A city is a living, breathing thing, pulsing with buildings, vehicles, and beating hearts.

Its open and hidden spaces can create a sense of belonging, and just as quickly, alienation. A nation’s identity develops within a city’s walls. A city shapes the contours of cultural identity and transmits that identity to the rest of the world.

Think of New York City. So many of our ideas of that city come from its depiction in movies as diverse as Manhattan (1979), Taxi Driver (1976) or Ghostbusters (1984), that when we visit New York we feel we’ve already been there. And we have, many times at the cinema. We can say the same of Paris – we’ve run through its streets alongside Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows (1959) or escaped into romantic caprice in Midnight in Paris (2011).

Cities are constantly in flux. Buildings come down; new ones are erected. But in a movie, a landscape is frozen forever in time, giving birth to a mythology about what that city means that continues to grow.

Hong Kong is no different.

The Hong Kong we know through cinema is a culturally diverse, busy, crowded place. It’s a city of neon lights and nightclubs, of harbours and steaming rain and chaotic markets. We know its triads and crime gangs, its torch song singers. We see it as a city of tough men and beautiful women.

Part of what Hong Kong means has been fixed in our imagination through its rich tradition of martial arts cinema.

Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury (1973)

Booming in the 1960s under the guidance of the Shaw Brothers legendary studio, Hong Kong cinema pioneered, what Mark Cousins calls, “a philosophical action cinema” that merged the movement of Beijing opera with the tone of spaghetti Westerns by way of Kurosawa and James Bond. This action cinema exploded onto the global stage when one of the studio’s executives left to begin his own company (Orange Sky Golden Harvest), finding immediate success when he produced two films with a Hong Kong star in the making, Bruce Lee (The Big Boss, 1971, Fist of Fury, 1973).

But if all you know of Hong Kong cinema is kung fu fighting, think again.

Hong Kong has a wholly authentic cinema history, but it’s also a part of a global movement, drawing on the styles and techniques of European art cinema, especially the French New Wave. The story of Hong Kong on film is also a story of serenity and stillness, of melodrama, romance and nostalgia.

Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung – In the Mood for Love (2000)
Leslie Cheung and Maggie Cheung – Days of Being Wild (1990)

This tendency is exemplified by one of the city’s greatest auteurs, Wong Kar-wai, and his films, Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), In the Mood for Love (2000), and 2046 (2005), which capture the city with a sensual, contemplative lens that effectively slows life down.

Kar-wai, as part of Hong Kong’s so-called Second Wave of filmmakers, is a director who often looks back and within. Making films about loss, longing and unfulfilled desires, Kar-wai’s palette is an unapologetically dreamy, nostalgic one. His Hong Kong is mostly an intimate city of interiors, of narrow corridors, or noodle shops separated from the city’s bustle. It is a city inextricably fused with cinema.

Wong Kar-wai was five years old when he moved with his family from Shanghai to Hong Kong in the early 1960s. His experience of the city at this time had a profound impact, and his film In the Mood for Love, set in 1962, is his superlative expression of nostalgic romanticism for the Hong Kong of his dreams.

That dreamy era is also captured perfectly in Love Without End (1961), directed by Doe Chin and produced by the Shaw Brothers. With this film we get to look back on that time, directly. Part of the genre known as ‘songstress melodrama’, where women were driven to extremes by their desire to sing torch songs in Hong Kong clubs, the film epitomises the elements of Hollywood glamour the Shaw Brothers borrowed and used so well. The songstress chasing the dream here is Qingqing, played by stunning screen idol Linda Lin Dai. Lin Dai is a pillar of strength, love and sacrifice. Costuming and music and melodrama heighten each gesture and look, to produce an intoxicating glimpse into Hong Kong’s cinematic past.

Linda Lin Dai in Love Without End (1961)

Jump forward to the post-reunification period and a woozy beauty also features in Johnnie To’s Sparrow (2008). Though best known in the West for his action and crime films (Quentin Tarantino is a big fan), To is an eclectic filmmaker skilled at a variety of genres. Sparrow, a more personal project, is his love letter to both Hong Kong and spirit of the French New Wave. A Johnnie To film without guns, Sparrow is a comedy caper with a light touch and balletic grace. Using slow motion sequences, To pictures Hong Kong as a romantic playground, where sharply suited criminals are charming and easily seduced by the promise of love.

The pace continues to slow in A Simple Life (2011) where director Ann Hui shows us intimacy of a type rarely seen between people on screen. Ah Tao (Deane Ip, who won Best Actress at Venice in 2011 for her performance) has been a servant in Roger’s (legendary Hong Kong star, Andy Lau) family for four generations. There is no explosive drama, but many quiet, even wordless moments. Hui, a leading figure of the First New Wave (emerging in 1979, these filmmakers were committed to location shooting and representing the modernity of Hong Kong life) is a great chronicler of the social reality of Hong Kong’s ordinary people. In A Simple Life the city is a busy, lonely place. Hui emphasises the distance between people and how to care for one another in this alienating space. It’s a gentle portrait of good people just going about the business of living; a deeply human film that might just break your heart.

A Simple Life (2011)

Broken hearts feature prominently in Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013), his film of the life of wing chun master, Ip Man (Tony Leung) that challenges expectations of the martial arts movie by favouring stillness over action, romance over reprisals. It’s not the first time Kar-wai has made a martial arts film (Ashes of Time, 1998), but here the wuxia is really just foreplay to the voluptuous unfolding of a tale of agonising, unconsummated love between Ip Man and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi).

Kar-wai looks back again. The Grandmaster has a grand sweep that takes in historical events. But these events act as a backdrop on which Kar-wai stages a love story, resplendent with heaving silent moments and languorous camera work. When there is action, it is elegant and balletic; when Gong and Man spar, there is eroticism in the proximity of their bodies. By tightly framing faces and narrowing our view of the action, Kar-wai gives us something unusual and thrilling – an intimate spectacle where the expression on a face matters more than the athletic feats of feet and fists. In the end, their movements are analogous to a dance of love.

Zhang Ziyi in The Grandmaster (2013)

All of these expressions of life – love, sacrifice, melancholy, joy – live side by side within a city’s walls. A city is a space that is always at once past, present and future. Nostalgia is more than a feeling of loss; it’s a longing for something that can’t be named. Like an unrequited love, it can be an indelible longing. We move forward to avoid getting lost in romanticism for something that may never have existed at all. Hong Kong cinema sits on this fault line, between dreamy images of its past and grittier images of today. And at the centre, are its people – living, loving, dreaming, and enduring, together and alone.

A version of this essay was first published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in September 2015 for their season of screenings ‘Hong Kong on Film’