Ho Fan and Hong Kong Experimental Cinema in the 1960s

Written by Timmy Chen, translated by Francisco Lo

For Hong Kong cinema, entertainment always comes first. The business-oriented approach often leads experimental, avant-garde, alternative, and independent artistic expressions to be absorbed by the mainstream film industry. The late 1970s and early 1980s Hong Kong New Wave’s Patrick Tam, Allen Fong, and Alex Cheung once shot experimental films in the 1960s and 1970s. In March 1973, Hong Kong Federation of Students held the first ‘Hong Kong Experimental Film Contest’, which was co-sponsored by Rediffusion Television and Shaw Brothers. Alex Cheung, then 22 years old, won three gold awards with three different short films while a 27-year-old John Woo won gold with one of his own. In the 1980s, Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) spearheaded the golden era of Hong Kong heroic bloodshed films, with a focus on male bonding and camaraderie that can be traced back to Dead Knot (1969)—a 16mm black-and-white silent short co-directed by Sek Kei and Woo, who also served as producer, screenwriter, and actor.

The most important key to Hong Kong experimental film history is i-GENERATIONs: Independent, Experimental and Alternative Creations from the 60s to Now, edited by May Fung and published by Hong Kong Film Archive in 2001. Besides providing valuable literature and information, it also points out the major obstacle in searching and studying independent cinema—many 16mm and 8mm works from the 1960s were long lost. How does one deal with the predicament of missing artifacts? My approach is to consider the lost and existing 1960s Hong Kong experimental cinema as part of the media ecology and cinephilia culture at the time. The rise of Hong Kong experimental cinema in the 1960s was closely related to film clubs—especially College Cine Club, which was founded in January 1967. College Cine Club was formerly the film division of College Life’s literature and art appreciation club. After a year of discussion, research, and screenings of 8mm and 16mm films in 1966, the film division developed into the 200-member strong College Cine Club, which consisted of the screening division, the filming division, and the research division. Members could watch and discuss films, attend seminars, and shoot experimental films together. Among College Cine Club’s 1967 executive committee’s interim officers, many were writers for The Chinese Student Weekly, including the screening division’s Law Kar, the filming division’s Sek Kei, and the research division’s Kam Ping-hing and Shu Ming. The holy trinity of cinephilia culture—screening, criticism, and filming—cultivated Hong Kong experimental cinema in the 1960s.

This essay will briefly introduce Hong Kong street photographer Ho Fan’s foray into experimental film in the 1960s. These four works preceded all his erotic films and art films. At the time, they were considered ‘amateur cinema’ or non-professional films. College Cine Club organised the first Amateur Film Exhibition on 7 and 8 March, 1969 at Hong Kong City Hall and Hong Kong Baptist College.

According to film critic Law Kar, amateur film rebels against existing commercial cinema by being ‘handcrafted cinema that uses low budget, little technique, and a lot of personal freedom to establish a kind of simple and real film’. Toward the end of 1965, film critic Ada Loke noticed the emergence of ‘Hong Kong New Cinema’: A group of young people bought an 8mm camera, editing equipment, and a film projector. They learned from the French New Wave and New American Cinema. Why was the ‘Hong Kong New Cinema’ not considered ‘experimental film’? Film critic Kam Ping-hing offered two observations regarding the Hong Kong New Cinema filmmakers: First they are too preoccupied with making narrative films. Second they ‘watched too many films’ to be creative and experimental, which led to their ‘lack of new ideas and new techniques’. I will set aside the debate over the terms ‘experimental film’, ‘amateur cinema’, ‘underground film’, and ‘Hong Kong New Cinema’, and use the term ‘experimental film’ used by Ho Fan himself in his oral history.

Working as an actor for Shaw Brothers in the 1960s, Ho’s first 8mm experimental short Big City – Little Man (shot in 1963, premiered in 1966) is 25 minutes long, silent, and in colour. The film shares its title with an eponymous street photography series published in The Chinese Student Weekly between 1957 and 1961. The film’s Baudelairean protagonist (played by James Lai) is marked by his melancholic expression and tailor-made suits, which might be the inspiration for Chow Mo-wan (played by Tony Leung) in In the Mood for Love (2000). The audience follows a day in the life of this nameless man, who walks between home and work along the tram route, taking in the everyday life in the streets and alleys of Hong Kong Island. The man does not have much work to do at the office, yet he tirelessly cleans the windows, washroom, and under his desk while reminiscing about the wonderful time he once spent with a cheerful woman in suburban Hong Kong.

On 16 October, 1966, Ho’s 15-minute black-and-white film Gulf (shot in 1965) won the ‘Best Film Award’ at Banbury International Film Festival in the UK. Ho co-wrote and co-directed with his New Asia College classmate James Lai while C. L. Chow (aka Zhou Zonglian) served as his co-cinematographer. In this 16mm short, Ho plays the lead role of a cheating husband in a loveless marriage. Actress Tang Pik-wan’s daughter Helen Lui plays Ho’s mistress, who wears a two-piece swimsuit in a beach scene and shows her shoulders in a bedroom scene. Law Kar recalled that there was a private screening of experimental films including Big City – Little Man and Gulf at C. L. Chow’s studio. On 10 February, 1968, College Cine Club organised the first exhibition of its members’ works at Hong Kong Baptist College, featuring Ho’s Big City – Little Man and You (Jau: journeying or drifting; original English title unknown; an 8mm documentary in colour), among others.

Shot on 16mm in black-and-white, Ho’s Study No. 1 (1966, aka Assignment, Part One or Exercise 1)1 is a 39-minute silent film featuring James Lai as a man pursuing a mysterious woman in white (played by Sylvia Lai) from day to night, and from the seashore to the tram route. Then the woman vanishes. Afterwards at a new wave hippie party, the protagonist encounters a wild woman (played by Helen Lui). They dance, drink, party, and have sex. The next day, he sees the woman in white again and chases after her, but she vanishes right in front of him. The film’s style is influenced by Federico Fellini, with the idea of the woman in white coming from 8 1/2 (1963) and the protagonist’s nocturnal excursion inspired by La Dolce Vita (1960). Ho and C. L. Chow collaborated on production and cinematography while lead actor Lai co-wrote and co-directed with Ho. The end credits show Ho was also responsible for editing and scoring.

Photographer Sun Po-ling and Ho co-directed the 76-minute black-and-white film Lost (1970), with Sun responsible for the interior scenes and Ho in charge of the location shoots. Shot on 35mm, Ho’s directorial debut as a feature filmmaker was hailed by Ada Loke as the ‘second coming of The Arch (1970)’. Shot by Ricky Chow and scored by Doming Lam, Lost premiered in Cannes on 14 May, 1970. Ho said the theme of Lost is ‘the conflict between soul and desire’, with Irene Lui representing ‘soul’ and Dorothy Fu symbolising ‘desire’. Played by Chan Chun-wah, the male protagonist is a Hong Kong painter lost between East and West, between soul and desire. On the one hand, he is searching for the Oriental woman who is mysterious and pure. On the other hand, he cannot resist the carnal temptation of a Westernised seductress. Perhaps because James Lai co-wrote the script, Lost feels like a continuation of Study No. 1’s dialectic between body and soul. To push it further, the conflict between soul and desire suggests the conflict between the experimental and the erotic, and the conflict between art and commercialism in Ho’s film career.

1 Study No. 1 is the English title used by Ho Fan himself. Assignment, Part One is the English title used by Hong Kong Film Archive. Exercise 1 is the English title used in May Fung’s edited book.
Timmy Chen

Dr. Timmy Chen is the Research Assistant Professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s Academy of Film. His area of interest includes Chinese-language cinema, Asian cinema, film music, and sound studies. He has been studying Ho Fan’s photography and moving image works since 2020.

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