Masters at the Movies, Take 19: Poshek Fu on Hong Kong Films

Robert Brent Toplin, April 2012

The AHA's "Masters at the Movies" series invites distinguished scholars in the history profession to comment on the impact of film in their lives and in their teaching and research. In this issue Poshek Fu, professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reflects on the films he viewed in Hong Kong during his formative years. Fu recalls that these movies contained strong entertainment value, but they were not ideologically innocent. In subtle but significant ways Hong Kong cinema affected his thinking about history, culture, and politics.

The Hong Kong film industry that Fu describes produced many popular films, especially from the 1960s to the early 1990s. In those years Hong Kong filmmakers operated with considerable freedom. Working largely without any form of government support, commercially-oriented artists and entrepreneurs created films that appealed broadly to Chinese-speaking moviegoers around the world. Those movies attracted huge audiences with a lively mix of drama, comedy, and action. Hong Kong filmmakers often incorporated techniques from Japanese Samurai movies and American musicals and spy thrillers. Sometimes their artistry made an impact on Hollywood, as in the case of Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2006). That film, which received an Academy Award for Best Picture, was inspired by a Hong Kong crime thriller, Infernal Affairs (2002).

American movie enthusiasts are familiar with two practitioners of the martial arts who emerged as super-stars in the Hong Kong film industry: Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.

San Francisco-born Bruce Lee spent much of his youth in Hong Kong and then returned to the United States. He studied Philosophy at the University of Washington. He became an enthusiast of physical fitness and an accomplished practitioner of Chinese martial arts. By the 1970s Bruce Lee had become an iconic figure in Chinese cinema. He brought a defiant masculinity to the Hong Kong screen. As his stardom grew, Lee began to craft his own movies. He served not just as an actor but also as a film writer and director. Lee achieved fame, too, as a pop philosopher and skilled nutritionist.

Jackie Chan also excited audiences with physical prowess and extraordinary stunts. Some of his movies surpassed Bruce Lee's box office achievements (as in the case of a 1980 breakthrough film, The Young Master). Like Bruce Lee, Chan's enormous popularity allowed him to command broad control over movie productions. Jackie Chan directed, wrote, and produced his films in addition to serving as the movies' star and chief stunt artist. Chan added singing and comedy to his repertoire. By the 1990s, Jackie Chan had become a major figure in Hollywood productions as well, appearing in Rush Hour (1998) and other hits. He won recognition, too, as an entrepreneur by distributing his own line of clothing, and Chan received praise for his work with various philanthropic causes.

The Hong Kong films that Poshek Fu saw in his youth were products of a dynamic movie industry. Business leaders and artists working in Hong Kong's relatively free and highly competitive economic environment became pioneers of Asian cinema. During the time when Poshek Fu was growing up and watching movies in theaters of the British colony, Hong Kong's productions had enormous cultural influence in the Chinese-speaking world.

Poshek Fu is professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Zijang Visiting Professor of Humanities at East China Normal University in Shanghai. His publications include Passivity, Resistance, and Collaboration: Intellectual Choices in Occupied Shanghai, 1937-1945; Between Shanghai and Hong Kong: The Politics of Chinese Cinemas; and The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity. His current research focuses on Cold War politics and colonial culture in mid-20th-century Hong Kong and the social history of the Chinese film industry.

Robert Brent Toplin, professor of history emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, is a member of the Perspectives on History editorial advisory board. He edits and coordinates the Masters at the Movies series, which he conceptualized and developed.