“I entered the Cantonese movie business as an actor in the 1950s and became a director the following decade,” the filmmaker Patrick Lung Kong writes by e-mail. “At the time, the industry was mostly making Cantonese opera and cheap Kung Fu pictures, mass production without quality control, to the point of facing extinction. The first film I directed was a low-budget love story in Cantonese called The Broadcast Prince (1966), and everyone liked it, it was a success! My teacher asked if this meant that our Cantonese pictures wouldn’t be eliminated now. I said that they would never be—only the bad pictures would be eliminated!”
The seventy-nine year-old filmmaker is reminiscing on the occasion of “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: The Cinema of Patrick Lung Kong,” a nine-film series that will unfold August 15-24 at the Museum of the Moving Image. (All films will screen in their best current possible presentations—either 35mm archival prints or Digibeta copies, depending upon what exists of the original elements.) The Hong Kong artist will appear in person at several screenings, including an opening night ceremony with him and the younger filmmaker Tsui Hark. The lineup of Lung Kong’s first North American retrospective features one film he produced (Patrick Tam’s 1981 Gothic thriller Love Massacre) plus seven of the thirteen diverse films that he directed between 1966 and 1979.
Lung Kong’s filmography looks miniscule compared to those of his more prolific Hong Kong peers, but his slower rate of directorial production came largely by choice. He forewent the then-standard factory nature of Hong Kong studio filmmaking in favor of artisanal work, often researching films for up to nine months before writing, directing, and acting in them. They were frequently shot on location throughout then-colonial Hong Kong, with characters speaking in their native Cantonese, a shunned language onscreen during the time of the Cultural Revolution. Their words expressed Lung Kong’s refusal to make films in the dominant Mandarin tongue, despite its greater possibilities for export.
The films include his most famous work, The Story of a Discharged Prisoner (1967, screening August 15, and shown above), later remade by John Woo into the epic action ballet A Better Tomorrow (1986, screening August 16). In contrast to Woo’s extravagant gunplay, Lung Kong’s original social drama unfolds mainly through tight, dialogue-driven scenes. Story explores a subject that, Lung Kong writes, “nobody in Hong Kong had dared to touch” with the tale of a recently freed convict (played by Patrick Tse) striving to go straight despite opposition from many sides. His old gangster cohorts urge him to rejoin them; a cruel police official demands he inform; employers fire him upon learning about his past; and family members reject him until he proves willing to harm himself for their sakes. The reflective man recognizes his hard situation, saying at one point that “It is not a problem with me. It is a problem with society.”
Though Story contains dynamic fight scenes, Lung Kong states that “it was simply because the film needed them. I wouldn’t create a fight scene for entertainment only.” This also proved true for his subsequent films The Window (1968, screening August 23) and Teddy Girls (1969, screening August 16), both of which present and dispense with action movie traditions in order to focus on human dramas.
In The Window, a thief and murderer (Tse) seeks a new perspective on life, abandoning crime in favor of aiding the blind daughter (Josephine Siao) of one of his victims. In Teddy Girls, an upper-class young female delinquent (Siao) chooses jail over staying with her mother and malicious stepfather, who soon drives the matriarch to suicide. She and a band of fellow prisoners then seek revenge, but discover that they can’t be satisfied.
Both films discuss how people turn criminal from lack of resources, whether material or spiritual. In doing so, they fall victim to a society that fails to provide for them. Sometimes, as with Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (1970, screening August 23), Lung Kong showed how society could punish any of its citizens, regardless of their social status. The loose adaptation of Albert Camus’s novel The Plague (1947) presents a nightmare Hong Kong overrun with a virus spread by rats. Though the film contains scenes of slum-dwellers succumbing to sickness, Hong Kong’s wealthy also live at risk of infection, especially as a negligent government fails to act fast enough for its people.
Lung Kong writes that, “I never allowed myself to make the same movie twice, even if it made a lot of money the first time. I tried to tell people in my business that every subject could be made into a film.” He did so while treating a wide range of issues, including both the doomed nature of love—rendered with melodramatic flashbacks as a romance ends in Pei Shih (1972, screening August 24)—and its enduring sustenance, as seen in his Iran-set love story Mitra (1977, screening August 24).
He further did so while braving risk of attack. Government censors removed forty minutes of Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow without warning (leaving a shortened version as the film’s lone surviving cut), and journalists’ criticism of his works as overly preachy turned into outrage when he used his film Hiroshima 28 (1976) to defend victims of atomic bombing.
The film, made nearly three decades after World War II’s end, was released at a time when Chinese public sentiment still ran heavily against Japan for its role in the war. Lung Kong combines two Hiroshima-set stories. In one, a local family (whose members are played by Chinese actors) attempts to marry off one of its younger female members; in the other, a tour guide and a reporter wander Hiroshima twenty-eight years after the bombing, take stock of what has been lost there, and bear witness to what remains. Like many of Lung Kong’s films, Hiroshima 28 brings sympathy to people surviving hardships, encouraging viewers to think about who they should really label as villains.