with China.