A collage of Hong New Wave film posters. Among them are Police Story and A Better Tomorrow.

A Look at the History and Films of the Hong Kong New Wave Film Movement

A still from the Hong Kong New Wave movie As Tears Go By. The image shows two characters standing in a darkened room. The man is standing in the background out of focus.
A still from the film As Tears Go By, directed by Wong-Kar Wai. Source: Movements In Film

The Hong Kong New Wave film movement began in 1979 and lasted until 1995. During this period, Hong Kong cinema produced many remarkable and influential films. This film movement became so successful that it competed against Hollywood; at the time, Hong Kong cinema was the only viable competitor against Hollywood. The Hong Kong New Wave resulted from a period of economic, political, and cultural growth in Hong Kong. The country’s rapid growth allowed many young directors to hone their craft and produce several classic films.

In this article, we’ll examine the history of the Hong Kong New Wave film movement. The article will also list some of the influential films of the movement. Hopefully, you’ll get a chance to watch some of the films listed. To kick things off, let’s take a brief tour of the history of the Hong Kong New Wave film movement.


Like many film movements, discussion surrounds when the Hong Kong New Wave film movement began. However, the general consensus points to 1979.

A still from the movie Enter The Dragon. The photo shows the film's star, Bruce Lee, who is shirtless and has scars on his chest and face.
Hong Kong action films like the Bruce Lee classic Enter The Dragon were popular during the early 1970s. Source: Variety

Prior to this date, Hong Kong cinema was already known for kung-fu action films. Films like Enter the Dragon were popular with audiences worldwide. Bruce Lee was Hong Kong cinema’s symbol and icon. Western culture is also associated with Hong Kong cinema with cheap exploitation films. During the 1960s and early 1970s, the Hong Kong film industry churned out many low-budget horror and action films. Some of these films attempted to capitalize off the fame of the late Bruce Lee. These cheap films did net their makers a quick profit. But there was a downside. The sheer amount of exploitation films flooded the Hong Kong market. By the mid 1970s, the Hong Kong film industry had stagnated. Audiences eventually tired of the repetitive low-budget films.

Emergence of New Directors

Much like the German film industry of the time, Hong Kong cinema in the mid 1970s began to churn out formulaic, cliched, and unexciting films. This situation motivated a new group of young filmmakers. This group shared two goals. They wanted to shake up the Hong Kong film industry; they wanted to instill it with some excitement. This new breed of filmmakers wanted to challenge industry norms.

With this in mind, Hong Kong New Wave directors had two things in common. First, the group combined their formal film school training with the willingness to take risks. Second, the directors viewed film as art, rather than a money-making scheme. Essentially, they made films for the sake of creating art instead of making money.

Many directors of the New Wave studied overseas. When they returned home, these young directors brought with them new cultural influences from the Western part of the world. Back home in Hong Kong, the directors blended Western and Eastern cultures. This cultural blend makes the Hong Kong New Wave instantly recognizable.

Cultural Influences

An evening shot of Hong Kong in the 1980s. The shot is full of colourful neon signs and bustiling street traffic.
In comparison to mainland China, Hong Kong had a much more free and open culture. Source: Reddit

Compared to mainland China, Hong Kong embraced a more liberal culture. Therefore, Hong Kong authorities did not censor film content to the degree of mainland China. This is an important fact. Without the open culture of Hong Kong, many directors would not have been able to make the movies they wanted to make.

As is the case with many film movements, the younger generation deviated from older filmmakers. The new Hong Kong directors addressed contemporary social issues faced by many Hong Kong citizens. The group also looked to portray various aspects of Hong Kong culture that interested them. For example, a Hong Kong New Wave film may portray daily life in a small village, rather than focus on the stereotypical life in the city.

While Hong Kong New Wave directors shared similar goals, their movies differed widely. In fact,the group had different cultural and artistic influences. Their films differed in terms of genre and visual style. Some excelled at violent action films, others preferred subtle romantic dramas. A common thread that binded Hong Kong New Wave directors together was their willingness to experiment with various film conventions. This could include narrative structure, cinematography, or special effects.

Boom Period

An outside shot of the State Theatre, which showed many Hong Kong New Wave films.
Hong Kong’s State Theatre showed many Hong Kong New Wave films. Source: CoBo Social

The early to mid 1980s is considered the heyday of the Hong Kong New Wave. It was in this part of the decade when the most important and celebrated films of the movement were released. Audiences went in droves to see these new exciting films. The movement was so prolific that a second wave emerged in 1984. The second wave received more international attention than the previous wave. Filmmakers in the west started to take interest in Hong Cinema. Directors like Quentin Tarantino were heavily influenced by the visual and editing style of Hong Kong cinema. Tarantino would later insert some Hong Kong film traits into his movies.

The momentum of the Hong Kong New Wave waned somewhat in the mid 1980s. There were several reasons for this. Among them was the fact that some Hong Kong New Wave directors were absorbed into the mainstream. This left a huge gap in talent for the New Wave movement. Another reason was the resurgence of commercial films. The mainstream Hong Kong film industry produced highly commercialized, mass marketable comedy films. These movies drew attention away from the experimental New Wave movement.

The Hong Kong New Wave movement continued to limp on into the 1990s. Many believe the movement truly ended in 1995. Even though the movement ended, it is fondly remembered for breathing life into the waning Hong Kong film industry. Film fans around the world continue to watch and celebrate the films that come from the movement.

Hong Kong New Wave Films

Here are some of the quintessential Hong Kong New Wave films. The films listed below come from many different genres and utilize various visual and narrative styles. Let’s kick things off with one of the most successful films of the movement.

A Better Tomorrow: 1986

The poster for A Better Tomorrow. The film's three stars are featured. The poster is dominated by red, black, and white colours.
A Better Tomorrow broke box office records in Hong Kong. Source: IMDb

Before venturing into Hollywood, director John Woo made a name for himself by directing several iconic Hong Kong action films. Woo’s films are notable for their bloody violence, slow-motion cinematography, nail-biting tension, and powerful emotional scenes. The term “heroic bloodshed” is used to describe Woo’s style. Some famous Woo films include Hard Boiled (1992) and The Killer (1989). But it was his film A Better Tomorrow that put Woo on the map.

The film stars Ti Lung and frequent Woo collaborator Chow-Yun Fat as Triad members Ho and Mark. The two men are responsible for the gang’s counter-fitting operation. Ho’s younger brother Kit (played by Leslie Cheung) is a recent high school graduate who is unaware of Ho’s criminal background. Kit begins to train as a police officer. Ho is eventually captured by the police after a counterfeiting deal goes bad. Kit soon finds out about Ho’s crimes. Once Ho is released, Kit vows to never speak to his brother again. Ho tries to lead a new life, but the new leader of the Triads tries to bring Ho back into the fold. Kit also happens to be investigating the gang. Ho is now stuck with trying to hold off the Triads while attempting to protect and reconcile with Kit.

Woo’s film is backed with action and emotion. The performances all around are extremely powerful. Ti Lung and Leslie Chung excel in their roles, but it is Chow-Yun Fat who is the real standout. Fat gives an emotional performance as the troubled but noble Mark. The film’s soundtrack only adds to its emotional power. It has the ability to tear at your heartstrings.

Cultural Impact

A Better Tomorrow was a huge success in Hong Kong. The movie made over $34 million at the box office, breaking records. It also heavily influenced Hong Kong culture. For example, young people began to wear the same clothes as the characters in the film.

With stand-out action scenes and an emotional tale of brotherly love, A Better Tomorrow is the perfect start for the journey into the Hong Kong New Wave.

Dangerous Encounters Of The First Kind: 1980

The film poster for Dangerous Encounters Of The First Kind. The poster has a simple design, with the main characters only seen in shadow.
Dangerous Encounters Of The First Kind was banned in Hong Kong for its violence and theme of political dissent. Source: IMDb

This film may be the most political entry on this list. Directed by Tsui Hark, the film depicts a group of nerdy pranksters who commit various criminal acts. A young sadistic girl witnesses the group committing one of their crimes. She decides to manipulate the group. She convinces the young men to commit more serious acts; the crimes escalate in danger/violence.

Dangerous Encounters Of The First Kind was extremely controversial upon it’s release. Authorities took issue with the film’s dark depiction of Hong Kong society and culture. Eventually, the original cut of the film was banned due to its content. In order to show the film, Hark re-edited the movie, cutting out certain political messages. This re-editing had a huge impact on Hark’s career. His future films became progressively commercial in nature.

Despite its controversy, Dangerous Encounter Of The First Kind became a cult favourite among audiences. People seemed to enjoy the violent scenes and the film’s political dissent message. The film remains popular with Hong Kong New Wave fans. For those who want to watch a film full of suspense, action, and political rebellion, Dangerous Encounters of The First Kind is the movie for you.

Father and Son: 1981

A still image from Father and Son. The image features the titular father and son in a grocery store.
Father and Son details the difficult relationship between father and son. Source: MUBI

In contrast to the first two entries, this film is a drama about the relationship between father and son. Directed by Allen Fong, the story concerns an uneducated father who works a low-income job to support his son. All the father wants for his son is an education and a successful career. However, the son wants to have a career in the arts, specifically in film and comic books. These differing career goals are a point of tension between the two. The father stresses the importance of education. The son does not understand his father’s wishes; he therefore gets into trouble often and is expelled from school. The film shows the lengths to which the father goes to keep his son in school. He is prepared to give up everything so that his son gets an education.

Father and Son opened to immediate acclaim in Hong Kong. The film won Best Director and Best Picture at the first Hong Kong Film awards. The film was lauded for its portrayal of family life and the relationship between the father and son.

Fong’s film demonstrates that Hong Kong cinema can produce something other than action movies. Father and Son is a powerful depiction of family relationships, specifically when a parent and child have different wishes for the child’s future.

Nomad: 1982

A still image from Nomad. Three of the characters are standing in a parking garage.
Nomad explores the existential crisis of four young people. Source: Alchetron

This film, directed by Partick Tam, tells the story of two young couples: Louis and Tomato, Kathy and Pong. The daily lives of these young people are explored. Tam delves deep into the disillusionment of each character’s life. Both couples feel like they lead an aimless, wandering existence. Despite these feelings, both couples live casually and care free. However, their life is uprooted when Kathy’s former lover returns. He is a member of the communist militant Japanese Red Army. Kathy’s lover comes to her for help; he wants to leave the group. This leads the Red Army to search for him. Now both couples must deal with a violent militant group bent on revenge.

Nomad is a highly artistic film. Tam’s film has a certain narrative and visual style that sets it apart from the other films on the list. Nomad also deals with several themes. One theme is the existential dread of youth and how they deal with it through reckless abandon. Tam’s film also reflects the wishful thinking of youth; young people hoping for a different, better life. All of these elements combine to make Nomad an interesting and artistic Hong Kong coming of age film.

Chunking Express: 1994

A still image from Chunking Express. One of the characters is holding a bowl of noodles while looking at her reflection in the mirror.
Chunking Express uses vibrant colours with beautifully framed shots. Source:CINEMUSE

Wong Kar Wai is regarded by many as Hong Kong’s most important director. Wai created several standout films, and Chunking Express is certainly one of them. The film features two loosely connected and parallel stories: two quirky young policemen searching for love. The story is much lighter than the films listed above. In Wai’s own words, after several serious films, “I wanted to make a very light, contemporary movie.” This lightheartedness may be why the film is popular with audiences and critics. Chunking Express is an accessible film that does not take itself so seriously.

Besides the film’s fun nature, Wai experiments with several techniques. The colours are lush and vibrant, creating a beautiful landscape. Furthermore, Wai eloquently frames his shots in stunning fashion.

You should definitely check out Chunking Express if you’re looking for a lighthearted Hong Kong film with stunning visuals.

A Diverse Movement

A scene from a recent Hong Kong film. Two characters are holding guns. One is pointing it at the crowd, while the other is firing into the sky. One of the characters is wearing a mask.
The Hong Kong New Wave movement continues to inspire new generations of filmmakers. Source: The Hollywood Reporter

The Hong Kong New Wave film movement is highly diverse. The films differ in genre, narrative structure, and visual style. This diversity created a highly influential and successful film movement, which was aided by the political, societal, and cultural growth of Hong Kong. Soon enough, the Hong Kong New Wave movement competed with Hollywood. The movement also influenced several Western directors, such as Quentin Tarantino.

The movement emerged in 1979 before tailing off in 1995. Even though the movement is over, its films continue to survive thanks to a dedicated fanbase. Hopefully this article inspired you to check out some of the movies in the Hong Kong New Wave film movement.

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